Children from Baltimore are being taught the use of a metal detector at the city’s Lafayette Square. July 8, 2011. Photo: Baltimore Heritage / Flickr
The most common complaint teachers hear from students learning history is that “it’s boring.” Asked why, these same students usually remark, in one way or another, that the study of history doesn’t seem relevant to their own lives and experiences. Who can blame them? When we learn history in school, we are taught to memorize certain dates, names and events as a teleological progression toward the inevitable present. We study events from above, mimicking the perspectives of rulers and elites, whose names and deeds are more readily recorded than those of anyone else. These commanding individuals are portrayed as the architects of world events, near-mythical figures and “decision-makers” who chart the course of history itself. But what about everyone else? The life, love, dreams, aspirations, rebellions and everyday struggles of ordinary people — those who are not kings, nobles, statesmen, celebrities, or elites of any kind — throughout history are largely ignored. Such an elitist presentation of history is not only boring, it is entirely unrelatable.
Since the mid-20th century, however, a growing number of historians have endeavored to document and analyze the contributions of ordinary people to world history. Most historians, activists and avid readers of history are at least peripherally familiar with the idea of “people’s history,” or “history from below,” which, according to the Institute for Historical Research, “seeks to take as its subjects ordinary people, and concentrate on their experiences and perspectives, contrasting itself with the stereotype of traditional political history and its focus on the actions of ‘great men’.”
Some of the most celebrated works in this tradition have been Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolutions 1789–1848, and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is perhaps the most successful example. Decades after its initial publication, Zinn’s book is still taught widely in the US. Though mysteriously not considered alongside other “people’s histories,” WEB Du Bois’s masterpiece, Black Reconstruction in America, was an early and influential work in the development of this research perspective. So, too, was CLR James’s classic study of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.
In the 21st century, “history from below” is expanding from research perspective into research practice, as communities and individuals outside of academia are making new efforts to document, analyze, share and discuss history at the grassroots level. This practice includes everything from conducting independent research in libraries and archives, to authoring books and journal articles, and even to organizing the archaeological excavation, study and preservation of historical sites.
Moving beyond the patronizing idea of enlightened professional historians simply “listening to the voices” of oppressed or marginalized people of the past and present, grassroots historians and archaeologists are now demonstrating how such communities are more than capable of researching, recording and sharing their own histories on their own authority.
The idea of “community archaeology,” in particular, has been the subject of much discussion around the world for the past two decades, but it is not really a new phenomenon. The practice of ordinary people studying their own community’s material past is a longstanding tradition where I live in the southeastern United States. More often than not, grassroots historians and archaeologists here take the lead in the study of “people’s history” and have made many serious contributions to the archaeological study of this region — especially with regard to African-American history.
Perhaps one of the most impressive recent examples of community archaeology has been the excavation of a maroon community called “Angola,” on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast. Maroons were African people in the Americas who, during the period from the 16th through the 19th century, escaped the bondage of slavery and formed their own free communities in hidden places where they could evade settler-colonial authorities. Florida’s Angola was a large maroon community of more than 700 people, established sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century near a freshwater spring along the Manatee River. United States forces attacked and destroyed the Angola community in 1821, and most of the residents fled to the Bahamas.
Although Angola was among the largest maroon communities ever recorded in North America, the exact site of the settlement was lost over time. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the community was forgotten by historians and was never investigated by archaeologists. The community remained almost entirely unstudied until the mention of a possible maroon community near the Manatee River in historian Cantor Brown Jr.’s Florida’s Peace River Frontier caught the attention of Vicki Oldham, a journalist, filmmaker and resident of Newtown, a historically Black neighborhood of nearby Sarasota. Oldham felt a personal and ancestral connection to the story of the Angola commune and wanted to challenge the erroneous assumption of many historians that people of African descent did not arrive in the area until after the US Civil War.
Ms. Oldham founded the Looking For Angola project with the intention of funding a short documentary. The project eventually grew to include several independent and professional historians and archaeologists, but it was Oldham herself, working in collaboration with Bradenton residents, who correctly identified Manatee Mineral Spring as a likely site of the historic Angola maroon community before any archaeologists started digging. Initial excavations at the site yielded strong material evidence of the Angola commune, including coins, pottery, and British clay pipes, which are thought to have been brought to the area by people fleeing the violence of slavery in the British colonies. If not for the efforts of the Looking For Angola project, such artifacts could have easily been destroyed, as so many others in the area have doubtlessly already been destroyed by overdevelopment.
