Archaeology is rooted in racism and colonialism, say scientists. Here’s how we rewrite ‘everyone’s history’
Niagara Falls has long been a tourist destination, with its rushing rapids and breathtaking waterfalls. For centuries people have been drawn to the natural spectacle of water cascading to the river below. But of the millions of tourists that pass through the area each year, it’s likely few are aware of its importance to Black history.
It’s a cloudy day in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Bare trees signal the arrival of fall, and people walk along the winding paths as chillier temperatures roll in. Saladin Allah, director of community engagement at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, sits on a park bench beside Anthony Morgan, host of Secret Agents of the Underground Railroad, a documentary from The Nature of Things.
“This is a beautiful location,” Morgan says in the documentary.
“Yeah, well, to the average person, it’s just a park, right?” Allah says. “To us, it’s hallowed ground.”
The pair are sitting where the historic Cataract House, a hotel built in 1825, once stood in all its opulent elegance, hosting the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and even the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and King George V.
But it’s what happened in the hallways and the kitchen that made the hotel a lifeline for thousands of enslaved Black people seeking freedom.
“The Cataract House was one of the most important destinations, or locations, in terms of Underground Railroad activity,” Allah says. “It was one of the most active locations in terms of providing assistance for people who were seeking freedom.”
The hotel burned down in 1945 and took with it its history. In its place sits Heritage Park.
However, in 2017, through a community archaeology project led by the University at Buffalo’s department of anthropology, researchers uncovered part of the hotel’s foundations — remnants of this important historical landmark.
Allah, an educator, says archaeology is rooted in racism. “I think people don’t oftentimes understand that when you look at [archaeology] within the context of how it was … originated by Europeans, that these were not scientists or archaeologists,” he tells the CBC. “These were usually white racist hobbyists.”
He believes the Cataract House community project is part of an important shift in how archaeology is including Black and brown people.
“To me, just being in a place and being present and being able to take these artifacts and the stories — to be the one who [is] writing the actual narrative and a story that’s connected to these artifacts — are vitally important because, for generations, we’ve never been in a position to be able to do that,” he says.
For him, it’s also personal.
His third great-grandfather was Josiah Henson, who is believed to have been the inspiration for the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“If I could stand in the trenches and feel and just touch some of the vestiges of the Cataract House hotel, I think many things would come full circle for me,” Allah says in the documentary. “Not only being a part of history, but being a caretaker and an ambassador of that history — again, telling our story from our perspective.”
Changing the narrative
Throughout history, people of colour have been judged to be inferior to white people, often under the guise of science.
Flinders Petrie, the so-called “father of archaeology,” believed in eugenics, the false notion that the human race could be enhanced through selective breeding, including forced sterilization.
Douglas Perrelli, director of the University at Buffalo’s archaeological survey, acknowledged this one-sided view.
“The foundations of archaeology are very much racist foundations of misconceptions about things like, you know, the intellectual capacity of Black people or Native Americans,” he says. “And so what began as rich white guys travelling around the world and collecting things to fill their cabinets of curiosity, today has become a rich science with a very profound cultural sensitivity.”
And there’s heightened awareness about the role community archaeology can play in uncovering the past and involving the people to which this history means the most.
In the 2020 paper “The Future is Now: Archaeology and the Eradication of Anti-Blackness,” the authors reflect on initiatives that empower communities, the community archaeology work of the African diaspora, and the need to decolonize archaeology.
A similar piece, “Introduction: Current Directions in Community Archaeology of the African Diaspora,” examines the role community archaeology can play in marginalized communities. There has also been an increase in the number of Black archaeologists — something they hope will change the lens through which history and artifacts are seen.
‘It’s everyone’s history’
James Ponzo, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, says it’s important to look at history as a way of healing.
“For too long, things like the Underground Railroad, the story of chattel slavery, has been taught as specifically Black history,” he says. “The truth is it’s everyone’s history. So I think it’s very important that now we start to, kind of, pull back the curtains and deal with these difficult periods in history because I feel like that’s the only way that we’re truly going to heal and actually move forward.”
Meanwhile, Secret Agents of the Underground Railroad follows the archaeologists as they conduct a second dig at the site of the Cataract House. Morgan joins in the excitement when the team finds the location of the hotel’s kitchen: a place where the Black resistance cell operated from — a place that held so much hope for enslaved Black people seeking freedom and dignity.
An emotional Allah stands in the excavated trench, on a wall that would have separated the hotel’s ornate dining room from the kitchen, where many of those hopeful slaves passed through.
He wipes his eyes.
“It’s different to tell these stories than to literally be in the space,” he says.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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