Archaeology, Communities, and Civil Rights: A Review of the 2022 Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference
As we near the end of the semester, I want to reflect on one of my favorite experiences of fall 2022: the Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference! This year’s conference was organized by: Dr. Michael S. Nassaney, Professor Emeritus of Western Michigan University; our own Director of the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program, Dr. Stacey Camp; Dr. Stacy Tchorzynski, Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and Department Natural Resources (DNR) archaeologist; and Dr. Krysta Ryzewski, Associate Professor at Wayne State University. I attended this conference as a volunteer, but had the opportunity to sit and listen to many researchers speak about their ongoing research in the midwest.
Dr. Nassaney gave the introduction and explained that the theme of the 2022 program was Archaeology, Communities, and Civil Rights. He further explained historical archaeology is relevant to the present, especially regarding civil rights issues. The following talks and posters reiterated the importance of historical archaeology in conversations about civil rights.
The first half of the day included two podium presentations from Dr. Ryzewski and Floyd Mansberger. Dr. Ryzewski’s presentation focused on their work in Inkster, Michigan, and was titled “Updates from the Field: The Archaeology of Malcolm X.” The house excavated is where Malcolm X converted to Islam, where ritual bathing and daily prayers were practiced. The house was originally going to be demolished, but due to the work of Aaron Sims, the house is now undergoing a four-phase process that has seen the house added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2022, archaeological investigations that have seen a lot of community engagement, and in the future will involve restoration and the creation of a community center.
Floyd Mansberger, Director of Fever River Research, presented “The Archaeology of the 1908 Springfield Riot.” There were five houses that were found in an area that was not under protection, so Mansberger and his team conducted an archaeological mitigation on these houses. Many artifacts were found, including some burnt items. Some of the artifacts found suggested that a family of color may have been living in one of the houses. Some of these artifacts include items from the Eighth Illinois Regiment, the first all Black and POC regiment. There were also Civil War artifacts associated with the households.
During lunch, Julia DiLaura, a student from Wayne State University, presented her poster titled “Taking the Plunge: Archaeology of a 20th Century Jewish-Owned Bath House and Mikveh in Detroit.” She showcased the artifacts found at the site.
After the poster presentation, two additional speakers presented their research and updates. First was Dr. Laura Ng, Assistant Professor at Grinnell College. In her talk, “Towards Community-Engaged Chinese Diaspora Archaeologies in the Midwest,” she discussed the history of how people and goods moved, along with the issues and racism that contemporary Asian-American communities face. While Dr. Ng has previously worked on the west coast and in China, she shared how transnational and anti-racist frameworks should be used more in midwestern settings and how to implement those frameworks. Some archaeological literature reinforces biased language and stereotypes, and archaeologists need to step in and work toward changing this language and stereotyping. In addition, she spoke on her community-engaged work with findagrave.com, where people can find the location of graves of passed friends and loved ones.
The last podium presentation of the day was given by Sarah Surface-Evans, Senior Archaeologist for SHPO. Her presentation was titled “Asinii-Waakaa’igan (Stone House): The Cornerstone of Sanctuary and Community.” She and her team have been working with the Pelcher family to learn more about how the Pelcher family farmstead played a role in the lives of children who ran away from the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School (MIIBS). Two Peltcher family members perished at MIIBS, leaving the family as one of many who lost their children to the school. Oral history has indicated that the farmstead was a safe haven for children, where hand-me-down clothes were left for children to change into. A joint field school with students from Central Michigan University (CMU) and Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College (SCTC) was held, where units were dug in the areas where the old granary, barn, and cabin once stood. Many different types of artifacts were found, along with faunal remains. An analysis of the faunal remains was conducted, and they found that there were many cattle bones present. Following all of the talks, a break-out discussion was held about participants’ interests.
Needless to say, MHAC presented an incredible learning experience for those present. As a non-midwesterner myself, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to learn more about the ongoing archaeological work in the region.