Photos by Curt Yeomans: Denise White Fields, a collector of slavery artifacts, examines a display of items from her collection at the Morrow-based National Archives at Atlanta, on Friday. The exhibit is scheduled to remain on display through April 14.
Brunswick resident, Denise White Fields, believes African Americans who feel ashamed to be descended from slaves, should take a different approach to how they see the lives of their ancestors.
Although slavery is generally considered to be a dark cloud hanging over American history, Fields said she sees the lives of slaves as stories of strength, in the face of adversity. She explained that she sees slaves as the first shoulders upon whom later generations of African Americans, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Barack Obama, eventually stood.
Fields has amassed a private collection of more than 3,000 slave artifacts, ranging from the shackles in which slaves were once placed, to a piece of the last ship that brought slaves to the U.S.
“There’s a lot of shame that goes with that,” Fields said. “There’s a lot that we wanted to forget, but there’s also a lot of strength in enduring, in surviving, [and] in accomplishing and achieving, despite all of those things.”
The National Archives’ resources for slavery research
The National Archives at Atlanta has several sources of information that historians and genealogists can use to research African Americans who were held as slaves, according to Mary Evelyn Tomlin, the archives’ public programs specialist.
These documents — which have been kept for more than 100 years, as part of federal government records — are not all the same type of files, however, so they are spread out across the archives’ holdings, Tomlin pointed out. Some of these documents come from military records. Others come from the federal court system, and some are photographs that, at some point, ended up in the hands of the Library of Congress.
Visitors to the local National Archives branch can also access digitized copies of records held by other branches, through an online network, according to Tomlin.
Examples of slavery records held by, or at least accessible through, the National Archives at Atlanta include:
• Numerous slave ship manifests.
• Civil War draft records from Kentucky (which includes records of slave owners who sent their slaves to serve in the Union Army in their place).
• Federal court records (some of whose exhibits included copies of bills of sale of slaves, and lists of confiscated slaves who were eventually sold at auctions).
• Online access to U.S. Freedmen Bureau records.
• Library of Congress images which depict slave auctions in the South.
–– Curt Yeomans
Approximately 40 items from Fields’ collection are on display until April 14, at the National Archives at Atlanta, located at 5780 Jonesboro Road, in Morrow. The display opened to the public on Feb. 18, during an African-American heritage celebration that was jointly hosted by the archives and local historical societies.
Fields is the founder and curator of the “Pre-Enslavement to President Barack Obama & Beyond” traveling exhibit, which is part of the U.S. National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. She said items in the collection have been authenticated by Syl Turner, the owner of the Black History Store, in Chamblee.
Items on display in the archives exhibit have been placed in six cases located in the lobby of the archives. One of the rare items Fields has on display is a simple burlap piece of clothing that resembles a potato sack. She said it was a child’s slave garment.
Other items include several types of shackles and chains that had been used to hold slaves; “slave bells” that had been used by house slaves; early copies of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories, and a two-volume, first-edition copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” from the 1850’s. Fields said the exhibit is dedicated to her father, Jeffie Extri White, Jr., who died this past October.
“It was quite popular with the people who attended our African-American heritage event,” said Mary Evelyn Tomlin, a public programs specialist for the National Archives at Atlanta. “There were a lot of people lining up to see the exhibit. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about it so far.”
One might ask why Fields has spent the last 30 years collecting artifacts that chronicle a dark period in the nation’s history. She said she was introduced to the collecting of slavery-related items by a friend who also collected the relics. The former McIntosh County Schools teacher said she would often go with her friend to purchase these items from shops.
“I then got the bug myself,” Fields said. “I started collecting for myself, and I was just amazed at what was out there.”
As her own collection began to grow, she began putting them on display at her own workplaces, and the schools her children attended. And, she does not just collect the artifacts. She can also tell people stories about each item, and explain what the artifacts were used for.
“I believe it’s my calling,” she said. “I chronicle the African-American experience, from pre-enslavement, the glory and majesty of Africa before enslavement when we were treated more than equally ... before there was a justification for [a sentiment of] inferiority, through President Obama and beyond.”
Items from the collection have also been displayed, in the past, at a wide variety of locations, including Emory University; Spelman College; Morehouse College; the Georgia Institute of Technology; the Jonesboro-based Road to Tara Museum; the Georgia Sea Islands Festival on St. Simon’s Island, and the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, in Kennesaw.
They have also been displayed at sites in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
Fields said she sees the period of slavery as still being a “painful time” for the nation, but she added her goal is to — in some small way — help to ease that pain by letting people see her collection.