By Daniel Citron, Historic Sites Team Manager

A $5,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Henry A. Jordan, M.D., Preservation Excellence Fund has been awarded to the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs to facilitate staff training and an initial public meeting to work with the descendant community at the John Dickinson Plantation.

The Division plans to utilize the Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites rubric of best practices. The rubric, developed by James Madison’s Montpelier in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, has three main categories: multi-disciplinary research, relationship building with descendant communities and interpretation. Each category then has five to six sections that are graded from “exemplary” to “unsatisfactory.” Once an initial assessment is made, the rubric helps create a path for implementing changes and improving the grades.

Perhaps most importantly, Engaging Descendant Communities broadens the definition of “descendant community.” Traditionally, to be included in this group, a person needs to demonstrate that they are a direct descendant of an enslaved person. That requirement can be incredibly difficult to satisfy because when written records do exist, they are often incomplete and lack details as basic as birthdates and last names. Much of the known documentation created during the lifetimes of enslaved people was created by their enslavers. That definition creates an unfairly high bar to meet for many people to be considered a part of the descendant community at locations like the John Dickinson Plantation.

The new definition includes: people whose ancestors were enslaved at a certain site (the traditional definition); people whose ancestors were enslaved in the surrounding region; and “those who feel connected to the work the institution is doing, whether or not they know of a genealogical connection.” The expanded definition is important because family connections often stretched beyond the boundaries of a single plantation. This definition of descendant community allows more people to have a voice in the decisions being made at former sites of enslavement, creating a modern voice for those who have been erased from the historical narrative.

Engaging with a broader descendant community at the John Dickinson Plantation is vital for making decisions about how to proceed with the African Burial Ground that was discovered this past year. It is important to develop new educational programming at the site and to keep sharing the stories of the past with the public. This grant will continue the advancement of the work being done at the John Dickinson Plantation, with help from the community.