People, Culture, and Movement in the South

The Class of 2017’s exploration of the American South piqued our curiosity for unfamiliar aspects of American material culture. We especially enjoyed our travels in the mountainous western edges of Virginia and the Carolinas. While all segments of the trip allowed us to experience the Southern states’ diversity, these areas in particular granted us a better understanding of the material culture related to the movement of people and cultures through the South.

On the second day of our trip, we visited the charming Shenandoah town of Luray, Virginia. After learning about 19th century tourist culture (and basic geology) in the Luray Caverns, we visited the Luray Valley Museum. Founded and directed by local history aficionado and businessman, Rod Graves, the Luray Valley Museum surprised the class with many objects nearly identical to those seen in traditionally German-speaking areas of southeastern Pennsylvania.

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Top: The Luray Valley Museum, owned by the same family as the Luray Caverns, demonstrated many links between the material culture of southeastern Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley.  Bottom: Museum founder and owner Rod Graves introduces WPAMC students to the history of the Shenandoah Valley.

Here, in this corner of the Shenandoah Valley, we found furniture, stove plates, coverlets, ceramics, and broadsides reminiscent of those seen further north—even the preserved architectural elements made us feel as if we were in Pennsylvania! When considering Germans in America, many people imagine that Pennsylvania’s Anabaptists communities encompass the majority of German-American material culture. However, objects held by the Luray Valley Museum are material testaments to the early 19th century migration of Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist Germans from more crowded areas of southeastern Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah Valley.

Objects associated with Pennsylvania Germans seemed to follow us as we worked our way through the Shenandoah Valley and into Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Here, we added to our understanding of the movement of German culture into North Carolina by exploring the historic Moravian community of Salem and the many Germanic objects held by MESDA. Salem itself forms an important parallel to other planned Moravian communities such as both Bethlehem and Lititz in Pennsylvania. Familiar features such as the Gemeinsaal, Brudersaal, and Gottesacker (God’s Acre, or cemetery) helped the Brotherhood’s early settlers to maintain a transregional sense of Moravian identity in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and even Georgia.

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Left: Geburt and Taufschein (Birth and Baptismal certificates) held at MESDA demonstrate another material link between the religious broadsides and fraktur of southeastern Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah. Such documents were mobile family registers serving families unable to rely on church records or documentation. 

Right: Students examine the products of the German-language Henkels Press in the Luray Valley Museum. 

While we could have followed the trail of German objects all the way to the early settlements in Ebenezer, Georgia, we instead supplemented our understanding of moving people and cultures in Columbia, South Carolina. Here, Historic Columbia educator James Quint complicated our understanding of racial hierarchies and immigration patterns in the Reconstruction-era South by introducing us to the Mann-Simons site, formerly a complex of residential and commercial buildings where generations of African-Americans lived and worked.

The movement of Eastern European immigrants and the ‘threat’ of their culture in Columbia caused post-bellum Columbians to see such immigrants as even less ‘desirable’ than freedmen. Such endemic nativist tensions resulted in the African Americans residents at the Mann-Simons site taking roles as landlords for white immigrant renters. This complicated racial and economic situation was lost from the material record until recent archaeology rediscovered the site. Now, five ‘ghost’ structures fill the voids left by the destruction of the original buildings—the legacy of these buildings exhibit that the movement of peoples and cultures complicated both historic and contemporary understandings of race in America. Clearly, race relations in the South could be far more intricate and messy than divisions between black and white.

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Historic Columbia educator James Quint describes the Mann-Simons site in front of several ‘ghost buildings’ occupying the sites of original structures.

While we have only just begun our adventures in the American South, we have certainly gained a new appreciation for the complexities attached to the movement of people and cultures throughout these regions of the country. Objects tied to traditionally German cultures formed a continuum throughout the Shenandoah region from southeastern Pennsylvania and added to a shared identity, especially for Moravian communities. In Columbia, however, the movement of people complicated an already convoluted racial environment. As we prepare for future trips and thesis research, we will keep the importance of demographic and cultural movement very much in mind!

All photos taken by the WPAMC Fellows

By Trevor Brandt, WPAMC Class of 2017



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