The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
A Sense of Place
The Smithsonian Institution Archives will be celebrating African American History Month throughout February with a series of related posts on THE BIGGER PICTURE.
I’m often asked what is the coolest, oldest, or best thing I’ve ever worked on at the Smithsonian, I have to say that the two texts profiled below come up in the top ten. Not because they’ve been to the moon, or someone super-famous was associated with them, but because they are humble documents, and deeply personal records of painful times in the nation’s history with particularly local ties to African American history, genealogy, and culture. The Adam Francis Plummer diary (below) came to light in 2001. This unique manuscript had been carefully preserved in wrappings by then-owner Lucille Betty Tomkins-Davis, knowing it had a family connection, but its context had been lost. However, she also had a copy of Out of the Depths or The Triumph of the Cross (above), a family history written, self-published and distributed by her great-great grandaunt Nellie Arnold Plummer in 1927. (For the full story of how the manuscript came to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, please refer to an in-depth Washington Post article).
Out of the Depths ultimately proved to immensely useful to reconnect Tomkins-Davis with her cousin Reverend L. Jerome Fowler, who for many years had been researching the family genealogy based on his copy of the same book. In her text, Nellie, who was Adam Plummer’s youngest daughter, often quotes from her father’s “diary”—the location of which in 2001 was unknown and presumed lost. Given Rev. Fowler’s deep interest in his family’s local roots and historic legacies, he became known as an active historian, using Nellie’s book and other records to reconnect with distant members of his family, across the country. Eventually, this led to the fruitful find of Adam Francis Plummer’s manuscript.
When the diary came into my lab, it not only showed signs of heavy use and extreme wear, but the ordering of its pages was questionable. Dealing with this very complicated object—with handwriting and annotations in the hands of multiple authors and lots of inclusions and attachments—my first task was to assess whether this was, in fact, the missing diary that was so heavily quoted in Nellie’s book. If so, my next challenge would be to make it usable and accessible for the intense scholarship and attention it would likely receive.
The full processes used to determine the original order of the pages and treatments necessary to conserve them are too complex to describe in a blog post, so I share a few details of the treatment in the pictures. (A cover-to-cover digital facsimile of the diary, with scholarly essays and resources for educators is available for research on the Anacostia Community Museum’s feature site.
Another question I am often asked is: “Do you read all the books and letters you treat?” The answer is no, it’s impossible timewise, but in this case I had to do some close reading in order to match up pages and inserted objects that had been split apart, folded back on themselves incorrectly, and shuffled over time. In part, I guided my investigation by doing a textual comparison analysis between Nellie’s original Out of the Depths (1927), a scholarly edition republished with essays (1997), and the manuscript diary itself, which helped me to identify facts about places, times, and names that could then be double-checked elsewhere.
Through my readings, I became familiar with Adam Plummer’s story. Born into slavery to descendents of the Calverts (Lord Baltimore), he was more fortunate than many in that he was taught to read, write, keep accounts, and was held in some esteem and allowed privileges. However, this did not prevent the many indignities and personal brutalities that were suffered by him and his family, such as forced sale and separation over many years.
Today, as a commuter, I pass daily and with 21st century ease the long miles Plummer traveled on weekends, by train and on foot, from where he worked to the various plantations his wife and children were sold to over the years. When I first moved here, some of the personal and place names that I’ve learned more about through my own work with the diary were just stops on the Metro, scenic sites, or parks. But in the course of working so closely with these historic books, places like Baltimore, Calvert County, Ellicott City, Riverdale (formerly Riversdale Plantation) and the University of Maryland at College Park, now conjure up the ghosts of less august times with me, and may, too, for the generations of students and scholars who encounter the remarkable Plummer diary at the Anacostia Community Museum in the future.