‘A Name, a Voice, a Life’: New exhibit centers the history and experiences of Black Newporters

June 6, 2024

By: Luis Hernandez, The Public’s Radio

Through art and historical records, the exhibit showcases the stories of people of African descent who lived in Newport from the 17th-19th centuries.

The Newport Historical Society’s latest exhibit is called “A Name, A Voice, A Life: The Black Newporters of the 17th-19th Centuries.” Morning Edition host Luis Hernandez talked with Rebecca Bertrand, the museum’s executive director and Kaela Bleho, the digital access manager of the museum and co-curator for this exhibit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Transcript:

Luis Hernandez: This is a fascinating exhibit from what I’ve had the chance to see online and digging through the artists that you have, who have added their works to it. But I just want to start with the origins of this exhibit. When and where did the first conversation start to put this together? Rebecca.

Rebecca Bertrand: Well, this exhibition started as a database project. It was a four-year research project, which turned into a database called Voices from the NHS, which was a research project that started as a digitization effort, which was an opportunity that Kayla worked on for four years here at the NHS, digitizing over 4000 manuscript records which were references to Black and Indigenous Newporters. And this was an effort to get references up online where you could pull up a manuscript record and then see references to life events, birth records, death records, marriages. Real, actual human life stories and biographies could be built through these online records.

Kaela Bleho: As Becca mentioned, we worked to digitize part of our historic manuscript collection. So we have an incredible collection of historic documents from the 1600s through to the present day. We have ships’ manifests. We have medical records, religious records, merchant papers, just this incredible wealth of this resource that we wanted to make as accessible as possible. Not just transcribing what’s on the page, but really trying to understand the human experience as it has been recorded hundreds of years ago. So we have over 15 biographies that are hosted on the website now that you can explore under our featured story section that take this really deep dive into people’s lives and experiences. And we were so excited to share this online and we wanted to share it with the public in other ways because we realized there’s barriers to access online as well. So that’s really where the exhibit was born.

Hernandez: Either of you, please tell me. I’d love to hear about any one particular document that jumps out at you that has a story that connected with you on some level. Or it just is really cool because anything like this is cool anyway. Rebecca, what about you? Is there an interesting document or story that you have?

Bertrand: I think one of my favorite pieces from this exhibition was the way that we were able to tie contemporary art into the show. Because I think for a lot of people, manuscripts and the database only go so far. And so something that we worked really hard on was, thanks to a small grant that we received from Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, we were able to commission three pieces of contemporary art for the show. Three artists – Cat Laine, Toby Sisson, and Eric Telford – were commissioned to make art specifically based on three of the stories of individuals who are highlighted through the show. So Kaela and Zoe, who’s the other co-curator of the exhibition, were reaching out to artists and we brought them down to the Historical Society and showed them some of these manuscripts and worked with them on the biographies and said, here are these stories of individuals from the 18th century. How does this resonate with you? And would you like to create a contemporary interpretation through whatever medium you work with? So I think a piece that really is incredible to me is the self-portrait photography by Cat Laine that is the most unbelievable photograph that she worked on for months and months and months that is just so powerful and such an incredible representation of an 18th-century woman, that you absolutely have to come down to see for yourself because it’s so powerful and such a really incredible representation of this woman, living long before photography existed. And I think it’s a really, really powerful piece.

Hernandez: I’m wondering if, from the very start of this project, if there’s something that surprised you, something that you learned about Newport that they don’t teach in school, or maybe they don’t teach in most books. Or something that just surprised you altogether about your hometown.

Bleho: I think what really blew me away is just how much information is there embedded in the archival record. I think there is this misconception that it’s very difficult for people to find references to Black and Indigenous people during this period, because all of the records are predominantly kept by the white, the wealthy, the powerful. But there are mentions buried. You just need to look for them. And I think the process of being able to recover those, not just names, but experiences that has really been the thing that has blown away the most. And also, there’s so much more to find. There’s so much work that we need to continue doing. And I think it’s very important to us that now we have this framework to work, we can just keep this work going for as many years as possible.

Hernandez: How we see history will depend a lot on our own background, our race, our ethnicity, our nationality. I’m wondering from your experience over the years, do you find people respond differently to exhibits depending on their background and their experiences?

Bleho: Yeah, absolutely. That’s why when we were developing this exhibit, it was so important for us to not work in a vacuum. As I mentioned, we work with Zoe Hume, who’s a PhD student down in Florida, who is focused on visitor center curation as part of her course of study. So she brought a whole fresh perspective. We also had several exhibit advisors who are either members of our community or members of the scholarly community who are going to bring their own thoughts and perspectives to the table. And we wanted to be as collaborative as possible with our colleagues in the community. So we have several contributing organizations, including the Rhode Island Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, who loaned us objects for the exhibit. And other organizations that really we wanted to have conversations with them about this work and the way we were going to interpret it before anything was ever published or the exhibit was put together. Because we recognize, as you mentioned, we are historians that bring, we probably bring our own biases to the table. And it was so important for us for this to be a hugely collaborative and community-focused effort.

Bertrand: And I think one thing that I could add to that is that for the better part of my entire career, I’ve focused in one way or another on the public interpretation and visitation to museums or cultural events. And I think everyone brings their own background and heritage to what program they’re participating in. However, it’s our responsibility to hope that the next generation does better. And so through exhibitions and programs that we build around this, that’s why we’re going to put in so much dedicated effort to bring school children to this exhibition so that they are better than our generation was, than your generation, than our parents’ generation, than our grandparents’, because that’s the way. That is the gift that we can give to society to hope that everyone in the next generation can be better.

Hernandez: Kaela, what do you hope people will take away from this exhibit?

Bleho: I think it was important for us to first set the stage. I don’t think you can take for granted that people are really aware of the slave trade, specifically the slave trade in the north and how Newport was really heavily invested in that. So it was important for us to first of all, give people that, that context, make people aware of this, this history that is really essential to the story of this city. And then I think from there we needed to refocus the exhibit to talk about the enslaved and free people of African descent, who really experienced this history firsthand. And that’s why we chose to focus on our five individuals, because we were really hoping that the public would connect with them on a personal level. So you’re moving past the really harrowing statistics of the slave trade and the reality of the trade and focusing on the individuals that were affected by this, that survived this – and their families, their descendants who still live in Newport today. So we’re really hoping to draw this thread through this incredible history.

Hernandez: Again, I’ve been speaking with Rebecca Bertrand, the museum’s executive director, and Kaela Bleho, the digital access manager and one of the co-curators of this exhibit. Learn more online at the public’s radio dot org. Rebecca, Kaela, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Bleho: Thank you.

Bertrand: Thank you for having us.

Click here to learn more about “A Name, A Voice, A Life: The Black Newporters of the 17th-19th Centuries.”

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