According to Ms. Oldham, the study of the Angola maroon community represents much more than an academic exercise. “African-American students who see themselves portrayed in history can connect their lives with the lives of these people in Angola,” she recently told Sarasota Magazine. “If they can make the connection like I did, then their lives could be enriched and empowered.”
Her sentiments are echoed by Dr. Modibo Kadalie, a retired professor of political science and lifelong participant in the African-American Civil Rights, Black Power and Pan-Africanist movements. According to Kadalie, community archaeologists and historians like those involved in studying the Angola maroon community site are contributing to the development of a critical historiography that challenges the ways in which history has been interpreted through the lenses of capitalism, colonialism and state power. “They are asserting their community’s place in history and its contribution to the human tradition of intimate direct democracy.”
The preservation of Fort Mose, the first officially free African town ever recorded in North America, represents another fascinating case. In the mid-18th century, Fort Mose was a beacon of freedom to African people escaping slavery on the Atlantic coast. Here, just two miles north of St. Augustine in Spanish-held Florida, a savvy group of maroon fighters had successfully lobbied the Spanish colonial government to grant freedom to Africans escaping the British colonies. They built and governed their own village, which doubled as a military outpost from which they conducted raids against British enslavement farms (called plantations) and helped defend St. Augustine as part of their arrangement with the Spanish government. Fort Mose was built, destroyed by the British, built again, and eventually abandoned when the Spanish evacuated Florida in 1763. Like the Angola maroon community, the exact site of Fort Mose was lost. At least for a while.
Following the wave of massive antiracist protests that shook the city during the 1963–1964 St. Augustine Movement, the white-controlled St. Augustine Historical Society offered no interest in the preservation of Black history and planned to sell off the unexcavated Fort Mose site for real-estate development. A local amateur historian named Jack Williams, a white man, swooped in and bought the land to prevent its destruction. Williams was a racist, but had an obsessive interest in local military history. Through his own research he had become convinced that he knew exactly where to dig to find the remains of the fort. The Historical Society and various universities dismissed his claims, so Williams decided to dig on his own. Long story short, he was right. The artifacts that he uncovered drew the attention of other historians and the Historical Society eventually wrestled the land back from Williams, but his family has spitefully held onto many of the artifacts with no plans of donating them to the Fort Mose museum.
The drama surrounding the archaeological effort at Fort Mose drew the attention of Bill Clark, a high school principle and member of the Florida Legislature’s Black Caucus. Clark and many others in St. Augustine pushed the State government to establish the site as a State Park in 1995. Today, the site is commemorated as Fort Mose Historic State Park, which features an impressive museum, historical reenactments and other public outreach programs highlighting St. Augustine’s Black history. The site maintains a prominent cultural presence in the St. Augustine’s African-American community, drawing a significant portion of its funding from grassroots donors.
Although the saga of Fort Mose’s rediscovery by Jack Williams was problematic to say the least, it is nonetheless true that without grassroots archaeology efforts, sites like Fort Mose and the Angola maroon community might never have been studied or preserved at all. The Williams controversy also highlights the importance of grassroots archaeology as a communal — not individual — practice. In mismanaging and ignoring the contributions of African maroons to the social history of the region, state authorities and university historians allowed this precious site to fall into the private ownership of a white racist. Had the initial investigations been a more genuinely grassroots effort — in which St. Augustine’s African-American communities could directly and democratically guide the research, excavation and management of the site — those artifacts might never have fallen into the hands of disingenuous private collectors.
The emergence of grassroots historians and archaeologists in the southeastern region of North America must be understood within the context of institutionalized racism and the machinations of state power within the academy. Archaeology, globally speaking, is undeniably rooted in colonialism. There is a long history of knowledge, artifacts and even buried human remains being extracted from indigenous and/or colonized lands and carried away to centers of colonial (or settler-colonial) power, where the histories and cultures of colonized peoples are misinterpreted or even entirely rewritten to suit the nationalist mythologies of one empire or another.
