Shepherd professors and students will conduct research for the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) through a one-year, $56,749 contract with the C&O Canal National Historical Park. This is the first contract for Shepherd since the university became a member of the Chesapeake Watershed Association regional segment of a Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit under the NPS.
Three professors—Dr. James Broomall, assistant professor of history and director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War, Dr. Benjamin Bankhurst, assistant professor of history, and Dr. Keith Alexander, associate professor of history—will work on the project, which will focus on African American experiences at Ferry Hill, Blackford House, and the Bridgeport community. They will develop a historic structures report for Blackford House, a small stone house that dates to the early 19th century located on Canal Road near Lock 38 in the Bridgeport community across the Potomac River from Shepherdstown, and a historic resource study supplemental report for Ferry Hill Plantation, which sits atop the hill overlooking the river.
“The team will take a holistic approach to recovering the lives of the enslaved at Ferry Hill,” Bankhurst said. “We will explore the agricultural, domestic, and industrial contexts of African American life on the site.”
Bankhurst is drawn to the topic of industrial life at the site.
“I am keen to uncover how the canal shaped African American life and work at the Blackford House and am excited by the prospect that our work might shape how the site is interpreted in the future,” he said.
The three professors, with the help of some students, will have to sift through NPS archives. They will also have to conduct research at the University of Virginia, Virginia Historical Society, and Library of Virginia. Broomall said these places have repositories that go back to the 18th and 19th century and include family estate records.
“The big issue with a project of this sort is that these are non-literate people,” Broomall said. “Recovering the lives of the enslaved is often difficult and in many instances is done through the lens of white audiences, so you’re dealing with a biased archival record to begin with. From there, you have to figure out creative ways to enliven that narrative and recapture a history that’s often lost.”
The project gives the three historians an opportunity to collaborate with each other and NPS frontline interpreters, administrators, and cultural resource managers. It will also provide students a chance to help conduct the research.
“Shepherd’s history department and the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War have, over the last decades, developed a robust internship program for our students, and this project further expands internship possibilities within the department,” Bankhurst said. “We have written paid internships into the grant proposal and hope that students who are interested in pursuing a career within the National Parks will take advantage of these opportunities.”
Broomall said students who help with the research will gain real-life experience that complements what they learn in the classroom.
“This is asking pragmatic questions of our students,” Broomall said. “Instead of learning about something like plantation slavery in an abstract way, we’re going to be asking students how to interpret in a meaningful way and how to pose questions to audiences that provoke thoughtful discussions. It’s giving them a tangible, hands-on experience—a very essential piece of their education can be achieved through this partnership.”