Recovering Lost Heritage: From Gentrification in Harlem to Civil War in Liberia

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Matthew Reilly was recently awarded a grant through the National Geographic Society to support his research in Liberia, where he is completing unprecedented excavations that bring to light little-known nuances of settler-native relations. We had the chance to sit down with Professor Reilly and learn more about his work in Liberia and in Harlem with CCNY students.


Tell us more about how your collaborative project in Liberia came about.

The project stemmed from my original research on the Caribbean island of Barbados about a group referred to as poor whites or the Redlegs of Barbados, who were the first European indentured servants and small farmers who lived kind of on the margins of sugar plantations once the English got more involved in the transatlantic slave trade. During the course of my research, I met a historian, Dr. Caree Banton, currently at the University of Arkansas, who did her research on one ship of Barbadians who sailed for Liberia in 1865 one generation after slavery officially ended in Barbados. This group was a bit of an anomaly. Most of the settlers to Liberia were either formerly enslaved people who came from the American South or were free people of color from the American North. The Barbadians would arrive several decades after the initial settlers of the 1820s and settle the village of Crozierville in 1865. Crozierville is named after one of the members in the American Colonization Society who provided some of the funding to sponsor this trip. Dr. Benton mentioned that this community was still there, and we decided that this could be a potential project to pursue archaeologically in terms of thinking about heritage in post-conflict Liberia.

I have now taken two initial trips and built some collaborative efforts with local institutions and individuals. This funding through National Geographic will allow me to work with official collaborators and students who are being funded to make this trip to Liberia  and to fund initiatives at the National Museum of Liberia and build partnerships with universities. One of our project collaborators is the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Cuttington University, Dr. Patrick Burrowes, which brings up another important point about this being really a collaborative effort where we're going to have specialists in history, archaeology, and local Liberian history and heritage both internationally and locally to kind of build something that's truly interdisciplinary from the very beginning.

It sounds like your work could be groundbreaking.

Yes! There hasn't been any official archaeology in the country of Liberia since well before the Civil War and the 1980 coup. We’re almost starting from scratch. Part of the idea is to help the National Museum build their collections and get funds to get back on their feet after a truly devastating civil war.  It’s really exciting and also kind of nerve-wracking. You have your work cut out for yourself when you're building from scratch, but the good thing is there are so many passionate and dedicated people in Liberia that I'm able to work with. Rather than American academics coming in to help or determine what Liberian heritage should look like, this is really a collaborative effort where we're all working together towards common goals that are established in conversation with one another.

What is the relationship between settlers from Barbados and Liberia, and how will your study discover more about that relationship?

It's really complicated,  partially because most of Liberia’s historical record is written by either foreigners who are visiting Liberia or coming from  a settler background - people that came from the United States or places like Barbados in the 19th century to colonize Liberia and establish it as an independent nation, which happened in 1847.  These accounts frame Liberian history as a conflict between the settlers and native Liberians, leading up to the coup in 1980 and eventually the Civil War in 1989.

But local historians and anthropologists are starting to unpack the fact that that separation of settler and native isn't as straightforward or as well-defined as previously believed. We hope to use archaeology to uncover material evidence for a more complex understanding of settler-native relationships. The archaeological record - little things like ceramics, glass bottles, tobacco pipes, or seeds - can tell us a lot about how settlers were living their daily lives and interacting with native Liberians.  For example, were Barbadian settlers consuming locally made ceramics and pots to cook in, adopting local recipes that will then make their way into the kitchens of settler homes? Revealing such interactions will help to break down some boundaries so we can add more complex dimensions to Liberian heritage, beyond the settler-native divide. We think that will be a powerful tool in thinking about heritage in a post-conflict situation.

What were your expectations going into this project, and what are your desired outcomes?

One of the goals is really just some basic documentation. While there have been photographers who went throughout different settler communities in the 1970s and 1980s, not much has been done to systematically understand the remains of this architecture since the civil war. Our work is unique because it is getting in at the ground level doing this basic documentation work that has not been done. A lot of these homes that were built by settler families in different states of ruin due to either the passage of time and natural decay or through destruction during the civil war. We'll be using drone technology to film some of these actual communities to actually show what houses look like now in terms of their state of decay or refurbishment, just to get a sense of where things stand.

These are very important sites, not just for Liberians, but for the broader history of the Back-to-Africa movement. While neighboring Ghana has a lively heritage tourism industry, tourism is in its infancy in Liberia. Perhaps by highlighting some of the important architecture that we find, this can be used as a marketing device to attract visitors to Liberia to see  an alternative history to what you might see at forts for the slave trade in places like Ghana.