In the history of the African diaspora and of many indigenous societies, majority-white academic institutions have long abused relationships with oppressed communities; have misinterpreted archaeological findings in racist ways; and have profited and built careers from telling all manner of historical mistruths. In fact, the elder Guyanese revolutionary Eusi Kwayana, who was briefly imprisoned by British authorities in 1952 for his role in Guyana’s independence movement, once wrote that Black communities should give “no assistance” to university-affiliated anthropologists due to the latter’s long history of abuse and affiliations with imperialist state power.
Kwayana himself is a grassroots historian and educator who has authored numerous books on Afro-Guyanese history. His work has focused on directly democratic communalization movements after emancipation and workers’ movements in Guyana’s post-colonial period. His writings chronicle aspects of history that have been underserved by the academy. Kwayana did not attend a formal university, but he has nevertheless devoted his life to education. He became a primary school teacher at age 15 and later founded a high school in Buxton, Guyana at age 31. Now 96 years old, Kwayana continues to lecture whenever possible. Kwayana’s lifetime of work is a testament to the value of autonomous research. He was a peer of CLR James and a teacher to Walter Rodney, two of the most widely read Black historians of the 20th century. Kwayana’s work, though outside of official academia, has profoundly influenced the fields of post-colonial studies, Africana studies and Caribbean studies, among many others.
Over the past several decades, still other communities and researchers of African descent have independently coordinated historical and archaeological studies through their own institutions. In coastal Georgia, organizations like the Geechee Kunda Cultural Center and the Autonomous Research Institute for Direct Democracy and Social Ecology have been created for such purposes. The people who come together in these institutions arrive from diverse academic backgrounds. Some may have PhDs, while others may have only very limited formal education, but their knowledge of their community’s history and their dedication to its collective memory forms a strong foundation onto which they develop and share unique research skills.
The Geechee Kunda, for example, has located, moved and preserved a cabin that once housed people who had been enslaved on local rice plantations. That is no small archaeological feat. They also opened the first museum of Geechee culture in Georgia and have, until the pandemic, hosted regular public gatherings in which Gullah-Geechee history is taught and discussed in the Gullah dialect, contributing to the preservation of not only Geechee history, but also Geechee language and culture.
These gatherings are intellectually rigorous events, in which attendees are challenged to rethink their understanding of Black history in North America. I was privileged to attend the annual Harvest Festival in 2018, which featured historical lectures, music and dance exhibitions and demonstrations of sugarcane processing. On this occasion, speakers and attendees discussed their criticisms of the forthcoming 1619 Project. Attendees correctly argued that enslaved and free African people were present in the lands that became Florida and Georgia for nearly a century before 1619, and that the continued emphasis on the 1619 date contributes to the erasure of their ancestors’ history.
Only a few miles away from the Geechee Kunda, the Autonomous Research Institute for Direct Democracy and Social Ecology is a different sort of institution. Founded by scholar-activist Modibo Kadalie in 2017, ARIDDSE is an independent scholarly institution, unencumbered by state or university affiliations and dedicated to the study of the interdependence between ecology and human society, with special attention to how non-hierarchal social and political structures create possibilities for a more ecologically sound future. Dr. Kadalie is a retired professor of political science, having taught most recently at Fayetteville State University. He invited me onto the project at the time of its founding, along with several other historians of diverse academic backgrounds.
Dr. Kadalie’s two most recent books, Pan-African Social Ecology and Intimate Direct Democracy, were both produced with help from fellow conveners of ARIDDSE and both deal extensively with the history of the Gullah-Geechee coast. ARIDDSE is also developing other long-term research projects relevant to the region.
In a recent interview that I conducted with Dr. Kadalie, we briefly discussed the role of technology in the continuing development of grassroots archaeology. In recent years, tools like LIDAR (laser imaging, detection and ranging) and GPR (ground-penetrating RADAR) have become prominently used by archaeologists for mapping elevation in areas covered by dense forests or other vegetation. These tools are non-invasive, as LIDAR surveys are typically conducted from the air. The increasing accessibility and affordability of drone technology has also greatly reduced the cost associated with such studies.
