History texts are rich with epoch-spanning tales of wars won and lost, empires risen and fallen. But history is also in the small things: a yellowed ticket to an itinerant preacher’s lecture; a century-old pair of baby shoes; an imported teapot and matching creamer jug.
It’s these remarkable stories about seemingly unremarkable objects that fascinate Huron University College History professor Amy Bell and her students who recently completed projects unraveling the anti-slavery stories of “small things.”
By examining artifacts from the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society and Oberlin College in Ohio, each student chose an object to study, both for its intrinsic meaning and its context in larger historical themes. The project is newly shared online.
“It’s important to know through the study of micro-history how these big ideas, such as racial inequality, can apply to small things like a baseball bat and glove,” said student Andrew Gayed. “They give us a portal into bigger ideas and another way of studying the importance of little objects that are kept in small museums in small towns.”
Gayed studied a ball glove used by a semi-pro player on an all-black team in a mostly white league and a bat used by the only player of colour on the Oberlin Resolutes in 1868. The subtext of both items was not only the players’ resilience but the “raceball” that too often stood at the intersection of black athletes and white prejudice.
Student Patrick Kinghan became fascinated by a ticket to an 1883 a lecture by ‘self-emancipated’ travelling preacher Walter Hawkins, whose life was marked equally by deep faith and profound tragedy. That Hawkins needed to lecture about the evils of slavery two decades after it was abolished in the United States spoke to the pain of “still living in a world saturated with racism,” Kinghan said.
Emily Abbott researched an old stethoscope, a tool used both to aid healing and in medical experimentation. Avery Parr’s project centred on a tarnished Prince Hall Freemasonry medal awarded to a black Chatham resident whose name has yet to be rediscovered.
Elise Geschiere chose to study the provenance of a Japanese-made teapot and a creamer jug as a metaphor for some former slaves’ journey from poverty to upward social mobility. She traced the items from the Chatham owner/donor to the woman’s grandfather – a Chicago land magnate whose family dynamic was as complex as his real estate holdings – and examined how the object reflected some black Canadians’ opportunity for increased prosperity.
Students also learned research is rarely a linear path.
“The project goal was to link the object to the past and identify the direct story of that object,” said student Jake Mills, who panicked when, late in his research, the identified donors of a pair of 19th-century baby shoes said they’d never seen the objects before.
Despite the ambiguity of the shoes’ specific tread through history, Mills was able to document how they could symbolize hope for emancipated families, newly free to cherish their babies through infancy and childhood.
“I learned failure doesn’t mean the end of the research. Failure is an important part of the road, an obstacle you have to go around,” he said.
This is the second year the micro-history project has taken place. Bell said it has been possible only with an ongoing partnership with the community.
“We’re lucky to be in the middle of rich local history,” she said. “We’ve been privileged to work with some amazing curators and historians who have been so generous with their time and their attention.”