ITP/IE Scholar-in-Residence Report: 2003-2004

The Houston Endowment
Martha Norkunas, PI

Tony Cherian, the first IE/ITP scholar-in-residence has been working diligently at Varner Hogg State Historic Site. At the end of August he will complete his 13 month tenure at the site. We believe he has made a fundamental change in the way that history is and will be told there. He has reoriented the site so that African American history is not an "add-on" or back yard tour, but is a fundamental part of the interpretation. He is also working on changing the interpretation of the site so that it is seen through the eyes of the women who have shaped it, from Rachel Patton, the enslaved woman who lived as the common law wife of the plantation owner, to Ima Hogg to Sarah Ford, a woman who recorded her experiences as a slave at the site in a 1937 WPA Narrative..

Tony has assisted with the development of the master plans at both Varner Hogg and Levi Jordan. It is highly unusual for outsiders to Texas Parks and Wildlife to be a part of these processes. In his role as the scholar-in-residence, Tony has a unique opportunity to impact the final interpretive plans, as he is able to engage in community outreach and to bring community concerns back to the discussion in a way that a TPWD employee could not. And he has in fact done a great deal of community outreach, particularly to African Americans in the area.

Tony has rewritten the major brochure describing the site, for the first time highlighting Sarah Ford's role as a site historian. He has also engaged in a series of oral history interviews (15 have been completed to date), most with African Americans in the area, and organized the extant oral history collections. Tony has also organized all archival materials at the site, at TPWD and in area archival collections into a database so that site staff and future researchers will be more able to conduct the kind of detailed research needed to keep interpretation fresh. Tony has also compiled a bibliography for site staff and researchers. Tony is now working on a film which will tell the "invisible" story of the site. This includes the kind of history not portrayed through artifacts assembled in the decorative arts collection there, such as African American history, labor at the site, land use, and gender. In addition to the film, Tony will produce a DVD organized into sections for educators. School groups visiting the site will view the DVD either before or after their tour. Tony will also work in cooperation with area teachers to create curriculum materials for school children centering on the new interpretations.

Another unusual project is the Ike Rhodes exhibit. Rhodes was the long-time cook at the site when Ima Hogg was developing it. Tony and site supervisor Kandy Taylor Hille invited Mr. Rhodes's family to assist in the development of the exhibit, celebrating the contributions of Mr. Rhodes. This represents an entirely new way of doing business with local people.

A formal opening of the film and related project activities will be scheduled in late summer or early fall, and will include representatives from the Houston Endowment.

As I stated in the original proposal, the Houston Endowment's support is creating a very new way of looking at and talking about the past at Texas historic sites. Tony's impact at Varner Hogg will be felt for many years. His work will change the way children understand the story at the site, particularly as it relates to African American history and women's history.

Support from the Houston Endowment has also had unexpected ripple effects. ITP students at the Sauer Beckmann Historic Site in Stonewall, Texas have been producing outstanding work on African Americans, Mexican Americans and women in the Hill Country, thanks in part to the sense of collaboration created by the linking of the projects. Inspired by stories of our work, a colleague donated the use of a small apartment to house all film editing equipment and to serve as an editing studio for students working on the project.

We are looking forward to advertising and selecting the next scholar-in-residence. There is a talented group of potential candidates, who have proven themselves on the smaller projects. We have very high expectations for the work one of them can produce in a year at another site.