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UC Riverside professor is one of the few black archaeologists searching for sunken slave ships and hidden history – Press Enterprise

When you find doll fragments on a former plantation in Florida where slaves lived and worked in the 1800s, it’s impossible not to be amazed.

Who owned the doll? How did children live on a plantation? What was recreation for the children of slaves like?

That feeling of being able to hold a piece of the past before it was placed on a shelf or under a spotlight in a museum – that’s what got Ayana Omilade Flewellen hooked on archaeology.

Ayana Omilade Flewellen, assistant professor of anthropology at UC Riverside, stands in the hallway of Watkins Hall on the Riverside campus Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. Flewellen is a co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists and serves on the board of directors to dive with a purpose. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Make history tangible

An assistant professor of anthropology at UC Riverside, Flewellen belongs to a small group (less than 1%) within the archaeological community – black archaeologists – and is one of a handful of black-born maritime archaeologists who dive offshore. the coast of St. Croix in the Caribbean and Michigan’s Great Lakes, searching for wreckage of ships that transported slaves and the fuselage of planes that once carried Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators of the US armed forces.

At 31, Flewellen, co-founder of the International Society of Black Archaeologists, is carving out a niche for herself as a researcher and archaeologist who works on land and under water, exploring ideas of race, gender, equity and of social justice while linking the truths of the past to the present in each project.

Archaeology, says Flewellen, is a way of showing history rather than telling it.

“Archaeology really makes our history tangible in ways that can’t be denied. It’s important in our country right now in an environment that thrives on misinformation,” said Flewellen, who identifies as no binary (neither male nor female) and prefers the pronoun “they”.

Flewellen’s own history is rooted in Texas. They were able to trace their family members back to the 1850s in Falls County, central Texas. But Flewellen was born in Atlanta and raised in different places – Maryland, New Mexico and Florida. Their time in the Washington, DC area, visiting museums and swimming at Miami beaches influenced their interest in history and, later, maritime archaeology.

“Growing up with a single mother and limited disposable income, we always looked for what we could do for free,” they said. “And that meant visiting many museums and beaches.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Flewellen was an undeclared major for two years. They found their calling in 2010 during field study at the Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, owned in 1814 by Zephaniah Kingsley and run by his wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, a Senegalese whom Kingsley had purchased as a slave. Flewellen was fascinated by how a black woman had actively participated in the management of the plantations, acquiring her own land and slaves after being freed by Kingsley in 1811.

“This project got me hooked on archaeology,” they said.

Ayana Omilade Flewellen, assistant professor of anthropology at UC Riverside, is a co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists and serves on the board of directors of Diving With A Purpose, on the Riverside campus, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Posts from the past

Much of the work Flewellen does on the land focuses on how African American women in the post-emancipation era dressed their bodies to negotiate the racism, sexism, and classism that shaped their lives.

“I found dress is so important because when we think about the rise of white vigilante movements, they targeted black bodies and property,” Flewellen said. “How people see you as a black person could have a huge impact on your life. We saw it in the Trayvon Martin case.

Martin was a 17-year-old black teenager who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch coordinator in a gated community in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. He was wearing a hoodie at the time, a everyday who has found himself at the center of the national debate on racial profiling and social justice.

As an artist who makes jewelry, Flewellen said they were always interested in seeing how slaves adorned their bodies.

“I met glasses,” they said. “Buttons made of wood, bone, metal or ceramic. Beautiful hand cut stone beads. When you find these things, you think of the craftsmanship that goes into them. When you look at bone objects, you think about what people ate, what they had access to, and what they created with what little they had.

Flewellen also found fragments of dolls at Kingsley Plantation and a marble at an archaeological site in St. Croix – items that resonated with them the most – they said.

“It made us think about how children lived in those days,” Flewellen said. “It’s not something we talk about often. These objects and remnants of the past help us think more broadly about the human experience.

story under water

Flewellen said maritime archaeology, or the search for historical artifacts underwater, was something that never occurred to them — at least until they were graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin.

“That area was pretty much white male dominated and never presented to me as a possibility,” Flewellen said. “The very cost was staggering to me. Learning to dive can be very expensive.

Connecting with Diving with a Purpose, a Florida-based volunteer underwater archeology program, changed Flewellen’s trajectory. They trained with the group for free at the Dallas YMCA. At first it was terrifying, Flewellen said.

“It took me a while to learn how to float underwater and better control my breathing,” they said. “But most importantly, I had to train my mind to know that everything would be okay. I had to remember to breathe deeply, which also feels like a meditative practice.

Flewellen’s first scuba diving experience was off St. Croix, where they co-administered an archaeological project at the Estate Little Princess Plantation site, teaching students modern archaeological method and theory in the field. and including local community members in data collection. process, giving them the means to appropriate their heritage.

At Sainte-Croix, Flewellen collaborates with her research partner, Justin Dunnavant, assistant professor of anthropology and archeology at UCLA. The project is housed on property owned by The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organization, and is a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Slave Wrecks Project, local historic preservation groups, the University of the Virgin Islands, and several universities across the continental United States. The Slave Wrecks Project researches slave ships one voyage at a time and examines the sites, stories and legacies associated with these voyages.

Recently, as part of the project on the island of St. John, the Flewellen team came across a mid-18th century ship, which was not a large enough vessel to have transported enslaved Africans, but existed at a time when there were social problems. processing on the island.

“It helps us think about the maritime connection that black people had during this time,” they said. “The docks themselves were also places where black people congregated.”

Flewellen said the dives off St. Croix, on the edge of the continental shelf, were particularly “incredible and beautiful”.

“You go from 150 feet to 3,000 feet underwater where it’s so dark,” they said. “It’s terrifying and exciting at the same time. The depth of the ocean is a perfect metaphor for the unknown. There is so much history in our waters that we cannot see.

Move and push the limits

Flewellen’s groundbreaking work is helping to transform the field of archaeology, said Maria Franklin, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, where Flewellen earned her master’s and doctorate degrees.

“The work that Ayana and others are doing is aimed at developing ourselves and training others, as well as achieving more collaborations with communities and organizations so that we can take archeology out of the ivory tower and bring it to the world,” Franklin said. “Whether it’s theorizing the human social condition, doing fieldwork, or picking up a collection and thinking about it, social justice is the mandate. That should be the goal. We need to see more people in this field who look like us.

Franklin says she sees her former student not just as a role model for black students, but for students of all races and genders.

Dunnavant, Flewellen’s collaborator and research partner, said he viewed Flewellen as someone who never felt intimidated by challenges or obstacles.

“It’s extremely important for (Flewellen) to be upfront because it’s important for other women to see their work,” he said.

Dunnavant says his goal is to “become irrelevant” by training future archaeologists.

“We have histories and legacies that we don’t know about,” he said. “We may never learn them in our lifetime. Thus, each of our projects includes a training component. »

Their work, along with that of other black archaeologists probing the depths for slave shipwrecks and experiencing the power of finding their own story, will be featured in National Geographic magazine to be published on Monday, February 7. Flewellen’s work was also featured. in the magazine’s “Into the Depths” podcast series.

Flewellen believes that the future of archeology depends on the ability of current practitioners to show the connections between past and present.

“A lot of people see it as a ground for old white people,” they said. “In the future, I see, it’s a practice that roots the way humanity existed in the past and connects it to what we experience today. I like to see a future where projects are driven by the community members and what people want to know about the past – our collective past.

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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.