Africatown, Alabama

The Rubric | Engaging Descendants in the Interpretation of Africatown’s Historic Sites

Renee Kemp-Rotan

Public Space

Since the 2019 “discovery” of the Clotilda1Learn more about the slave ship Clotilda and the Africatown settlement and community. and the international attention that has followed, many descendants of Africatown’s founders have become concerned with how their story will be told. The tourism industry seems focused on large investments at the Clotilda discovery site, while the community raises concerns about decades of government neglect of Africatown itself. They want tourists who come to see the boat to also see Africatown—and yet the Africatown picture is not so pretty. How does a descendant community get everyone on board to discuss a more comprehensive economic development plan that includes equitable strategies for interpretation and investment in Africatown and its related historic sites?

In February 2018, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund partnered with James Madison’s Montpelier to convene the inaugural National Summit on Teaching Slavery. The organizers wrote of the event as “an important step towards creating a rubric for [a] more honest and equitable version of history for future generations…” During this interdisciplinary workshop, educators, curators, scholars, activists, museum and historic site practitioners, and descendants deliberated on ideas and practices for teaching slavery in a more engaging and inclusive manner that incorporates the stories and experiences of enslaved people through the voices of their descendants.

The rubric generated by this workshop2Learn more about the workshop. serves as an assessment and development process tool that measures the commitment of institutions to tell the truth about slavery. It grades the research and curatorial practices of an institution’s approach to slavery according to five criteria:

  • sources and methods that institutions use in performing research about slavery,
  • transparency and accountability of institutions to “own up to mistakes or omissions from the past and to strive for transparency and truth telling” about slavery,
  • multi-vocality to uplift the voices and perspectives of marginalized people, especially descendants of enslaved people, and the former slaveholding families,
  • collaboration in building community with descendants around common goals and visions, and
  • accessibility, by giving access to documents and artifacts to descendants and the general public.

The Rating
The rubric rates all curatorial actions about slavery interpretation as exemplary, proficient, developing, ambivalent, or unsatisfactory.

Serious planning of any interpretive site/s of this magnitude will require at least two years of dedicated study, workshops, face-to-face rigor that asks and debates the hard questions about American slavery in Mobile, Alabama, from both sides of the coin. The viewpoints of both the descendants of former enslaved and the descendants of former slaveholders must be investigated. No one must be allowed to remain silent. Anything less is not multi-vocality.3 Source: Transcript of notes from a phone interview with the author. —Michael Blakey, forensic anthropologist, co-author, Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites: A Rubric of Best Practices Established by the National Summit on Teaching Slavery

According to the report, engagement occurs when “descendants are increasingly inside the interpretive organizations, instead of outside.” Otherwise, their views may be excluded from dominant historical narratives, and institutions will define criteria for engagement and interpretation, but may not follow them. Notably, the rubric defines museum performance as unsatisfactory when a curatorial institution does not acknowledge former or ongoing mistakes or omissions in telling the story of slavery.

To ensure an equitable outcome for all involved, the editors of this report have urged Africatown descendants and community leaders to contact both the National Trust and report co-author Dr. Michael Blakey for assistance in organizing interpretive workshops around the rubric’s measurements for progress in interpreting slavery, which include: 

  • multidimensional representations, 
  • descendent community engagement and collaboration, 
  • institutional commitment, 
  • tools/interpretive techniques,
  • inclusive and equitable narratives, and 
  • audience. 

An event such as this would represent the first time that the rubric’s best practices would be applied in a real-world setting. Africatown stakeholders must tear a page out of this book and use the process as a clear roadmap for descendant engagement and storytelling from as many authentic viewpoints as possible.

May our heartfelt passions and intellectual curiosities lead us all to a heightened sense of history with respect for cultural sensitivity, futures literacy, and the economic commitments needed to fully restore Africatown’s spirit of place and destiny. —Clotilda Descendants Association


Renee Kemp-Rotan

(Associate AIA/NOMA) is an urban designer, master planner, and the CEO of studiorotan, a cultural heritage/civic design firm. She is the first African American woman to graduate from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. She attended London’s Architectural Association and graduated from Columbia University with a master’s in urban and regional planning. Kemp-Rotan is currently the professional competition advisor for The Africatown International Design Idea Competition. Read more

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.