When I hear the word "research," I usually think of huge libraries and dusty archives. That's where I spent the most time during my academic career. Now, however, I'm learning that there are all kinds of research opportunities, and some of them involve wonderful holidays. I'll be setting out on one of those soon.
In working with the Laura Towne letters and diaries, I discovered that the abbreviated print versions do not include the answers to some crucial questions. The original documents do exist, but they have been removed from circulation. So where do I go? Well, I've found that a research collection in Beaufort, SC has a microfilm of the original documents. Reading microfilm is not one of my favorite occupations, but in this case it's going to be necessary if I want to know what was really going on in 1862 and 1863.
Fortunately, Beaufort has much to recommend it, not the least of which is a chance to do another type of research — soaking up the scenery and atmosphere of the Low Country. As often as possible, I intend to be out of that library and exploring the island where Laura lived. The house she bought and the school she founded still exist. I want to see where she lived — how much of the water she could see from her front porch, where the sun rose and set in relation to the house, what kinds of wild birds and vegetation made up her surroundings. I want to smell the pluff mud and listen to the water. I want to meet the descendants of her students and taste some Low Country cooking.
The Penn Center, founded by Laura, still operates, and their York W. Bailey Museum contains a permanent exhibit, "Education for Freedom: the Penn School Experiment 1862—". It showcases some of the oldest professional photographs of African American people, the original 1863 school bell, and artifacts related to Sea Island and African American history and culture. The photographs and artifacts housed there offer just a glimpse into Laura's world, but it will be enough to make me more confident that the descriptions in my book accurately reflect that world.
I'll be sharing my discoveries when I return to my office keyboard. But while I'm preparing to enjoy and exploit all that South Carolina has to offer, I hope you will come back here often to meet the wonderful volunteers who will keep this blog rolling.
They will be taking over starting on Thursday. Please make them feel welcome by commenting and asking questions. They are here to help.