Thoughts on a Virtual Internship

Hi everyone! After completing my summer internship at the Vance Birthplace, I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts about my final project and how it went! 

My project for the summer was to create a virtual timeline about the lives of some of the women who lived and worked on the site throughout its history. I focused on the Cherokee women who were on the land before the Vance family, Priscilla Brank, Aggy, Venus, Leah Erwin, Mira Baird, and Elizabeth Hemphill. The project is set up as a timeline covering when these women were on the site. I created the project using Sutori, which is an online presentation format that is mostly for teachers and students, but that I found worked well for my purposes for the site. 

In order to accurately tell these women’s stories, I had to research the primary documents and photographs available to me through the Vance Birthplace itself, since most of the little we do know about these women, especially those who were enslaved, comes from those documents. The 1844 estate sale of David Vance Jr, as well as a letter written by Mira Baird Vance, were extremely helpful in my research. Outside of these primary documents, secondary research on the historical context for the experiences of these women was most important. Before I completed this project, I knew very little about women’s history in southern Appalachia and in Asheville specifically. I had to read relevant chapters in books related to the history of North Carolina and the history of women in North Carolina, in order to get a broader sense of what their lives would have been like. 

Record from the 1844 David Vance Estate Sale. Twelve enslaved men, women, and children were auctioned during this sale on August 13, 1844.

Of course, for enslaved women, my research had to become even more specific, so that I could make sure I was presenting an accurate, full, and honest narrative. I had to confront my own whote privileges when discussing slavery, and make sure that I was not imposing my biases onto the stories of these women, to the best of my ability. I also learned a lot that I didn’t know about the history of slavery in America, and the history of enslaved women, and how their bodies have been used throughout history as a means of promoting oppression. 

Some books I found to be most helpful when learning about enslaved women’s lives in America and specifically in North Carolina, were Instances in the Life of a Slave Girl by former enslaved woman Harriet Jacobs, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century by Tera W. Hunter, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, and North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State by William A. Link. I would encourage any of you who are interested to pick these books up, as they are easy to follow and really teach you a ton about the history of slavery and racism in our nation. 

Bound in Wedlock by Tera W. Hunter

My research for Priscilla Brank Vance was particularly interesting, because there is so much context for her lifetime that needs to be understood in order to fully create a picture of what her life would have been like. There is just too much to include in the project, to be honest. Her parents lived through the French and Indian War as adults, and she lived through its aftermath as a child. She was the daughter of German immigrants, and she married a soldier in the Continental Army, who was away from her fighting for long periods of time. She was an enslaver and also a woman living through the events of the American Revolution and the creation of a new democratic nation. The conflicting ideas of freedom and slavery during this time could not have been lost on her, especially since, as a woman, she was denied many of the freedoms that the founders of this country advertised during the revolution herself. 

Another more interesting group that I researched for this project was the Cherokee women who lived in the Reems Creek Valley before white colonists arrived. Unfortunately, I knew very little about these women before this project, but that means that I learned the most when researching their culture and experiences. I found Theda Perdue’s book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, to be invaluable for this research, although several of the books I thought would be mostly related to the histories of African American and white women in America gave me some great insights into the lives of Native American women, especially the Cherokee, as well. 

Cherokee people belonged to the clan of their mother. You can see the clans represented in the above painting by Cherokee artist, Dorothy Sullivan, entitled “She Speaks for Her Clan.”

I think the most challenging part of this project was the virtual aspect of it, and the fact that I had to spend hours on a computer during the day researching. In hindsight, if I had more money to spend, I probably would have bought some physical copies of the books I read, instead of reading ebooks, just because it would have saved my eyes and head some pain! Of course, that was simply the nature of doing a public history internship during a global pandemic, and I am grateful for the experience of creating virtual material and for being able to work with a historic site! Many of my peers could not get an internship this summer, virtual or otherwise, because of the crisis. 

Another challenge was learning to write to a public audience with various ages and reading levels, and different levels of historical knowledge, instead of to an academic audience of fellow historians. I have been trained for so long to write like a historian, but I have only been studying public history for a year now, and so I lack the training in how to write for a museum. This means, however, that this project gave me much needed experience on that front! 

My favorite part about the project however, was simply learning about these women’s lives. I think that, as a future professional historian, I get so focused on completing my research and making a historical argument or writing the perfect paper, that I forget to just enjoy learning the history I am reading about in the first place. Due to the virtual nature of this work, and the fact that I needed to present it to a diverse public audience with various interest levels in history, I knew I would have to approach it differently. I focused on teaching myself in order to effectively teach the public about the topic, and I looked for interesting facts to include that would catch viewers attention and help them remember these womens’ stories.

