Crafting Freedom: Black Artisans, Entrepreneurs, and Abolitionists of the Antebellum Upper South

Many inspiring stories of slaves earning or gaining their freedom can be found in today’s history books. As an example, Elizabeth Keckly, who became Mary Todd Lincoln’s modiste later in life, earned her freedom by sewing dresses for wealthy women. Keckly is now discussed in the workshop series “Crafting Freedom: Black Artisans, Entrepreneurs, and Abolitionists of the Antebellum Upper South,” which has been held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in recent summers.

“Crafting Freedom” is one of the Landmarks of American History and Culture workshops, a program started by the Division of Education in the early 2000s. “Landmarks” uses historic sites to address central themes and issues in American history, government, literature, art, music, and other related subjects in the humanities. The workshops are open to K-12 educators and take place at or nearby a historical site and are each offered twice a summer.

Slave cabin, updated as tenant house, Stagville Plantation, Durham, NC

A slave cabin, updated as a tenant house, at Stagville Plantation in Durham, NC. Stagville Plantation was the largest plantation in North Carolina in the mid-19th Century. Workshop participants visit the plantation to witness the range of artisanship required to sustain a large antebellum plantation. Courtesy of Laurel Sneed.

The “Crafting Freedom” workshops take place near the former workplace of Thomas Day. Day maintained his status as a free black man through his successful furniture-making business, which grew to be the largest in North Carolina by 1850. As the “Crafting Freedom” website states, Day and Keckly literally “‘crafted freedom’ by creating greater opportunities for themselves and their loved ones, as well as for others of their race.”

The workshops started out focusing only on Day and Keckly but soon added seven more “freedom crafters” in response to workshop attendees who were seeking more material that would interest their students. Workshop attendees—known as “NEH Summer Scholars”—engage in “intensive study using the power of place to motivate exploration of the lives and works of several significant antebellum African Americans.”

Crafting Freedom Summer Scholars at Prestwould Plantation, Clarksville,VA in 2005.

Crafting Freedom Summer Scholars at Prestwould Plantation, Clarksville,VA in 2005. Courtesy of Laurel Sneed.

Laurel Sneed, Founder and Executive Director, stated that in selecting attendees for the summer workshops, she looks for “high quality teachers who wish to provide the best historical and cultural scholarship to their students.” She believes that “Crafting Freedom,” as well as the Landmarks program itself, provides that.

Sneed notes that the workshops evolve each year, with new lesson plans and new workshop participants. In 2011, three international teachers attended; one participant, Wallace Monteiro, turned his experience into a video. He provides pictures to give a sense of the workshop, and states at one point that his fellow attendees and workshop leaders were “some of the most inspired and inspiring people I’ve ever met.”

The workshop has benefited teachers, workshop leaders, and the historical sites themselves. Since 2004, “Crafting Freedom” has worked with hundreds of educators from 38 states and four countries. The workshop has consistently been rated “excellent” by workshop attendees. One past attendee stated: “Like Thomas Day whose handmade chairs were not just utilitarian but were also skillfully put together with beauty and care, the organizers of this program did not just put on a workshop; they nurtured it, filling it with passion, thoughtfulness, and sophistication. This love of their craft was demonstrated throughout.” More participant feedback can be found on the project website.

In conducting the workshop Sneed is assisted by master teachers—former participants who expressed an interest in returning to the workshop in some capacity. She said that most of them are experts in some aspect of the history taught at the workshop, and that they love to interact with the participants.

Courtesy of Laurel Sneed.

Courtesy of Laurel Sneed.

Sneed went on to say, “I don’t think we’d be so eager to conduct these workshops year after year if we didn’t find them to be one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives. Certainly it has been one of the greatest professional opportunities for me along with my husband Charlie Sneed [Co-Founder and Financial Manager], to lead this workshop and I’m constantly humbled that others find it to be so worthwhile and affecting.”

A website with ready-to-use resources grew out of the “Crafting Freedom” workshops. The resource website, also funded by NEH, provides materials for teachers who are looking to “reach beyond the black history and literature you already teach.”

The deadline for applying for “Crafting Freedom,” as well as for all other Landmarks workshops is March 4, 2013. Please contact Laurel Sneed for more information. Each workshop accommodates 40 participants, each of whom receives a $1,200 stipend.

Additionally, if you are interested in learning more about Day, the exhibit “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color” will feature some of his pieces produced between 1830 and 1850. The exhibit can be viewed at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.,  April 12–July 28.

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