Harvard Ph.D. candidate Hannah Scruggs is a public historian and genealogist who studies enslaved and free Black communities in central Virginia.
Harvard Ph.D. candidate Hannah Scruggs is a public historian and genealogist who studies enslaved and free Black communities in central Virginia. By Josie W. Chen

The Road to Reclamation, Reconciliation, and Reparations: A Conversation With Public Historian Hannah Scruggs

Public historian Hannah Scruggs sat with Fifteen Minutes to discuss historical sites, descendants of slavery, and Harvard's road to remedying its difficult past. “Public history can be a powerful space for connection and healing,” she says.
By Victoria A. Kishoiyian

Hannah K. Scruggs is a Ph.D. candidate in the African and African American Studies Department at Harvard. She specializes in public history, and her current work examines enslaved and free Black communities in central Virginia. She previously worked at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as a genealogy reference assistant and at The Montpelier Foundation as a research associate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: When researching your work, “public” consistently appeared before various job titles you held. What does it mean to be a public historian and what inspired you to take a less traditional approach to studying history?

HKS: From a young age, I really enjoyed museums and was really impacted by them. I knew that I cared a lot about education, and especially history education, and ensuring that people can have access to stories about the past that were accurate.

I saw and learned a lot that wasn’t necessarily being taught in my classes and so I was interested in other approaches to engaging with history. I discovered public history as a field when I was working at the Braddock Carnegie Library. That work was really influential to me because I was able to work with the community but also talk about the history of the place and how the history had impacted the present for the people living there.

I also did a lot of work at my county’s historical society right after I graduated from high school and throughout college. Working in an archive, working with documents, engaging with the historical objects felt really powerful, and I wanted to work in a place where other people could experience history tangibly.

FM: What are you aspiring to accomplish through making historical sites, museums, and history more accessible and “community-centered”?

HKS: I want people to feel ownership and a sense of reclamation, if they want to, in those places, at plantation sites. I know that not everyone has the desire to connect with places where their ancestors were enslaved or experienced violence. But I think if there is that desire, and some people do have it, it can be a really powerful space for connection and healing.

For example, Montpelier, where I worked, is now descendant-run. This spring they had an ugly and very public fight with the former board in defense of the Montpelier Descendants Committee. Now, the MDC is full co-stewards with the Montpelier Foundation, and the Montpelier Foundation board is more than 50 percent descendants or people descendants have chosen to represent them on board.

With that comes more conversations about the truth of the past, the truth of that place, and more conversations about the majority of the people who lived in the house, not just the Madisons, and the truth about the impact of enslaved people not just on the place where they lived, but on the surrounding area, the physical impact on the landscape, and also ideas that enslaved people had that they lived out.

You’re in the same room as those white men who were making those decisions, who were writing those documents, the Constitution, et cetera. It’s not happening in a vacuum. Having descendants be able to tell the stories that they want to tell and host the programming they want to host and have power over that place is really incredible.

FM: How does the fact that descendants are leading this work change the way you navigate archives and the way you overcome barriers?

HKS: A lot of the descendants that we work with aren’t trained historians, aren’t necessarily people who have a background in history or the archives. Sometimes they have a lot of background in genealogy and so they are very skilled at navigating archives. But I think talking to them about the ways that different disciplines can impact and influence what they can learn about their families is crucial at Montpelier and other sites too. Archaeology is one way that a lot of people can learn more about their enslaved ancestors, because enslaved people were often the majority of the people at these larger plantation sites, and they left behind stuff just like we all do. Using different disciplines and encouraging people to ask questions of their older family members, ask for oral histories, is how I try to work with people and encourage them when they get discouraged sometimes about not being able to find necessarily exactly what they’re looking for.

FM: Your work is so heavily focused on a community whose history is largely undocumented, hidden, or buried. What barriers have you encountered and how have you overcome them?

HKS: There is more in the archive than we often expect or that we often hear. These histories are documented not just in the archives, but through oral histories, through the landscape. There are plenty of barriers that we came up against.

In my work as a genealogist with the Smithsonian, that is something that we talked about working around, but also learning how to understand people’s lives, the historical context, understand the geographic context, understand the worlds in which people lived using any source possible, and just not from the perspective of enslaved people necessarily. But there also has been so much more, and learning from scholars like Saidiya Hartman and Tiya Miles, so many people have looked at archives and told stories that previously people thought were untellable, so I feel like I’ve learned a lot already from scholars already doing this work.

FM: How does your African American identity shape your relationship to United States history? Does your Ph.D. or previous work academically engage with or incorporate your lived experiences as an African American from Central Virginia?

HKS: My identity as a Black woman is highly influential to the work that I do. And specifically as an Afro-Virginian whose family has been in Virginia for about 300 years, at least.

When I was in fourth grade, I learned that I lived in the same place where my ancestors were enslaved. I lived in the same county. I did this project for school, and I interviewed the descendants of the people who own the plantation, the people who owned my ancestors.

I think that experience is one that I’m still really unpacking, but that set everything up for me when I think about the work that I want to do, what I want to research, it comes back to that. After I did AmeriCorps, I got my master’s in public history at N.C. State. And my first job out of my master’s was I worked at Montpelier, and I was a research associate for the Montpelier descendant community, and that’s exclusively descendants of enslaved people who James Madison enslaved or were enslaved in surrounding plantations.