Overall, this project was really rewarding, and I plan to add to it in the future if possible, as I find out more about the women who lived in the Reems Creek Valley, who deserve to have their stories told. 

You can visit the completed timeline on the Vance Birthplace website: https://historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/zebulon-b-vance-birthplace/history

Leah Erwin and Emancipation

Illustration of West Asheville after the Civil War. Leah and Sandy Erwin moved to Sulfur Springs Township, now part of West Asheville, after emancipation.

Leah Erwin, or “young” Leah, was enslaved by the Vance family from 1800-1865. In her old age, Leah was finally able to experience what many enslaved men and women before her did not live to see: emancipation.

Enslaved people across the nation celebrated emancipation, but often suffered little positive change in their circumstances. Because former enslavers were unhappy with emancipation, they made efforts to circumvent the system in their favor. Many formerly enslaved people had no other place to go after emancipation because they had been prohibited from making a living for themselves and pursuing land ownership. Many did not know where their family members were, as they had been sold away to other enslavers. While hundreds of enslaved people resisted the destruction of their families or escaped slavery to protect their families, poverty was a huge threat post-emancipation. With little support from the government or American society, formerly enslaved people had few chances of social mobility.

Enslaved women sometimes had a harder time than men making their way forward after emancipation. They were often single mothers and grandmothers, aunts, older sisters, and surrogate parents to either their own children or another enslaved family’s children. Fathers, brothers, grandfathers, and other male family members were frequently sold away during slavery. Many others sought freedom by escaping their enslavers, even when their children and female relatives were unable to follow. Enslaved families also suffered abuses from both armies during the Civil War, and the destruction afterward was so far reaching that it was difficult for freed people to find a place to live and make enough money to support themselves.

The intense racism prevalent throughout the country during this time also prevented people of color from truly enjoying the rights and freedoms promised by emancipation. Jim Crow laws began being instituted in the South, cleverly manipulating the system to keep people of color from voting, holding office, interacting with white people, holding jobs, and accessing facilities and citizenship benefits.

The rise of the Ku Klux Klan during this time forced many people of color and their allies to live in constant fear of death and destruction for themselves and those they loved. Lynchings of people of color for perceived offenses and crimes (according to whites) took place frequently, and both white men and women participated in the carnage.

Many formerly enslaved people had to resort to sharecropping and tenant agreements that whites, often their former enslavers, created to keep freed people in bondage after emancipation. These landholders refused to pay sharecroppers a fair wage, forcing people to live as they had when they were enslaved. Whether or not a labor contract of any kind was signed, whites could also re-enslave people of color unofficially by keeping them from earning enough money to pay debts, buy land, or feed their families. These individuals would owe everything to their former enslaver, who hid behind the mask of an employer.

1880 Census record showing Leah Erwin, her husband Sandy, and their granddaughters, all living in Asheville.

While enslaved, Leah used her valued status as a skilled cook and housekeeper to build a relationship with Mira Vance. Leah likely cultivated this relationship to make herself invaluable to her enslavers and therefore resist being sold away from her loved ones. Because few records exist from enslaved women, we do not know Leah’s perspective about this relationship. However, we do know that she chose to maintain this relationship after emancipation. Was this choice based on her need to stay in a familiar place with familiar people? Did she wish to develop a positive relationship with Mira to gain her help for future endeavors? Was there a true bond between the two women? While we will never truly know, it is safe to say that Leah experienced similar circumstances and a similar decision-making process to countless other formerly enslaved people, especially women, in the decades following emancipation.

Textiles & Women’s History: Part Three

It is extremely important to remember that free women were not the only ones to use textiles as a means of expression and resistance to oppression. In this third installment of “Textiles & Women’s History,” I will be exploring how African American women, especially those who were enslaved, used quilting and other crafts to create their own unique culture and to resist the subjugation the system of slavery.

The Agency of African American Women

Enslaved women, especially on large plantations, used quilting as a reason to gather together after the day’s work and socialize, creating strong community bonds that helped sustain them through the daily horrors of enslaved life. Since many of these women lost family members through these brutal realities, they used female kinship networks as a means of creating new family networks, even if unrelated by blood. This resilient choice was itself an act of rebellion against the attempts of slaveholders to disrupt enslaved culture and family life. Leah, one of the enslaved women on the Vance plantation, exhibited similar agency when she chose to create and maintain her family even with the ever-present fear of loved-ones being torn from her. 

Leah and Sandy Erwin went to the Freedmen’s Bureau office in Asheville on August 25, 1866 to record their marriage of 25 years. From the Cohabitation Records, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Asheville NC.

