NCPH recap: Day Four, March 19

I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience.  I’ve already written about the first three days of the conference and some of the great workshops and sessions from those days.  The final day of NCPH included a great keynote address and the bittersweet nature of a conference winding down.

Awards Breakfast and Presidential Address

The awards ceremony celebrates the winners of the numerous awards offered through NCPH including book of the year, public history project of the year, and others.  The awards were followed by Patrick Moore’s presidential address titled “Places, Privilege, and Public History: A Journey of Acknowledging Contested Space”. Moore’s talk took the form a personal narrative exploring his exposure to history in his childhood, youth, and professional life and the personal realizations he developed about how history is interpreted and experienced.

Moore raised questions around interpretation – is it possible to overlap different historical narratives? To share space in history? How do we as professionals reframe questions to look at things in different ways? And how do we talk about people who ‘lost’ who are not part of popular narratives? It is crucial that we give history and authority back to communities and provide opportunities to people who have never had their stories told.  It can be deeply challenging to recognize your own privilege but that recognition can make for better professionals and better approaches to historical work. This talk was great mixture of reflection on the public history profession and a call to arms around approaches to challenging the exclusive past.  A very fitting presidential address considering the theme of this year’s conference.

Not Lost and Not Forgotten: How to Help Cultural Communities Preserve Their Sacred Traditions and Sacred Spaces

Singing and Praying Band
Singing and Praying Band

This was one of the most unique conference sessions I’ve ever attended.  It focused on the African American Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware and one of such bands actively participated in the session.  The session hinged on the idea of how historians can document cultural communities and what tools are needed to build collaborative partnerships – especially around the documentation of spiritual traditions.

Prior to this session I had zero knowledge about the Singing and Praying bands.  The session did an excellent job of highlighting how these bands are deeply connected to church culture and African American history.  The bands brought people together, they were the worship experience of many early Methodist societies, and have a connection to the participatory worship that links back to the slave trade.

This session also picked up a number of themes that were discussed throughout the conference – the need to build relationships of trust within the community, the fact that history can be deeply personal and that personal experience has a place in historical narrative, and the fact that successful collaborations are a relationship, not a project. Having the singing and praying band participate in this session was a great experience – it brought the community history to the forefront and showed the nature of this deep history.  It also brought community voices and community realities to the forefront – something that could not have been accomplished by someone simply presenting on this topic.

Cemetery Activism Roundtable

The final session I attended at NCPH 2016 was a roundtable focusing on cemeteries and the use of cemeteries to present more diverse and inclusive historical narratives.  The discussion was facilitated by Lynn Rainville of Sweet Briar College and included Steven Burg, Shippensburg University; Savannah Darr, Metro Louisville Planning and Design Services; Dennis Montagna, National Park Service; and Ryan Smith, Virginia Commonwealth University.

This session focused primarily on the preservation and documentation of community cemeteries and African American burial grounds.  The presenters all highlighted the need to advocate for cemetery preservation, the need for community engagement around these sites, and how to get people to care about these sites — particularly if they exist in an area which the impacted community is no longer represented in the population.

Other Duties as Assigned: Cemetery Maintenance

Part of my job this week included a number of ‘other duties as assigned’ tasks.  One of such tasks included assisting with cleanup of the Residential School cemetery which is on site where I work. Since I like gardening this was actually a nice afternoon break one day.

This particular cemetery was in use from 1876 to around 1970 and has staff, students, and members of the Anglican Church buried there.  Following the closure of the Residential School on the site, the cemetery fell into a state of disrepair and neglect.  Today the cemetery is well looked after, however years of poor maintenance and weather eliminated all the wooden markers in the cemetery and many of the stone tombstones are in rough shape. 

Overgrown weeds, mossy broken tombstones, missing grave markers, and unknown boundaries are characteristics of cemeteries throughout Canada.  Upkeep of no longer used or unregistered cemeteries have a tendency to become neglected over time. Additionally, the very nature of grave markers and tombstones – outdoors and exposed to the elements – make them susceptible to premature damage and deterioration.

Some cemeteries are well documented and the loss of a marker or the fading of a stone inscription isn’t a complete loss of burial information as the plots have been documented by the cemetery.  However, even when burial plots are well documented often the actual inscriptions on tombstones aren’t formally recorded.  Similarly if a municipality doesn’t (or didn’t) keep accurate records of burial plots if a wooden marker rots or the inscription on a tombstone fades, the information on who was buried in that location is lost.

For example, the Residential School cemetery where I work no longer has any of the wooden crosses which marked the majority of the student graves.  The loss of markers was a huge loss as no formal records noting burials or plot locations have been located for this cemetery.  As with many Residential School cemeteries, the number of students buried and the names of all the students buried in the cemetery are unknown. 

Cemeteries and grave markers can provide an abundance of genealogy and historical information, but only if they are well documented or preserved. So what about those crumbling tombstones and loss of information through deterioration? There are a variety of different preservation tools that can be used by municipalities and other interest groups to preserve the historical information found in cemeteries.

  • Document existing gravestones, especially those which are made of wood or other elements which are very susceptible to rot and other forms of rapid deterioration. Gravestones and inscriptions can be documented by using photography and written documentation. 
  • Organize and keep accurate burial records.  This might be employing an archivist to organize existing records relating to the cemetery.  An archivist can help provide order and structure to boxes of unused records.  This organization will help make the records more accessible and searchable for researchers. 
  • It is possible to clean stone tombstones. This is typically undertaken to remove moss, dirt, and other surface growth.  However, I would recommend looking into a professional providing this service (or at very least providing training on how to go about the cleaning), as it is possible to damage the stones if you use abrasive products or tools. 

If you are interested in searching out ancestors or information about a particular cemetery in Ontario, you might want to begin by using Ontario Genealogical Society’s Ontario Cemetery Ancestor Search.  A list of the cemeteries which have been indexed by the OGS and are included in the Ancestor Search can be also be found online.