Students uncover history at Woodrow Wilson home to 'tell more accurate, meaningful human story'

Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum
Posted at 8:26 PM, Jun 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-24 20:26:20-04

STAUNTON, Va. — Deep below the ground across the Shenandoah Valley, there are pockets of history waiting to be found.

To dig up these untold stories a group of James Madison University archaeology students and their anthropology professor, Dennis Blanton partnered with the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, all to help share a fuller picture of the Valley.

The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton is the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson. Andrew Phillips, the museum curator, said it was first built by the Presbyterian Church and the Wilsons resided in it from 1855 to 1858. In the 1920s and 30s, he said, it became a museum.

The archaeological project started in 2018 after a fungal disease called the Boxwood blight decimated the boxwood shrubs in the garden. Phillips said the historical site wanted to explore if there was any archaeology work worth doing in the area.

The work started with shovel tests — students dug dinner plate size holes into the subsoil to get a sample of what artifacts the area might hold. Blanton wasn’t hopeful they would find anything, he said, because the area had extensive work done in the 1920s and 30s to create a garden in honor of the president.

“Literally, right away, our first hole in the ground, we started to see evidence that there was what we call good integrity,” Blanton said. “The site was in really good shape.”

From there, Blanton and student volunteers returned year after year, slowly expanding the area they explored.

Phillips said it was known that when the Wilsons lived in the home, they had three enslaved domestic workers leased to them by the nearby church, with most of the evidence coming from letters from Woodrow Wilson’s mother. What they didn’t know, was who the enslaved people were.

“She just sort of mentioned them casually. We know their relative ages, we know the duties they performed and their genders, but we never knew names,” Phillips said.

In the summer of 2019, student volunteers found small black beads that were worn by enslaved women at the time, Phillips said.

“This was the first tangible evidence connection, really, to these people who had been here and whose stories aren’t told the same way that the white families were told,” Phillips said.

After the pandemic, Phillips said the museum worked with Blanton to find the next time students could come out and excavate the site on a larger scale. Over this summer, a group of 15 students, two graduate assistants and others, had a field school focusing excavations on the lower terrace of the garden.

This year, after five weeks of excavation work, the students found a variety of artifacts that Blanton said confirmed the presence of enslaved people at the house.

“We do have what I would call a series now of fairly iconic artifacts in the sense that they are usually closely aligned with what we see on other slave occupations,” Blanton said.

The group found more glass beads typically worn by enslaved women, buttons, shards of pottery and even a clasp for jewelry with the depiction of a clenched fist. Annie McGowan, a senior who found the clasp, and Blanton said some speculate that the fist is a sign of resistance, but it’s not known for sure.

“It was something really interesting … it kind of very much so points in the direction of enslaved people operating in that space, on that property,” McGowan said.

The artifacts aren’t earthshattering,” Blanton said, but they do “contribute to the larger quest to tell the story of enslaved people and the complexities of 19th-century society.”

Although the excavation found a variety of artifacts, Blanton said they still have to complete an analysis of what was found to understand the full extent of what story the artifacts tell.

“The story is not told,” Blanton said. “We have a number of working hypotheses, and this is sort of a scientific endeavor. And what we’ll be doing is putting those hypotheses to test through our analysis.”

In the spring, Blanton said, the class will present the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum a report with comprehensive data from the site, with interpretations. Regardless, the act of finding artifacts from enslaved people brings a direct connection to communities where stories often went untold, Blanton said.

“We as archaeologists really work hard to try to give a voice to these people who don’t have a voice,” Blanton said. “Enslaved folks weren’t writing their own history, most of the time, if anyone was discussing them, it was with a biased perspective, or poorly informed perspective … and so this is a way to maybe tell a more accurate, meaningful human story.”

Abigeal Cronan, a junior who participated in the project, said the work of finding artifacts of enslaved people helps to complete a record of lives that are underrepresented in the historical record.

“I really liked that we get to be able to contribute to a better understanding of specifically Shenandoah Valley history,” Cronan said.

The Valley specifically, Blanton said, has been neglected in the study of slavery through archaeology, in part due to the lack of classic plantation culture. This project will be one of the first to explore and answer questions about the way slavery developed in the Valley.

Moving forward, Phillips said the artifacts found, and the report that follows will help the library and museum in the process of reimagining the campus and telling a more full story. When the museum was first established, it was focused on the good aspects of Wilson and his history, but in the decades since, Phillips said they’re telling the story “warts and all.”

“These tangible connections to people that right now we only have mentions in letters or some oral histories about — this helps to ground them, I think, really bring them into reality,” Phillips said. “We feel that the context of slavery both here and at (Wilson’s home in Georgia) really help to provide more information about why he did what he did, and to give that fuller picture.”



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