African American textiles, especially quilts, often contained patterns and colors unique to African culture, which enslaved women used to tell their stories and keep their heritage alive in the face of racism and brutality. Their very approach to quilting was to subvert the usual order, and therefore defy their oppressors. Where white European tradition valued the symmetry of uniformity in quilting, African American women’s quilts counteracted this by valuing diversity in color and pattern. Click here for an example of a quilt made by a formerly enslaved woman in Georgia, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Textiles & Identity

There were other ways in which enslaved women resisted the abuses they endured each day from slaveholders that also involved textiles. Slaveholders generally issued out a certain amount of cloth or clothing to each enslaved individual annually. Some owners gave intact, immediately wearable clothing to enslaved families, but the clothing was uncomfortable, ugly, shapeless, and impractical for hard labor and certain types of weather. Others simply issued cloth to enslaved workers and had them sew their own clothing and textiles on their own time. Either way, the materials given to enslaved women to provide clothing, warmth, and shelter to themselves and their families was often unserviceable and low in supply. Enslaved families commonly went without needed clothing in cold weather, and those working the fields went through their clothing quickly because it was not durable enough to withstand daily hard labor in the elements. 

As Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman in North Carolina, stated in her memoirs; “I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery (Jacobs 13).” To Jacobs, this clothing marked her as a slave, the lowest member of American society, and it was a mark she was forced to wear daily. Clothing during this time was one of the many outward ways in which a person could immediately define the social status of another, and enslaved people knew that their clothing broadcasted their bondage to everyone, and further took away from their culture and individuality. 

Drawing of Harriet Jacobs by Keith White, 1994. Image from the State Archives of NC.

To fight back against this dehumanization, enslaved women often found ways to make their own clothing to wear on special occasions, such as to church, at slaveholder-ordained gatherings, and at illicit gatherings orchestrated as acts of rebellion by the enslaved themselves, where they could socialize and enjoy themselves in some capacity without supervision. Enslaved women, despite spending all day and into the night working for someone else, used their limited free time to create beautiful works of art in the form of dresses, quilts, blankets, headwraps, and jewelry that they could wear as badges of pride and cultural heritage, instead of badges of bondage. They incorporated traditional African designs into their clothing and even created clothing similar to that of wealthy white women, in order to mock their oppressors. Time spent working on these crafts was time for enslaved women to express their artistic creativity and to hone skills that could be used to create textiles that they could sell to earn funds to buy their own freedom. 

Enslaved women worked together to obtain the materials needed to make their art, whether it was through taking materials from their masters and mistresses, or buying material through funds they managed to earn. These women were admirably resourceful, and often used castoff clothing to create their desired attire for themselves and their families or to create needed textiles for their homes. 

Along with other forms of subtle resistance, enslaved women used domestic chores like textile work to stake a claim on their individuality and cultural identity. It would be remiss to assume that, just because the Vance plantation was smaller than other southern plantations, the enslaved women working there did not also participate in acts of resistance. 

Aggy, who was one of the few, if not the sole adult enslaved woman working on the plantation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, would have had to perform a vast variety of chores each day for her enslavers. The fear of being separated from her husband Richard and their children likely hovered in her mind for much of her life. Yet she, like Leah, still had the agency and resilience to keep her family connected and well. Along with Aggy and Leah, Venus, who acted as a nanny to the Vance children, resisted oppression by forming valuable bonds with her enslavers that gained her certain privileges and opportunities. These women had to form these bonds with their oppressors in order to survive. If they used such actions of rebellion against the system, who is to say that they did not also rebel through artistic expression in their chores, such as weaving and sewing? 

Ca. 1800s floor loom on display at the Vance Birthplace.

Final Thoughts 

Textile work has connected American women from all classes and ethnic backgrounds together in some way or other, and many of these women used this domestic task to accomplish more than a simple obeisance to the patriarchal gender ideal of womanhood. These arts have lasted until the present day because generations of American women have passed their skills on to each other, and it is significant that, in an age when such work is no longer necessary for women to perform for survival, we still engage in these activities on a regular basis. There are still quilting bees, sewing circles, knitting classes, and embroidery workshops. American women today are not so far removed from the craft of previous generations of women as we often think! I hope that these posts have shed some light on the diversity and importance of textile work in the narrative of American women’s history, and that you will be inspired to learn more about the crafts that these women created!

Further Reading

Blue Ridge Heritage Trails

Textile Art from Southern Appalachia

Journal Articles:

“Slave Cloth and Clothing Slaves: Craftsmanship, Commerce, and Industry”

“Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition” in The Journal of Negro History 80, no. 1 (1995): 30-41, by Floris Barnett Cash, doi:10.2307/2717705

“African-American Women’s Quilting”

Books: 

Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South by Stephanie M.H. Camp

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Textiles & Women’s History: Part Two

After taking a break to post about Independence Day, we are now going back to our discussion of women and textiles. Today we will talk about the ways in which embroidery and quilting were important in colonial America!

