...RANaway from the subscriber, a mulatto man named Tom...he had on him when he went away a blue broadcloth coat almost new, striped nankeen overalls and vest, a rorum hat almost new, and some other clothes…
- Joseph Taylor, Monmouth County, October 14th, 1796
The canvas-colored cloth mannequins stood bare, aside from the varying shades of brown fabric skins that had been custom made to fit snugly over their heads and limbs. MCHA Director of Collections, Bernadette Rogoff, moved about the room setting out the clothing that had been made by both her and the volunteer MCHA sewing group for each individual mannequin. Each individual person, really, as they have their own names; York, Tom, Ephraim, Clarisse, Hannah, young Elizabeth, and little Will. They all represent a man, woman, or child who had once been enslaved at Marlpit Hall, and seemed to stand waiting for their outfits to bring them to life. Dressing Day had finally come for the subjects of MCHA’s new exhibit, Beneath the Floorboards: Whispers of the Enslaved from Marlpit Hall.
What type of clothing did 18th-century slaves wear? For most of us, general images of drab, ill-fitting clothing come to mind. Along with Bernadette, Associate Curator Joe Zemla delved into the archives, the runaway ads in the newspapers, and the history books to piece together a vivid and historically accurate depiction. The results may surprise you. Not only did they discover bright colors, textures and patterns, but a method emerged that fused both history and psychology to determine who would have been wearing what, and why.
Bernadette, a textile expert and curator for over 35 years, possesses that quintessential leadership quality that comes with the confidence of knowing what she's doing. It allows her to sense and respect ability in others as well, and never fails to produce fantastic results. After illustrating the purpose of the exhibit to the sewing group and "introducing" them to the individuals who once lived there, she was sure enough of their skill to give them fabric and free rein to create outfits for each person. Pat Kennedy, longtime MCHA volunteer, arrived with her contribution to Tom, and set it proudly on the table. This was no ordinary project for Pat - there was a level of connection to it that was transporting. She explained her process:
“When this project started, I thought, ‘This will be easy because, ok, here’s the pattern...but the more I started to work with it, my thoughts went to Tom and who he was. Clothing is such an intimate thing - once you get into what they are wearing, that leads you to what they might be doing. How would he have come by the jacket? It probably would have been professionally tailored for someone who could afford it, and then came down to Tom second or third-hand. I made the patches more awkward and utilitarian because, while it was probably professionally made, I doubt it was professionally repaired, though the attempt would have been careful. And then I thought, ‘What was it like to wear this garment on a daily basis, how did it wear, and how often was it cleaned?’ I imagine that Tom, being in a position in the house to wear this jacket, may have taken some pride in it, so I was careful not to overdo the tattiness and aging of it. And then there were the buttons - the jacket has a lot of buttons, and I didn’t have enough. But that was ok, because I figured he probably would have lost one along the way anyway. They arrived in a shiny pewter, but that wasn’t going to work for a third-hand coat. So I put them in a bag of sand and manipulated them until the shine wore away, and then went over them with some blacking to give the scratches an aged look…”
The attention to detail in the making of the garments was extraordinary, from the scuffs on Tom’s shoes to the smell of household oil on Ephraim’s well-worn, stain-layered work apron. As the ladies began arriving with their own contributions, the level of excitement in the room became palpable. Something special was happening. The mannequins began taking on life and personality. At any given time, there were expressions of pride and contemplation to be found in the room. Little five-year old Will was there in the middle of it all, as though he were introspectively taking everything in. Nine-year old Elizabeth, who had been born into slavery in Marlpit in 1806, stood in the back bedroom in her simple cotton child’s shift and striped skirt. Next to her is the very dressing table she may have dusted and polished as part of her household duties.
Pati Githens, former MCHA Education Director and coordinator of the sewing group, explained the collective sentiment. “Everyone was unanimously supportive of this project.” she said. ”They knew this was a story that needed to be told, and needed to be done well. This is a reminder that these people were living and breathing here; they were invisible then, but they were here. And we needed to bring them to life again so that they could be seen, this time in a new light. This has been an incredible experience. This is just the start. It is in no way the ending.”
In the back kitchen, Hannah stood poised over the hearth as she likely did every day of her life at Marlpit. She was missing one all-important detail. African women traditionally wore skillfully-tied head wraps to protect their heads from the sun, dirt and lice. The practice came overseas with them, and remains a symbolic bond between African American women and their ancestors. Bernadette asked Dr. Linda Caldwell Epps of the Living and Breathing project’s advisory committee to do the honor of tying Hannah’s head wrap. They stood back to admire her, and wonder who she truly was.
“People need to understand that the institution of slavery was important not only to the South, but the North as well, and particularly New Jersey,” said Dr. Epps. “This state was all bound up in slavery. I don’t speak anywhere where at least one or more people do not understand that slavery was not only in New Jersey, but a very active part of New Jersey’s wealth. That’s why I’m so glad you are doing this project. I’m hoping it quells some of these misconceptions.”
In the midst of it all, a very special delivery arrived at the door. Michelle and Owen Lewis entered bearing a large, colorful quilt. It was placed on the bed in the back bedroom as young Elizabeth looked on. Michelle had been referred by the dynamic Gilda Rogers, Executive Director of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation, and was asked to design a quilt to embody the spirit of the exhibit. Michelle said, “They asked me because they wanted an African American woman to make the quilt. I listened to Bernadette and Joe during the tour, and Bernadette told me ‘Do whatever speaks to you,’ so I tried to represent what I saw.” Without prior knowledge or collaboration, Michelle created a piece that reflected the same colors Bernadette had later chosen for the museum panels: blue white, and yellow. Blue and white for the ceramic shards discovered beneath the floorboards by Joe, and yellow for the corn cobs that were found alongside them. Michelle went a step further and incorporated a brown border to symbolize the floorboards, because that was the start of it all. It was clearly kismet, and spells good luck for this exhibit.
Opening October 23rd, 2021