As always, there are many things happening at VAF, and this long-awaited newsletter will give you just a hint at our activity. Let me start with our new African American Fieldwork Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which got off to a terrific start this summer with the first of three successive fieldwork sites.
I had a great visit to the location of our first research project, led by VAF veterans Michael Chiarappa and Janet Sheridan, which took place in July in the tiny hamlet of Bellevue on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The setting is lovely: a waterfront community of small homes perched on the edge of an inlet of Chesapeake Bay. VAF, led by former president Louis Nelson of the University of Virginia, received a grant of $750,000 from the Mellon Foundation in 2021 to help Black communities investigate and preserve their historic landscapes and cultural heritage. A task force of VAF members organized an application process and selected three sites that will hold month-long summer field schools for two summers each. In addition to Bellevue, MD, the locations will include sites in Georgia (Summer 2023-24) and Virginia (Summer 2024-25).
It was appropriate that I arrived at this history field school on one of the oldest ferry crossings in the US, the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. Bellevue appears to be the “other side of the tracks” – I mean ferry – from the white village of Oxford on the south side of the crossing, where tidy Victorian-era homes line the streets that lead to an ancient inn adjacent to the ferry landing. The small homes in Bellevue line up in rows that stretch between the bayfront and a backwater channel. Maritime industries of all sorts flourished here, with watermen harvesting crabs and oysters, and packing houses and canneries sending these delicacies off to markets across the country. An African American family opened their own oyster packing house in the mid-twentieth century and it flourished until overfishing and toxins devastated marine life in Chesapeake Bay. Bellevue retains a number of interesting houses, but an incursion of new, oversized second homes indicates that the future of this modest community is threatened by development.
Instructors Michael (a faculty member from nearby Washington College) and Janet (who has completed significant work on maritime and African American landscapes near Delaware Bay) were ideal leaders of the project. They laid out an ambitious yet do-able plan of investigation to be completed in only four short weeks. Students traded off between documenting remaining historic houses, doing deed research, and interviewing residents to add a sense of lived experience to the drawings and records. Janet and Michael will be working during the off-season to collate this summer’s findings and plan next year‘s work accordingly.
While the site itself is of great importance, the highlight of my visit was the students themselves. The initial task force that organized the selection process was unsure of the response we would receive for this first field school, but we needn’t have worried. Michael and Janet had a top-notch crew of ten graduate students to work with, coming from as far as Texas and Antigua and representing a variety of fields, including architecture, urban planning, archival work, political science, and more. All of the students were African American and all were enthusiastic about their work, even when the instructors made architects comb through county records and traditional historians draw floor plans and elevations. The strong camaraderie among the students was obvious, as a good field school encourages. I invited the students to become regular VAF members and to share their field school experience with us in the Vernacular Architecture Newsletter.
I was fortunate to join the group for their farewell dinner at a fine bayside restaurant. It was here that I began to understand one of the key elements of this field school’s success. The DeShields family has been part of the fabric of Bellevue social life for many generations, and current family members have played a major role in both preserving Bellevue’s African American heritage overall and fostering the work of VAF’s field school. The DeShields are planning to incorporate the findings from this summer’s investigation as part of a new heritage museum planned in a salvaged commercial building in the village.
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In other news, the VAF Board is trying a new schedule: in addition to the in-person meeting we hold during the annual conference, we will try holding two virtual meetings (October and January) instead of a single in-person meeting in November. Items the board discussed this fall:
- the “Future Vision” committee, chaired by President-elect Elaine Jackson-Retondo, which will consider ideas for new adventures for our venerable organization.
- a new Governance Committee to examine ways in which we should structure VAF to ensure proper oversight of our finances and operations.
- upcoming conferences, including our next one in Plymouth, MA in May 2023, followed by the Keweenaw Peninsula in Upper Michigan (2024), and sites proposed for future years.
We look forward to seeing you in Massachusetts next year!