Exploring the artistry and entrepreneurship of freed slaves is an experience that Tiffany Fane, a science teacher at Hazelwood East Middle School, will always remember.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) selected Fane as a Summer Scholar in the Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops. The workshops are designed for teachers to study with experts in humanities disciplines. Fane participated in “Crafting Freedom: Black Artisans, Entrepreneurs, and Abolitionists in the Antebellum Upper South.”
The week-long program took place in Chapel Hill, N.C. It focused on the careers of free African-American artisans Thomas Day, a cabinetmaker, and Elizabeth Keckly, a dressmaker. The workshop “illuminates the relationship between race-based slavery and African-American enterprise in the antebellum American South.”
Fane’s interest in the workshop stemmed from a similar one last summer.
“After participating in Sailing to Freedom last year, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the subject,” she said. “I have always been interested in African and African-American history and I take every opportunity to learn more about the subject.”
To prepare for the workshop, Fane had advance readings from the workshop directors. She said she tried to get her hands on “everything I could find related to the two freedom crafters.”
“This five-day experience was so rich in history. I was able to visit several historic sites, including Stagville Plantation, the Burwell School for Girls and Thomas Day’s Union Tavern,” Fane said.
She explained that the plantation is home to the Great Barn, the largest, oldest barn built by enslaved craftspeople in the summer of 1860. The plantation had more than 30,000 acres and the family owned more than 900 slaves.
“One could feel the spirit of the slaves while walking the property and touring the slave cabin,” said Fane.
She went on to say that Keckly was, at one time, the only slave girl at Burwell School who became a seamstress, purchased her freedom after moving to St. Louis, and then moved to Washington, D.C. She became Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal seamstress and confidante.
Day was a free black man who owned slaves. He was successful in business and had abolitionist ties. “Researchers question whether or not Day purchased slaves to ‘free’ them,” said Fane.
“Both of these opportunities were invaluable,” said Fane, referring to both NEH workshops.
“In fact, the two were greatly connected. Sailing to Freedom focused on slaves ‘crafting their freedom’ by waterways and earning a living in the whaling industry. Crafting Freedom focused on the slaves and free blacks’ pursuit of freedom. It is important to know that free blacks were not truly free. They were constantly harassed and asked to present manumission papers that could have easily been destroyed or stolen from them. They were brutalized and denied equal rights.”
Fane will share some of her experience with her students.
“I will share with them history that is not found in their textbooks. I will show them pictures of the North Carolina sites and challenge them to find comparable sites located in Missouri.
“I will share the Crafting Freedom website and use the lesson plans to teach my students about the freedom crafters such as Day and Keckly, as well as William “Box” Brown and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” she said.
“I would most certainly recommend the workshops,” said Fane.
“As I said, the experience is invaluable. NEH workshops provide educators from multiple disciplines from across the country to gather in one place and glean from each other for five days. The workshops provide authentic learning experiences for educators which will be transferred to our students.”
In a release from the NEH, 80 teachers were selected for the Crafting Freedom workshop. Participants received a $1,200 stipend to help cover travel, study and living expenses. There are 21 NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops that take place throughout the nation. Approximately 1,600 teachers will be involved this summer, impact more than 200,000 students in the coming school year.