My name is Mariaelena DiBenigno, and I am an American Studies Ph.D. candidate at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
My research focuses primarily on how enslavement manifests at public history sites in Virginia’s Tidewater and Northern Neck regions. I study how these histories emerge on the museum landscape in both material and narrative form. Often, these histories involve communities still overlooked by public and academic history.
In February 2016, I learned of an opportunity to research enslaved families at Menokin. I had long appreciated Menokin’s interdisciplinary focus and its insistence on telling diverse, multilayered narratives. It is a site committed to collaboration and community.
During my initial Menokin visit, I learned about the Gordon family and their ties to the local landscape. Daniel Gordon, whose biography I was asked to trace, was the grandfather of Evelyn Taylor Parker and Juanita Taylor Wells; these two sisters had shared their story during an oral history outreach program hosted by Menokin. According to Evelyn and Juanita, their great-grandparents, Alexander and Nellie Gordon, may have been enslaved at Menokin along with their son, Daniel. Their family had compiled a family
Gordon Family Cookbook: Page 1
Gordon Family Cookbook: Page 2
Gordon Family Cookbook: Page 3
Gordon Family Cookbook: Page 4
cookbook that contained an extensive genealogy and family history. I also had access to several primary and secondary documents that, coupled with Evelyn and Juanita’s interview and family cookbook, provided substantial assistance for my research into the Gordon family’s connection with Menokin’s nineteenth-century past. Throughout this spring and summer, I worked with genealogists, historians and family members, and I learned far more than I ever expected about local history projects and genealogical research techniques. I also thought long and hard about the implications of interpretation at historic sites and who has a role in the decision-making process.
Currently, I am exploring Daniel’s parents, Alexander and Nellie, in order to concretely tie Daniel to the Menokin property. So far, I have discovered much about Daniel and his wife Maria. They owned extensive property in Richmond County, and they were involved in local religious and social life. However, I have yet to definitively link Evelyn and Juanita’s Daniel Gordon to the Daniel Gordon found in Menokin’s inventories. There is an age discrepancy between the Daniels, but this does not mean the families are not linked to Menokin’s landscape. My work will now track the earlier generations to find a common ancestor who might link the two family lines. I have more censuses to transcribe, birth and death certificates to analyze, circuit court records to explore, and church archives to examine.
There is also the fascinating angle of DNA testing among Gordon family descendants. Overall, this is a project that requires diligence, close reading, and perseverance. It is a necessary endeavor. The Gordon family’s relationship to Menokin deserves focused attention and it is an honor to conduct such research.
Maria also serves on Menokin’s African American Advisory Work Group (AAAWG).
Stephen surmounted the vast store of raw video and audio footage at Menokin and created a wonderful collection of video shorts covering topics from Oral Histories to Glass Project Team interviews. Not only did he do what the staff has never had time to accomplish, he did it very well!
Menokin Foundation Internship
As a student of early American history, the opportunity to work on the house of a signer of the Declaration of Independence was exciting – even if most of that work would be done remotely. Fortunately, it has proven to be an educational experience despite the distance. From documenting artifacts to video editing, my work with the Menokin Foundation this summer has provided me with new and practical experiences in historical preservation, archaeology, and digital history.
Before I started work for Menokin at the end of June, Alice French, the outreach and education coordinator, shared a number of readings from the Center for Digital Storytelling. The readings helped to clarify their expectations. I had not done any video creation or any work for a historical foundation. The Digital Storytelling Cookbook from CDS was a useful guide for the purposes and processes for digital storytelling. Much of the text is focused on telling personal stories, but the focus on using objects in videos, finding important moments, and keeping the audience’s attention were directly applicable to the work I would be doing. It also had step-by-step directions for creating storyboards, writing scripts, and using particular video editing software. Alice also shared an article from Edutopia: “How to Use Digital Storytelling in your Classroom” by Jennifer New. As a teacher, I was particularly interested in this article as it applied to both my internship work for Menokin and my full-time teaching. In her article, New gives a number of good tips for creating videos for educational purposes and encouraging students to create their own videos. The readings gave me a frame of reference when beginning the video editing work for the summer.
The main purpose of my internship is to help the Menokin Foundation produce digital history content for their website and museum. The content will be use to demonstrate the progress being made in restoring the site and highlight the many activities and opportunities available through the foundation. To start, it was encouraged that I practice my video editing skills by creating a promotional video for their annual summer camp. There were a number of pictures and video clips from the previous year’s camp, and I was use them to highlight the activities children would participate in this year. It took a couple days to create the final video, mostly because I was still learning to use the WeVideo software that Menokin is using. The process involved sorting through dozens of photos to find appropriate ones for use, editing down video clips, creating a storyboard, then editing it all together into a single video with captions and a musical track. Since that first one, I have become much more adept at creating short video montages of what is happening at Menokin. I have created a couple of videos on 18th century carpentry practices and techniques using recordings of classes Menokin has provided. I also edited a number of recordings of archeologists examining artifacts into short clips that will be used in longer compilation videos.