So, the hope is that more people will go not just for traditional tourism but to learn more about Liberia’s heritage and history?

Absolutely.  It's something that needs to be decided internally within government agencies and by local communities in Liberia. It’s not something that I can comment on directly, but hopefully, the evidence that we find archaeologically can serve to help discussions about how to build a sustainable and locally-defined heritage base that can lead to tourism marketed towards foreign and Liberian visitors. Heritage sites can help bring foreign visitors and foreign capital, but this needs to be done carefully to ensure sustainability and input from the community members most affected.

What do you hope to bring back to the Colin Powell School and to the broader City College community?

One thing I can do is get students involved in my research. Last summer, I brought five City College students to Barbados to undertake excavations at a former sugar plantation. Based on my connections there, students had an already-existing infrastructure where we can engage with the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, Barbadian students, and other local collaborators. What makes this work particularly exciting is that so many of our students are coming from Caribbean backgrounds, but many haven't directly connected to that side of their past. This is, therefore, a great opportunity for Colin Powell students to physically engage with the landscape of the Caribbean, to learn more about its history, and to connect to its current situation economically, socially, and politically.

I can also teach topics that directly relate to students and their history and heritage. Last spring I taught a class called the Archaeology of Race and Slavery where we used the debates about monuments around the country to springboard into conversations about how the past is represented in the present. I think for a lot of students who may not have been introduced to this history, it was a way for them to think more critically about their own family history and the landscape around them. While we may think of Barbados and New York as being totally separate, in terms of geography, history, or otherwise, there are so many tangible links between these places that should be acknowledged. Harlem is directly part of that history and can continue to be part of that heritage as we move forward.

I also hope to build a project here in New York City to involve students in, as did my predecessor Professor Diane Wall, who recently retired. To put it mildly, I have really big shoes to fill. Professor Wall is a huge figure in historical archeology. For years she was involved in excavations just down the road at Seneca Village, in what is now Central Park. Seneca Village had been a predominantly African-American middle-class community whose residents were eventually evicted as a result of eminent domain when the city was building Central Park. For years, students were involved in excavations here in the city.

I know a lot of individuals here who are distant settlers from these neighboring islands, so this is very interesting work.

That's what is most exciting for me. Prior to being here at City College, I did my Ph.D. work at Syracuse University and held a postdoc at Brown University. While these experiences were excellent in terms of their support and my intellectual growth, I'm now particularly excited to be working with such a diverse group of students in ways that you don't usually get at other institutions around this country. Colin Powell School and City College are special, unique places.

What additional projects would you like to complete at the Colin Powell School in the coming years?

I would like to contribute to how Harlem sees itself in terms of its heritage and identity in the face of gentrification. In the fall I teach an introductory class in archaeology, which typically has between 80 and 100 students. Last semester, I had students work in groups of 2 to go out to preassigned areas of Central Harlem and take pictures of every single building. What this means is that after this course is taught multiple years in a row, we're soon going to have a database of every building in Central Harlem that can provide a visual record of landscape change. We know that Harlem is undergoing extensive change politically, socially, and materially, and one might be able to see episodes of gentrification happening in real time. Perhaps we're seeing decay in other areas of the city. And we can actually see change, which is what we want to do as archaeologists. So it's part of archaeological methods and interpretation, but the goal is also to be part of ongoing conversations about how Harlem's heritage and history are locally remembered and promoted. We can also help identify sites that are of heritage significance for community members, which can protect those sites from development.

I've been in New York for six years now and have seen the changes in Harlem since I got here, so this is very interesting work.

116th Street has changed dramatically in the last few years, and it’s possible that the next area where a similar process could unfold is 135th Street. Shawn Rickenbacker, in the School of Architecture, is actively working these issues of change and urban development in a project called 135th Street River 2 River. I think the project that we're beginning here can complement that project and work in concert with it to think critically not just about the present and future of 135th Street, but it's past as well, and how the past will continue to play a role in Harlem's future in years to come.

In my introductory class, I ask my student to show much time they spend in the surrounding Harlem community. Most commute in for classes and leave shortly thereafter. While this is certainly understandable, this project is an opportunity for our students to see a side of Harlem that they may not have already seen; to engage with local businesses, to try restaurants that they wouldn't normally have an opportunity to try, to become more active and physically present in the community around us.

Thank you for your time and for all the work you are doing in Harlem and around the world.