Wednesday, November 5, 2008

We are all historians

When you work in history long enough, it becomes difficult to focus on current events and to evaluate them in a contemporary context. Every historian loves/lives to look at today's headlines and to compare them to those of the past, to see how a decision 200 years ago might have affected this or that. Last night, if just for a moment, we all became historians.

Senator Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency of the United States. An African-American was chosen for the highest office in the land, and we all witnessed it. Working in a building that was built by African-American slaves, paid for by their slave labor, and served by their unending domestic toil, I truly marveled at the sight. The contrast is simply amazing.

Non-profits get in trouble when they espouse political opinions, especially those that seem to endorse one candidate over another, so I won't do that here. I will say that the election represented a new level of maturity for all of us. We evaluated the merits of one candidate against another, and chose the man most qualified, not the man who most resembled us.

What does that mean for a house built when President-Elect Obama's ancestors were literally chained to one another? It means that the stories we tell here, and the lessons we offer about generations of slaveholders and slaves are all the more significant. We all become historians, and we all compare this new reality to our old one. When you see the laundry room, the kitchen, the low, plain, uncomfortable slave bed here at Riddick's Folly, you can now take solace that America demonstrated its ability to change, to self-correct, that America has made great strides in recovery from an illness that led to Civil War and Civil Rights.

Next spring, Riddick's Folly will host a traveling exhibit focusing on domestic servitude in the 19th century. We made arrangements to host this exhibit before last night, but after the election, we hope it will be all the more significant, poignant, and meaningful to those that see it.

In the meantime, like true historians, we look back. But maybe we can also, finally, look forward.

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