Painting a more complete picture: ‘Unnamed Figures’ highlights Black presence and absence in early American history

“Bust of a Woman Wearing a Liberty Cap” (artist unidentified) is part of “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North.”

“Bust of a Woman Wearing a Liberty Cap” (artist unidentified) is part of “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/Jurate Veceraite

“A View of Mr. Joshua Winsor’s House,” Rufus Hathaway (1770-1822), oil canvas on frame, is part of “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North” on view at Historic Deerfield May 1 through Aug. 4.

“A View of Mr. Joshua Winsor’s House,” Rufus Hathaway (1770-1822), oil canvas on frame, is part of “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North” on view at Historic Deerfield May 1 through Aug. 4. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/AMERICAN FOLK ART MUSEUM

Cesar Chelor's Cornice Plane, which was made in Wrentham in the mid-to-late 18th century, is part of “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North” on view at Historic Deerfield May 1 through Aug. 4.

Cesar Chelor's Cornice Plane, which was made in Wrentham in the mid-to-late 18th century, is part of “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North” on view at Historic Deerfield May 1 through Aug. 4. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/HISTORIC DEERFIELD

“Woman in Striped Dress and Man with Plaid Bowtie”  (c. 1885, artist unidentified) is part of  “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North” on view May 1 through Aug. 4 at Historic Deerfield.

“Woman in Striped Dress and Man with Plaid Bowtie”  (c. 1885, artist unidentified) is part of  “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North” on view May 1 through Aug. 4 at Historic Deerfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/Burns Archive & Collection

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-18-2024 3:17 PM

In partnership with the American Folk Art Museum, Historic Deerfield is presenting an exhibition on the unexplored histories of Black people in early America.

“Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North” explores Black representation in paintings, needlework, ceramics and other media by challenging people to think about the conventional historical narratives and what aspects of those histories may not be telling the full story. The exhibition will be on view May 1 through Aug. 4.

Amanda Lange, Historic Deerfield’s Curatorial Department director, said “Unnamed Figures” is about telling the “broader view of history” in the Valley and the Northeast and pushing back on the idea that slavery and anti-Black racism was/is just a “southern issue.”

“This exhibition doesn’t have all the answers, but it goes a long way in terms of making you think about how Black people were visualized in the 18th century,” Lange said, emphasizing the absence of Black people is also something that can be analyzed. “What do they [the artworks] tell us about our past and what can we find out about the people who have actually been marginalized.”

“Unnamed Figures” comes to Historic Deerfield from the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, where it was first presented from Nov. 15 through March 24. Historic Deerfield is the second, and only other, location for the exhibition.

“We are thrilled to be hosting this important exhibition,” said Historic Deerfield President John Davis in a press release. “We are grateful to the American Folk Art Museum for entrusting us with ‘Unnamed Figures,’ and we look forward to sharing it with our visitors and providing a glimpse into a previously unexplored facet of visual culture in early New England.”

Lange said several works from Historic Deerfield are included among the 97 items slated to be displayed, including a cornice plane made by Cesar Chelor, a Black craftsman from Wrentham, and an 1818 “bobolition” broadside — written attacks mocking the abolition movement — with a Greenfield imprint on it.

“It’s really trying to look at these objects and see other stories,” Lange said. “People who are historians or academics, they know the story and it’s becoming much more common to be able to interpret the lives of African Americans in New England and Massachusetts, but we still have a long way to go.”

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Exhibiting “Unnamed Figures” follows in the steps of other Historic Deerfield initiatives to share those unexplored stories in recent years. In 2022, the museum and the Witness Stones Project unveiled 19 bronze memorial plaques outside 12 houses to commemorate the enslaved men, women and children whose stories are often untold or buried by the sands of time. By the mid-18th century, enslaved people lived in more than one-third of the houses on Old Main Street.

Three of those witness stones — for Town, Coffee and Onesimus, who were all enslaved by Deerfield merchant Elijah Williams — will be included in “Unnamed Figures” and featured in conjunction with Williams’ doorway from his 1760 home.

Last year, to bring more attention to the region’s Native American history, the museum released a mobile app that guides the public around Historic Deerfield’s main street and provides audio narration of the Pocumtuck history of Deerfield and the region. The museum’s Public Historian Barbara Matthews said at the time it was an opportunity to introduce people to an essential part of Deerfield’s history that is often hidden by colonial settlers at each of the 16 stops.

“Sometimes the built environment, the houses or the streetscape, prevent people from being able to access that presence or history … If you’re just going from building to building, you’re missing something very important,” Matthews explained last year. “We think it’s an opportunity for people to learn about those histories they might not see or be aware of.”

Historic Deerfield opens for the season on Wednesday, May 1. General admission is $20 for adults, $5 for teens aged 13 to 17 and free for children 12 and under. Deerfield and South Deerfield residents also get free admission.

For more information about “Unnamed Figures” and Historic Deerfield, visit Historic-deerfield.org.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.