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‘Slave for a Day’ black history program causes controversy

Officials at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson this week officially changed the name of a black history program planned for next month after controversy erupted over its original title — “Slave for a Day.”

The July 8 event, which park ranger and event organizer Angela Roberts-Burton said is part of the historical site’s monthly black history educational series, caused a stir on the Internet for what some believe was insensitive wording.

“By no means am I trying to, or are we the Park Service, trying to assimilate the atrocities that slave African-Americans endured,” Roberts-Burton said Wednesday.

“This is just a glimpse of the hard work, being out in the heat and sun,” she said.

In the initial event description on the Hampton National Historic Site website, which was online until Tuesday, Roberts-Burton used the “Slave for a Day” heading.

The release also used exclamation points to note that it was the “first time ever at Hampton!” and participants could “carry buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulders!”

The posting drew response online, including from the site Baltimore Fishbowl, where blogger Rachel Monroe wrote, “Clearly Hampton is approaching this from an education-is-good! perspective. Their hearts are in the right place. ... Still, the inescapable and brutal fact of slavery was that it wasn’t for a day. ... Some things are too profound to playact, it seems to me.”

Roberts-Burton said that since Monday, she’s received around 50 emails and phone calls reacting to the title.

Anthony Fugett, vice president of the Baltimore County chapter of the NAACP and a former board member for the national NAACP, said he had no problem with the program, but agreed the title was an issue.

“The event was well-intentioned, but the name may have been inappropriate, and I’m glad to see they changed it,” said Fugett, an Owings Mill resident.

“I don’t see it as a menacing event at all,” Fugett said. “Slavery is a part of the history of the country and the state of Maryland. The one thing we don’t want is for our history to be missed, and sometimes it’s good to get a perspective of a day in the life of a slave.”

Roberts-Burton said she used the language in the initial posting because she was excited for the fact that it’s the first such event at Hampton.

After reaction started coming in, the title was switched yesterday from “Slave for a Day” to “Walk a Mile, a Minute in the Footsteps of the Enslaved on the Hampton Plantation,” and the description was changed to remove exclamation points.

Roberts-Burton said the park superintendent and the Northeast Regional Office asked her to changed the title of the event.

“We changed the name and [the National Park Service] allowed me to pick it,” she said. “No one did it for me.”

“I’m the one who told them to alter it,” said Vincent Vaise, chief of interpretation for the National Park Service, overseeing Hampton and Fort McHenry.

“We didn’t want people to be upset because of the title of the program,” he said, “but we want people to see the purpose of the program, to tell the story and empathize with people of that era.”

“This is how we learn from each other,” Vaise said of the reaction. “And really, that’s part of the dialogue we want to have. Places like Hampton can be used as a forum for race relations and a critical look at history.

“To be blunt, we could do a concert or a furniture tour — that’s easy history,” he said. “These are the types of things the park service wants to do to make itself relevant. But when you go there [discussing slavery], we know we have to expect some people are going to react, and we should be ready for it. Hopefully, this experience might bring out more people to see what it’s really about.”

Roberts-Burton said the free program will allow participants to experience the same type of farm labor as enslaved people at Hampton Mansion did.

“Obviously, I have the backing of the National Park Service,” she said.

The July 8 event will end with a memorial ceremony conducted by the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute, and will commemorate those who were enslaved at Hampton.

Roberts-Burton, who is black, said some critics who contacted her after the event was posted suggested they just hold the healing ceremony, but she said that ceremony would be moot without knowledge of what needed healing.

She has also heard from supporters, including Carl Miller, a race relations tutor at Harvard University who Roberts-Burton said “knew what I was doing.”

On Wednesday morning, Miller set up a Facebook chat on the page of the Community Healing Network that allowed Roberts-Burton to tell her side of the story.

Roberts-Burton said she studied the African diaspora — the historical movement of Africans and their descendants throughout the world — while earning her master’s degree at Howard University.

She said the original title was meant to draw attention to the event.

The National Park Service began running the property in 1948, but the slave quarters and overseer’s quarters have only been open to the public since 2006. The mansion was the home to the Ridgely family, and according to its website, “It preserves and tells the story of the occupancy of seven generations of one family, the Ridgelys, and their large and diverse labor force. ...

“Hampton is the story of people — enslaved African-Americans, indentured servants, industrial and agricultural workers, and owners. It is also the story of the economic and moral changes that made this kind of life obsolete,” the website states.

“We have programs on a monthly basis on the African-American experience, and most of the time people who attend are a majority white,” Roberts-burton said. “We’re trying to get more African-Americans to come to the site, but considering the city is majority black, the majority of our visitation is white.”

Recently, she said, musician Joe Becton performed a concert detailing the evolution of blues music. Roberts-Burton said it was attended by 40 people, “and there wasn’t one African-American sitting there.”

She also gives monthly tours dressed in period attire that describe the mansion and surrounding buildings strictly from the perspective of African-Americans during the slavery era.

“If you look at the website itself, on the home page, it says ‘black history month is every month at Hampton,’” Roberts-Burton said.

“People who are complaining about this are people who don’t even come here.”

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