NACOGDOCHES, Texas — Researchers at Stephen F. Austin State University’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture are working with the National Park Service and Florida State Parks to ensure the history and stories of African Americans and other people of color are properly represented in interpretive site programming.
Arkansas Post National Memorial, located near Gillet, Arkansas, is situated at the confluence of the Arkansas and White rivers, and is the traditional homeland of the indigenous Quapaw people.
In 1686, French explorer Henri de Tonti established a trading post at a Quapaw village known as Osotouy. The trading post, Poste de Arkansea, is noted as being the first semi-permanent European settlement in the lower Mississippi Valley. Due to its location, the site served as a strategic resource for the French, Spanish, American and Confederate militaries.
“Site managers have information on the French, Spanish and Quapaw connection to the site, but they realized the element of African American history was missing,” said Dr. Rolonda Teal, research associate and adjunct professor at SFA.
To collect these missing pieces, Teal and Dr. Pat Stephens Williams, SFA professor of human dimensions in natural resources, are conducting an ethnographic overview and assessment of African American history at the Arkansas Post National Memorial.
“An ethnographic study looks at the people and the stories surrounding the park site,” Stephens Williams said. “We’re looking into the site’s history to fill some of the holes and expand the narrative. You know there’s this whole history there, but when you look at the standard historical account of the site, you barely see African Americans mentioned at all.”
This isn’t the first time Stephens Williams has worked with the Arkansas Post National Memorial to strengthen its historical narrative. As a faculty member at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, she conducted similar ethnographic and recreation research focusing on African American connections to the site dating back to the 1930s.
For the current research, the site managers wanted to delve further back in time — beginning in the 1700s.
“It is not until the post-Civil War era that historic records on African Americans are more readily available,” said Fenn Wimberly, superintendent of Arkansas Post National Memorial. “Historic literature indicates African American slaves lived at the post during the Civil War, and their labor was used to assist in the construction of Fort Hindman and the Confederate rifle trenches.”
A key focus of Teal’s investigation is the site’s relationship to the Underground Railroad, a network of routes and individuals who assisted enslaved people in escaping to freedom.
After sharing a number of her findings with the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which is responsible for verifying connections to the Underground Railroad network, Teal was able to confirm the site was, in fact, connected.
Additionally, Teal uncovered documentation of enslaved African Americans escaping to live with the neighboring Choctaw tribe, which sheds light on the relationship between the two groups.
“The park visitor center is planning to have new exhibits installed that accurately represent all cultures, people and history that have connections to the post,” Wimberly said. “Having a more complete, inclusive story will help visitors understand the park's purpose, which is to commemorate and interpret the peoples and cultures that inhabited the successive settlements at the confluence of the White, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.”
In Florida, Stephens Williams and Teal are on a similar mission to facilitate the telling of these lesser-known histories and connections to individual sites.
“Expansion of the narrative is the term that we’re using with these projects,” Stephens Williams said. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do — expand the narratives to make these sites relevant to people and help visitors change the way they look at things.”
Stephens Williams said their goal is not to tell visitors what to think, but to provide them with a more inclusive and robust history of the site than what has traditionally been presented.
“What we want to do is give them a fair representation of the real story, and then they can draw whatever conclusions they want,” Stephens Williams said. “The more you talk about these stories, the more they become part of the general story and the collective memory as it moves forward.”
To achieve this, Stephens Williams and Teal will host a series of workshops at Florida State Parks to equip staff members with techniques to view and interpret their respective sites from more of a multicultural perspective.
Stephens Williams and Teal said many of the sites have not had their stories, exhibits or signage updated since the 1960s, and the subject matter will be unique to each park.
“The first three parks we will work with have a strong African American component that’s not being covered by interpretive programming,” Teal said. “Another site may have a strong Puerto Rican connection, so I’ll cater our workshop to better fit that site’s needs. The main thing is that we don’t forget any ethnic group that was involved in the building of Florida.”
Both Stephens Williams and Teal say it is exciting that Florida State Parks independently initiated this project.
“As far as I know, Florida is really the first state to say, ‘We want all of our parks brought up on board,’” Teal said. “So, it’s like creating a template that we can perhaps package and bring to other places.”
For more information on this and other projects, visit atcofa.sfasu.edu.