Also, thanks to everyone who attended the embroidery workshop on July 11! Lauren did an amazing job leading the class, and we had a great turnout. It was wonderful for all of us to learn together. Learning to do those stitches makes it even more impressive that six year old girls were learning them hundreds of years ago!

Colonial American Women and Textiles

While textiles made by European colonists in America were at first largely utilitarian and were in short supply in the early colonies, the eighteenth century introduced a larger, more developed consumer society. Leisure time increased, especially for elite white women. Both the northern and southern colonies at this time supported a society in which women were required to restrain themselves inside the domestic sphere and allow men control over their lives and their interactions with the outside world. While wealthier families were able to send daughters to school, female education primarily consisted of learning skills that would be useful in running a household and attaining a stable and beneficial marriage.

Priscilla Brank would have grown up in this world, spending her early years developing domestic skills that would help her in her marriage to David Vance Sr. in 1775. While it is unclear if Priscilla, like many of her female contemporaries, attended school and learned embroidery and other needlework there, it is likely that her social and economic status would have allowed her to interact with embroidery at a young age. Girls who were wealthy enough were either taught decorative embroidery at home or at school, and their very first projects were called samplers. Many girls completed a simple sampler between the ages of five and six, which taught them basic embroidery skills and allowed them to simultaneously learn their letters and numbers. An example of a basic sampler from 1786 in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, is displayed below, image and information courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts online object database. 

In adolescence, girls would then complete a more complicated sampler that showcased their talent, patience, and family values. Such samplers were often framed by parents and displayed in common rooms of the home in order to attract the attention of potential suitors. Some samplers, depending on the girl’s skill, could become quite intricate, as seen here, also courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts database:

These samplers are often the only testament to the existence and experiences of the girls and young women who created them that we have today. 

The Importance of Textile Crafts to White American Women

White American women who had the time and skill during both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could spend hours on embroidery, decorating seat cushions, bed hangings, clothing, wall hangings, and other textiles, and often used their skill as a form of artistic expression in order to convey their personal values and ideas. Some women even used their talent as a means of making a name for themselves in their communities and making extra income. In a world where few women were taught the skills needed to procure paying jobs and even fewer were allowed the independence to pursue skills that could lead to more income, many transformed traditional female domestic skills into a means to obtain autonomy and to influence the trajectory of their lives. Embroidery in itself is a craft that lasted into the twentieth century in America, and it is likely that Mira Baird Vance and her daughter-in-law, Hattie Espy Vance, both encountered the art and even participated in it during their lifetimes, especially since they were members of the relatively wealthy southern Appalachian elite in the nineteenth century. 

Of course, embroidery was not the only textile craft American women used on a daily basis. Quilting and weaving have also been important skills studied by women for millenia. The women living at the Vance Birthplace had access to a loom for weaving. While the enslaved women on the plantation did the weaving itself, as was common in the American South, white mistresses like Mira Baird and Priscilla Brank would have known something about the loom and would direct the enslaved women’s labor. 

Quilting would have also been a familiar task for these women. Even if they did not always create quilts themselves, they certainly would have been familiar with the process and the patterns involved. Patchwork quilting was a convenient and useful way to recycle unused cloth and became popular in the eighteenth century. Quilting as a whole actually became extremely important to the southern Appalachian region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is probable that the women living in the Reems Creek valley during this period would have been familiar with the craft. 

Quilting and other textile crafts presented an opportunity for groups of women to gather together and socialize whilst working, and consequently fostered cultural connections and female friendships and bonds that provided resistance to the patriarchal oppression and the daily drudgery of isolated rural frontier life. Below is an example from North Carolina made between 1840 and 1857 of a symmetrical quilt created by a young woman in a prominent family in her community, courtesy once again of the MESDA collections database: 

You can learn a bit more about quilts in the mountain South by looking at Lauren’s video on quilts from the Vance birthplace posted on the site facebook page on April 29!

Tune in next week to discover the ways in which African American women, enslaved and free, utilized textiles as modes of resistance, vehicles of self-expression, and tangible expressions of love.

Further Reading Links:

“Schoolgirl Samplers and Embroidered Pictures” in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 23: Folk Art, edited by Carol Crown and Cheryl Rivers, 184-87, University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

MET Museum Essay/Collections

American Women’s History: A Very Short Introduction by Susan Ware