In a post back in April, I wrote about the discovery of census records of the enslaved at the Wye House Plantation. Since that time, using the transcriptions from the original documents made by historians Dr. Jean Russo and Dr. Amy Speckart, I’ve created a searchable online database of the names and entries called People of Wye House. In every step of the process, I struggled with how to present the information online, technically and visually. Every aspect of the project involved questions with complicated answers:
What to call the website? The heart of this project is about restoring something which was obscured. Slavery was destructive to family, dignity, and self-possessed identity. Without a voice to speak in the history books, the individual lives of the enslaved became blurred under a collective moniker and relegated to a group seemingly without clear distinctions—slaves. Projects such as Born in Slavery, the oral histories from the Federal Writers’ Project’s Slave Narratives sought to change that perception by bringing the voices and faces of former slaves into focus.
The website contains a database of slaves, but to call the website Slaves of Wye House ignored every other aspect of individual identity that is visible in the entries. “Slave” was a label and position imposed on them, but they were also fathers, mothers, children, twins, sailors, shoemakers, gardening experts, and so on, coming to Wye House from many places. They were people with a diversity like any other population. I settled on People of Wye House to emphasize this fact.
How to visualize slavery? Design is loaded with significance. It is the first impression a visitor has of a website, and the messages it conveys should be consistent with the intentions of the project. Images, even particular colors, can have meanings that either support or detract from my goals. It was important for me to provide the visitor with an image of people, but there were no depictions of the individuals in the database. Instead, I had a photograph of a former slave at Wye House, Harrison Roberts. He remained at the plantation after Emancipation to continue his work as a gardener. His family name appears numerous times in the census, though he is not listed. I wanted the visual experience of the website to focus on him, the only pictorial representation of slavery at Wye House that we have.
How to get others involved? From the beginning of this project, I wanted it to be a collaborative effort. Some of the descendants of these individuals live in towns on the Eastern Shore of Maryland like Unionville, Copperville, and Easton, and this is their family history. We’ve contacted a descendant in Unionville and have received invaluable feedback. We hope to continue discussions with these communities as well as with any other interested party.
In an interview with NPR’s WAMU that aired this past weekend about our excavations in Easton, Tara Boyle mentioned the database and has linked to it through their website. Through our Facebook and this blog, too, I would like to generate interest and solicit more impressions from a wide range of people. It is very much a work in progress, and I would like it to transform as needed into something that is useful for descendants, researchers, students, and anyone who is interested in the history and lives of these men, women, and children who lived and worked under bondage at Wye House.
If you have a comment or question about the content, design, functionality, or any other aspect of People of Wye House, I would love to hear from you!