North Carolina Lives and Legacies Project Overview
The purpose of the North Carolina Lives and Legacies: Bennett Place Project is to broaden the site’s interpretation to tell more inclusive stories about the land itself and the people who lived there, from the era of Indigenous peoples to the present. Project deliverables include datasets and visualizations based on current scholarship and critical digital humanities and heritage studies methods. By examining Bennett Place within a larger context of social and geographic networks, the project aims to create new historical knowledge about North Carolina’s Piedmont region and beyond.
Started during the 2022-2023 academic year in an Information Science + Studies lab led by Robert Buerglener, North Carolina Lives and Legacies began with the goal of creating a more inclusive interpretation of Bennett Place, a state-run historic site in Durham, NC. The ongoing goal of the project has been to tell new stories about the site based on current historical scholarship and original research, using the methods of critical digital humanities and heritage studies.
North Carolina Lives and Legacies: Bennett Place Project
Most of history told about Bennett Place has focused on peace negotiations that resulted in a Confederate surrender that took place there in 1865 and a monument to Unity dedicated in 1923. Our approach has been to augment this history by expanding the time period and the range of subjects studied. This wider range of topics includes the ecological history of the land, the diverse people who’ve lived there, and the site’s place in larger national and international networks, from the era of Native Americans to the present.
Bennett Place Summer 2023 Project
Jointly sponsored by Duke’s Information Sciences+ Studies program, the Duke Library, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, the Bennett Place Summer 2023 Project ran from May 17 to June 30, 2023. Mentored by Robert Buerglener and Carson Holloway, Duke students worked as a team to generate new ideas for analyzing the meaning and interpretation of Bennett Place. Paying particular attention to the longer history of the site and a larger geographic scale—including Native American trade routes, colonial-era highways, and the North Carolina Railroad—we used various historical sources to begin reconstructing the lives of the neighborhood of Bennett Place, centering on the year 1850.
Over the course of six weeks, student researchers created digital visualizations and began a prototype portable pop-up exhibit. These outputs reflect one of our primary project goals of presenting our findings in innovative and accessible ways.
Work on the Bennett Place Project Continues . . .
The work done so far on the Bennett Place Project confirms the rich potential for continuing this research and, over time, increasing the geographic scope and range of sources consulted. All the aspects of work on North Carolina Lives and Legacies: Bennett Place Project will continue in the coming year. Along with transcribing James Bennett’s account book, we will eventually digitize other items in the James Bennett Papers, thus creating a fully queryable dataset. As part of the larger neighborhood context, we also plan to analyze more extensively data from the US Decennial Population Census, the Decennial Agricultural Census, the US Slave Schedules, and other sources.
We also plan to continue to build relationships with community stakeholders. These include people who have previously been underrepresented in the history of Bennett Place, including African Americans and Native Americans, with the goal of giving voice to hidden or untold stories.
The Story of Bennett Place as Historic Site
Bennett Place: An Unlikely Memorial
From the 1840s to the 1870s, Bennett Place was the farm of James and Nancy Bennett and their family. A white yeoman farmer of middling prosperity at best, the Bennetts would most likely be little remembered today if not for the Civil War surrender that took place by chance at their small wooden house in 1865. This surrender effectively ended the Civil War. In commemoration of this event, the farm was made a historic site in the 1920s, but the donation and dedication were not without controversy. For more, see Story
Sources on the Bennett Place include original 19th century documents and materials from the Bennett
family held in the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. These are supplemented by related materials including public records, newspapers, periodicals, maps, census records. A fairly extensive secondary literature primarily focuses on the end of the Civil War in North Carolina and the surrender parlays held in the Bennett house.
More on Sources.
In the Information Science + Studies student research lab during the 2022-2023 academic year, a group of graduate and undergraduate students built the framework for what has developed into the Bennett Place Project. They investigated how other historic sites across the US and around the world are currently telling the stories of people previously underrepresented in historic sites, like enslaved people and Native Americans. Based on these benchmarks, students analyzed local historic sites, including Bennett Place, for the content and modes of presentation they used.
With this information in mind, students began thinking about ways to reach new audiences and include other topics related to the site. As a first step toward audience analysis, students tested a matrix for analyzing visitor groups and then created prototype web pages and social media. At the same time they were creating digital strategies, students researched the Bennett farm and some of their neighbors as a start to the project of reconstructing the social networks of the neighborhood in the nineteenth century. Students also created content for an updated walking tour intended for use on phones or other hand-held devices. Continuing the digital focus, students explored different options for digitizing primary documents related to Bennett Place, especially James Bennett’s account book.
As a concentrated research opportunity, the Bennett Place Project Summer 2023 moved us closer to our goal of presenting a more inclusive interpretive framework that allows for environmental change and a more representative picture of the many different people involved in transforming Bennett Place from forest to agriculture. Over the course of six weeks, student researchers created digital visualizations and began a prototype portable pop-up exhibit. These outputs reflect one of our primary project goals of presenting our findings in innovative and accessible ways.
Robert Buerglener, PhD, Information Science + Studies Program, Duke University: https://scholars.duke.edu/person/robert.buerglener
Carson Holloway, Duke University Libraries: https://directory.library.duke.edu/staff/carson.holloway