LIDAR technology has contributed to the rediscovery of hundreds of pre-Columbian settlements across Central and South America, along with revelations about “people’s history” in the region. In 2020, LIDAR analysis of the Aguada Fénix archaeological site in Mexico, for example, revealed a likely absence of centralized hierarchical government in this ancient Mayan city, overturning some long-held assumptions about Mayan social history. Archaeologists and historians have, for generations, assumed that large cities and monuments have only ever been constructed under the planning and supervision of a coercive authority. Through the use of LIDAR, sites like Aguada Fénix are disproving that notion.
Kadalie has seen LIDAR at work in his own community, where LIDAR has already been used by Gullah-Geechee scholars to locate and study lost sites of Gullah-Geechee communities and burials. “With the communications technologies of the internet and the use of lasers to map archaeological sites,” he says, “I think a lot of new things are going to be uncovered that reframe how we understand the past. Here on the [Georgia] coast, there are people who use laser technology to study gravesites of enslaved people. They find grave sites everywhere, man. All of this new technology can be used to help gather the real history of this region. We are going to see a shift for sure.”
Our conversation reminds me of the nearby Gould Cemetery, which served the Geechee community of Harris Neck, an autonomous Black community on the Georgia coast that thrived from the end of the US Civil War until its eviction and destruction by the US government in 1940. The displaced families of Harris Neck were cut off from their land, from their access to the sea and from the burial sites of their ancestors, including many who had been born into slavery and had died as free people in an autonomous Black community. The Harris Neck community was bulldozed to construct a temporary airbase and the state leased the cemetery land to white cattle ranchers, who allowed their cattle to trample the graves, knock over headstones and defecate all over this sacred site.
In the 1970s and ’80s, long before technologies like LIDAR were available in the region, a younger generation of the displaced Harris Neck community organized themselves and reclaimed the cemetery land. They put up fences and restored the cemetery itself, doing the necessary archaeological work to find lost grave sites and to clean and replace headstones. None of this work was aided by any professional historian or archaeologists. All of the labor was organized and undertaken directly by the people of Harris Neck. If it was not for their efforts, their ancestors’ and loved ones’ resting places would have remained lost, continuously subject to abuse and desecration. I have visited the Gould Cemetery several times and today it stands as a small but shining example of directly democratic community archaeology and public history, as well as a beautiful natural space.
Dr. Kadalie believes that such efforts can be improved upon as grassroots archaeologists increase their familiarity with new technologies. “Newer generations of researchers are now beginning to look for evidence of community and collectivity,” he says. “Once these new technologies [like LIDAR and GIS mapping, among others] are taken up by ordinary people who are studying our real collective past and creating a new vision for the future, they’ll do a much better job than any professional academics ever have.”
Community archaeological efforts, of course, are not anti-intellectual pursuits and do not seek to fundamentally exclude training, education, or the presence of professional academics. Rather, they serve to demonstrate ordinary people’s collective capacity to investigate and study their own histories on their own authority, without waiting for — or subordinate themselves to — the validation of an outside researcher who is unfamiliar with the community or region.
Rural and isolated areas of the southeast are often dismissed as backward or under-educated, but it is long past time for this prejudiced notion to be overturned. During the time that I’ve spent in coastal Georgia, I have always been impressed by how deeply most of the people there are engaged with their own history. Catfish farmers, mechanics, teachers, factory workers and librarians know the history of their communities far better than most professional historians who have written about the region. They know it so well because of their intimate connection to the land and people, and because these stories have been passed down from each generation to the next.
Dr. Kadalie considers the elevation of ordinary people’s intellectual projects and scientific brilliance to be an essential aspect of his activism, rooted in his personal connection to the region. Anarchists, social ecologists and other anti-authoritarians can benefit from this outlook. To understand the past through the lens of liberation, we must think critically about the sources of our historical studies. When everyday people at the grassroots of society are excluded — either implicitly or explicitly — from the production of historical knowledge, our perspectives on history are narrowed, shifting from the democratic to the elitist. This is significant because our understanding of the past informs our vision for possible futures. As we work toward a directly democratic future, we must learn from the already-existing examples of grassroots historical research and rediscover directly democratic approaches to knowledge production.
As the public, especially young people, grow to become more autonomously involved in historical and archaeological research, as they engage with and interpret the stories of their own families and communities, as well as those of others around the world whose stories are connected to theirs, we may finally put to rest the attitude that history is a boring academic pursuit. Instead, future generations may increasingly adopt the study of history as an integral and inseparable aspect of their dynamic social and political lives.