I learned a lot about different relationships people can have to a place like a plantation site. And in particular, a plantation site in the South where a lot of the people that I was working with had a relationship to that place, whether it was that they grew up there, or their families had continued to come back even after they Great-migrated out of the area.

That was just really powerful and life shifting work, and recognizing that, “Oh, my ancestors could have been here with your ancestors.” It just made it very, very personal work, recognizing the deep kinship and connection I had with other people who were doing the same work in this area, as well as the descendant community that I was working with.

FM: So much of your work is centered around reckoning with a difficult past, what does it mean to you to attend Harvard, an institution that has just started the process of reckoning with its connection to slavery?

HKS: It’s really interesting to be here at this time. I did my undergrad at the College of William and Mary. When I started there in 2009, they were also just beginning the process of reckoning with their legacy of slavery.

There’s also different implications for indigenous people, because in the building of Harvard you have indigenous slavery in Massachusetts, or the selling of indigenous people to earn money to build institutions. There are some different nuances that are regional. But I think it’s important for universities across the country to go through this and it’s been exciting to see these conversations happen and also know that there’s still work to be done.

FM: What actions towards reconciliation do you approve of and how do you think university efforts can be better? Because you’ve seen how William and Mary tried to approach this, how do you think Harvard can learn from their actions?

HKS: I think descendant work is a way of pursuing justice that I believe is quite direct or can be quite direct. I also look at people– the Georgetown 272 and the ways that they’re starting to work towards reparations is really crucial. The Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA is a 501(c)(3) that just got started within the last two years. That’s also an organized group of descendants of enslaved people that built the university — I’m actually part of that organization. These are ways that descendants can organize and have power.

FM: Harvard has recently been under scrutiny due to its handling of the remains of the enslaved Africans and Indigenous people it holds. Some have criticized the University’s lack of culturally-competent language, such as not capitalizing A in ancestors as the respective Native tribe traditionally does, and a lack of transparency. Do you believe these errors are inevitable missteps that institutions will encounter as they begin to reckon with difficult pasts?

HKS: I don’t think that they’re inevitable. Dealing with remains is something that most institutions and museums in particular are going to have to reckon with and are starting to reckon with, and should have reckoned with a long time ago, because NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), which is the first legislation around returning indigenous remains to tribes repatriating them, came out — it’s been 30-plus years. We’ve had time. There isn’t right now something that exists like that for African Americans, but there are conversations starting and there are descendant movements that are popping up around cemeteries, around historic Black cemeteries. The phrase “descendant communities” came out of the fight at the African Burial Ground with Dr. Michael Blakey and community activists like Peggy King Jorde.

Remains and burial sites of burial and honor to our ancestors have always been a critical part of this. How much do I believe that most people and most large, wealthy institutions have paid attention to those things? I’m not sure. But certainly there are people aware of those fights.

FM: Harvard has recently garnered a lot of support after releasing the Legacy of Slavery Report. As a public historian specializing in African American history and slavery, do you feel as if the university is genuinely committed to reconciling with its past? How has the institution supported or hindered your work to unearth this past?

HKS: I think that at this point, universities that aren’t acknowledging their roles in slavery are being looked at sideways — or in genocide, or the stealing of land from indigenous people. We’re at a point where so many universities have come forward and joined Universities Studying Slavery. To not, for an institution like Harvard, is not an option.

I think that’s going to be the real question: Are you going to be a leader in this? Are you going to work to figure out some of those questions, or are you going to follow as other people start to figure this out?

When it comes to institutions hindering my work, I am very grateful that I have not run up against that. That is not to say it doesn’t happen. It certainly does. But I have been in institutions that have really encouraged the work, and that’s intentional. I’ve picked places where I felt safe. There are still fights to be had even if it’s not the institution automatically saying no to everything.

FM: What has your experience as a Black woman emerging into the academy been like, especially considering your progressive approach to conserving history? Do you feel like you could push through if you didn’t come in without a very clear set of values and career goals?

HKS: I think coming in with that set of values and goals as well as having a sense of self is one of the most important things. The other most important thing is having a community behind me: my community from home but also a community of Black women scholars who encourage me — Tiya Miles and Blair Kelley, who works at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Knowing that there are other Black women scholars who have navigated this and navigated institutions that can be hostile and navigated people that can be hostile and have done it with grace and have retained a strong sense of who they are as a scholar, the story that they tell, and the sense that this is a really important act of reclaiming our past and telling the truth about our country and telling the truth about the world that we live in.

That’s all really inspiring to me and I’m grateful that I have such good role models. I can’t imagine how it must have been for Black women scholars and Black, queer, non-binary scholars even 20, 30 years ago. There has been a lot of groundbreaking work in the generation of scholars above me.

FM: What are you looking forward to for your first semester here? What are you excited about?

HKS: This is going to sound really nerdy but I’m delighted to be back in classes. I’ve missed it. I’m so happy to be given the time to learn and to read and write and think. I love all my classes so far. And that’s how I know that I’m in the right place and doing the right thing for me.

Kaysia E. Harrington contributed reporting.

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