Menokin also wanted transcriptions of a variety of audio and video files in their database – transcriptions which I later found very useful when making compilation videos. Some of the more straightforward videos, such as the carpentry lessons, were fairly easy to transcribe. There were also interviews with people who had family connections to Menokin, and these were much more difficult. The interviews, which were audio only, were very informal; they were more similar to conversations than the lectures I had already transcribed. I found it challenging to keep track of who was talking and what they were saying. I wanted to record as much accuracy as possible, since the transcriptions would be used by the Foundation in other projects after I had left. The transcriptions were time consuming, but also very interesting. One interview was done when a visitor to Menokin shared that their great-uncle once owned the house, and she would visit the site as a child in the 1930’s. Another, much longer, interview was with two sisters in their 90’s who may have been descended from slaves who worked at Menokin. They had a great deal to share about growing up in the Northern Neck throughout the 20th century. The interviews told a lot about the history of Menokin and the surrounding area. Once I had the transcriptions, it became very easy to find some of the best quotes to use in videos promoting the history of Menokin.
On my first trip down to Menokin since I began the internship work, the was to gather recordings and pictures of the Archaeologists at work on the site and collect older pictures off the Menokin server that were too large to send by e-mail. It was also an opportunity to get to know more of the staff at Menokin and experience their day-to-day work.
The most fascinating part of the trip was getting to watch and interview the archaeologists. I do not have any experience with archaeology, but I could tell that they were experts who loved what they did. The day I was down there, a small group of four contracted archaeologists were carefully sifting through the rubble of a collapsed corner of the house. They were both cleaning the site for reconstruction, and looking for artifacts. The lead archaeologist, Chris, was very personable and allowed me to interview him about his work. He explained the process of sifting through dirt to find artifacts, described his history with the site, and showed me the glass bottles, buttons, and nails that they were preparing for cleaning and cataloging. I also interviewed Hank Handler with Oak Grove Construction, who has been doing reconstruction planning and work for Menokin for several years. He was very excited to discuss the techniques being used to stabilize the structure at Menokin – techniques pioneered by the English Heritage Society that were just being introduced to the US. As much as I wanted to, I was not dressed to jump in the rubble and join them (honestly, it did seem exciting), but I was able to get some great pictures and audio recordings to use in promotional and educational videos for Menokin.
The rest of the day was a chance to familiarize myself with the practical matters of a historical institution like Menokin. The staff is small, and they seem to work together on both day-to-day and long-term tasks. This particular day, they were hosting a genealogy course for the local community college; I was happy to help out when I was not searching their server for pictures and files. I also met with the acting director, Leslie Rennolds, to discuss my work and upcoming projects. The visit was a great opportunity to re-familiarize myself with the site and gather material for future videos.
I am grateful for the opportunity to work at Menokin. The experience so far has been incredibly educational. As I work into the second half of the summer, I plan to use the techniques and information I have gathered to create more digital content for the foundation. Right now, I am planning videos about the archaeology and stabilization work I witnessed Monday. There are also more recordings and material from past events at Menokin to examine and turn into media that can be presented to the public – connecting the public to the history. I am excited to continue the work.
Lambert, Joe. The Digital Storytelling Cookbook. Berkeley: The Center for Digital Storytelling, 2010.
It’s funny when you work at an historical site how people always assume that because it’s old, all of its past is known and there is nothing new to discover. Of course, we are famous at Menokin for disproving that year after year and this past year we again learned something new about the people who lived here.
A few years back, I visited a local senior living facility in Richmond County to give a presentation on Menokin and spoke about how we tell stories. I was interested in developing an oral history program related to our county’s past, and I was looking for a place to begin. After chatting with the group for a bit, one of the women told us she thought her grandfather, Daniel Gordon, was born a slave at Menokin and then freed under the Emancipation Act. She is his granddaughter, Evelyn Gordon Parker, still a Richmond County resident, who also writes for the Northern Neck News. Wow, I thought. How amazing is that? She told me she had visited Menokin once before, and a few weeks later, returned with some photographs of her family, including one of her grandfather and grandmother.
This past winter, I visited with Evelyn and her sister, Juanita Gordon Wells to record and document some of their memories. Her grandfather has an amazing story, which I shall wait to share in a later post. But for now, I think the other really cool thing is how we learn about our past. This man raised his family with very strong values of faith, family and education. Over the years, the pride and strength of these values were instilled in one generation after another. And sometimes there are parts of history that are known better within families through oral traditions than are found in courthouse records. In 2011, The Gordons published a cookbook, recounting their early roots as well as family recipes.
Evelyn’s brother, Thomas Daniel Gordon, was interested in recording the family history and established the first family reunion in 1979. These reunions continue to grow. They have traced their relatives all over North America with family members all the way up to Halifax, Nova Scotia! Each time the family meets, they travel to a different location and this summer of 2016, the Gordon Family will be coming back to Virginia! We have invited them to visit Menokin for a special family tour.
As a result of our chance meeting, Menokin has since begun to further document the history of the Gordons. I hope to tell their story in ways that can help others discover and understand their past through video and classroom experiences, and continue to explore the lives of other Northern Neck residents. We are also seeking research assistance from a graduate student to help complete the missing links in their phenomenal story and see this as a great opportunity to develop an ongoing digital history for the future.
Thank you, Evelyn and Juanita, for helping us begin this exciting work.