Picture the scene: You’re one of the founders of an oral history digital archive. The archive, the Fort Negley Descendants Project (FNDP), finds and collects the voices of those who descended from the population of builders, both enslaved and free, and United States Colored Troops who defended a historic Civil War fortification in your city.
The project is time sensitive. A year ago, the land upon which the fort was built was sold to developers in what I’ll euphemistically describe as a shady deal. While the fort’s future was up in the air, the neighborhoods surrounding it rapidly gentrified. Each tall and skinny in these areas surrounding Fort Negley represents a family whose story left with them as they were priced out of the neighborhoods that had been theirs for generations.
Countless people and groups stepped up to try to defend the most important voices and stories of Old Nashville. As you work closely with a Digital Humanities center, the archive is your way of doing your small part. You figure if nothing else, you can at least amplify their stories before the descendants of Fort Negley leave the city, in the hopes that more people with power will recognize the tremendous loss Nashville is facing.
So now picture yourself explaining some of your project at a meeting of the African American Historical and Genealogical Society of Nashville. You got lucky- the last time you held an event to show the videos in your archive, a couple of board members came and liked what they saw. You’re hoping to help draw in some interested people from the neighboring communities who may have some ties to the space so you can find another person to interview.
And then a woman with a bag full of framed black and white photographs approaches you to tell you all about her Fort Negley ancestor and the line of people that connects her to him. Oh, and you recognize his name because three days prior you were traipsing around a cemetery looking for his grave to photograph. And then a man you’ve met before, in the tell-tale long blue Union coat of a living history reenactor, gives a moving impromptu speech about how he found his USCT ancestry. You know in an instant that the beautiful way he emotes will connect with anyone who watches him. And another descendant, this one the aunt of someone you’ve already interviewed, makes herself known.
And suddenly your scrappy team of volunteers (plus an undergraduate employee, thank you Curb Center) is booking themselves solid for the rest of the semester, anxiously coordinating equipment rental and space to film everyone while the interest is there.
I’m truly overwhelmed with how incredible that experience was.
I think the lesson is that when you do something you care about, and you take the time to do it well with no expectation of outcome, the universe really does conspire in your favor. Maybe that sounds too airy fairy for someone in academia, but over and over again, this has been my experience. Allies and supporters, some quite unexpected, have appeared from every direction to support, encourage, and provide. It’s kind of overwhelming. I sometimes want to stop everything else I’m doing and just dive headfirst into this work. It’s never-ending, but so rewarding.
But work-life balance is real. As is my job, and my writing/research, and teaching. Sadly I can’t give this project my everything, but everything I’ve given, someone else has matched. And we’ve just been told that the project has won a Mellon Collaborative Grant to allow us to work more closely with supporting faculty and students at TSU and Fisk this coming year. That means we’ll have more black people, young people, and people with expertise in African American and public history working on the project. That also means we get to keep our undergraduate onboard for as long as she’s happy to work with us.
PS- did I mention that there’s a distinct possibility that she is a descendant of Fort Negley herself?
It’s funny how the universe works sometimes.
Thank you doesn’t feel like enough, but it’s all I’ve got for now.