Historic antebellum house museums have a particular place in American history. With their house histories and fine furnishings—preserved or restored —these homes have told a specific story, that of the wealthy white homeowners who once lived there.
Now these houses are starting to tell a different, more comprehensive story—that of the enslaved Africans who once toiled the land and tended the families. In house museums across the country, there have been efforts to reinterpret these historic houses through an African American lens, with an eye toward remembering and honoring those who enabled the wealth of these homeowners and who have been overlooked—whitewashed, if you will.
In Athens, the Ware-Lyndon and Church-Waddel-Brumby houses and their past owners have recently been recontextualized through painstaking research and exhibits.
Didi Dunphy, the program and facility supervisor at the Lyndon House Arts Center, which includes the Ware-Lyndon House, worked with interns Lilly McEachern and Lisa Parrish to expand the history of the house. As “caretaker” of a historic house, Dunphy said she started years ago having conversations and attending conferences with others who also are charged with the care of historic sites. One challenge that they all found was that the visitors to these sites were not getting the full picture—including the fact that many of the former residents of these homes were enslavers.
“It became extremely important to not restrict the level of storytelling to only the elite, white class,” says Dunphy.
Nearly four years ago, Dunphy says she started looking into how to add an additional interpretation to the story of the house. Dunphy and her team scoured scores of documents to find information about the enslaved Africans held by the Ware and Lyndon families. McEachern, Parrish and Dunphy became “consumed” with two particular families whose stories started at the Ware-Lyndon campus with enslaved ancestors: renowned composer and arranger Hall Johnson and well-known jazz musicologist and band leader David Wilborn Jr. The result is “Resilient Civic and Musical Life: Ware-Lyndon House Enslaved and Descendant Stories” a visually dynamic, engaging and truthful exhibit in the historic house featuring these two Athenians and their families.
The exhibit features a visual timeline of African American history in Athens, a reading room of books relevant to the African American experience in art, music and heritage and a video about the Johnson and Wilborn families narrated by Athenian Celeste Ngeve and Alicia Hall Moran, a great niece of Hall Johnson who is an acclaimed opera singer.
Upstairs in the children’s room at the Church-Waddel-Brumby House, the home of the Historic Athens Welcome Center, panels were installed in 2021 that focus on how those enslaved by the Waddell family would have been involved in the lives of the family’s three children, said Caitlin Short, the center’s visitor experience specialist. One of the panels breaks down the myth of the “mammy” figure and how revered films such as “Gone with the Wind” romanticized slavery and made people assume that the “mammy” figure would have been an elderly black woman or a woman later in her years. In reality, an enslaved girl could have been as young as 10 years old and charged with caring for the children of the white family. Another panel discusses religion from a Black Athenian’s perspective because of the religious background of fifth University of Georgia President Moses Waddel, a Presbyterian minister.
On the back porch of the welcome center framed posters include a “Narrative of the Enslaved” and historical documents outlining the enslaver histories of Alonzo Church (the sixth president of the University of Georgia), Waddel and Captain John W. Brumby, a member of the Confederate States Army. A section of the welcome center website also includes a report featuring census, tax records and other documents.
This history, unearthed by then-interns Nadia Coleman and Sydney Phillips, is now included in the house tours. Short, who has worked at the Welcome Center for nearly 10 years, says while they knew this information existed, it was not a part of the story of the house that was told to visitors to the city. “We had been focusing, for 50 years, on the men who lived here; we weren’t really talking about the other side of that story,” she says. “And of course, we want to be able to share the full story with people…We want to include everything. That was the inspiration.”
Dunphy and Short both stressed that these efforts to expand these house histories are ongoing, and as they find more information, they will figure out ways to tell those stories, too.
According to Dunphy, the past few years have brought “significant cultural realizations for so much of our world.” From Black Lives Matter to the pandemic, marginalized people and their histories have been moved out of the shadows. “It was the pandemic and so many other things that revealed the desperate inequity and the invisibility of so many people,” Dunphy says. “I’m in the business of making things visible.”
Kimberly Davis is a fourth-generation native Athenian who has been a writer and editor for 25 years. She is president of the Historic Athens Board of Trustees, which operates the Historic Athens Welcome Center.