Excavating Middletown’s Past at Beman Triangle
When you buy your bacon-egg-and-cheese from Neon Deli or pass by Vine Street on your way to the gym, you may be unaware that just below your feet are the foundations of a community predating much of the University’s campus. Now, through an upcoming archeological project conducted by the University, students will begin to unearth the origins of the Middletown community.
The Beman Triangle
The dig will focus on the lost stories of the community of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church that has been in Middletown since 1823.
“Most students don’t know that this community existed and that there is a connection to Wesleyan,” said Miriam Manda ’12, the TA for the archaeology class “Middletown Materials”. “If people knew about it, this would spark more interest and support for this important piece of history.”
Church membership strengthened the black community during the difficult post-Civil War years. In accordance with the church’s goals, Leverett Beman, a shoemaker from a family of strong abolitionists and black rights activists, made plans in 1847 to develop a neighborhood in this area where blacks could own property, hold stable jobs, and live in a safe, tight-knit community.
“Beman’s neighborhood was organized and coalesced into a relatively stable community within 40 years,” states “Experiment in Community,” a 2002 research report primarily written by Elizabeth A. Warner, a Middletown historian. “Residents worked for low wages, but they saved their money, paid off their mortgages, raised families, and put down roots in the neighborhood.”
The Beman Triangle, located between Cross, Knowles, and Vine Streets, consists of 18 houses built between 1840 and 1959. The community lasted until the late 1920s, when more and more jobs began to disappear at the onset of the Great Depression. Outside investors took over, and many Swedish and Italian immigrants moved into the area.
“That it endured against all odds for almost 80 years is a testament to Beman’s vision and faith,” Warner said.
To draw attention to the relevancy of this dig and to the theme of collaborative archeology, the University hosted a symposium, “Digging Together; Community Archaeology: Practice and Potential,” on Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Cross Street AME Zion Church. The symposium was organized to shed light on an emerging connection between Middletown, the AME Zion Church community, and Wesleyan University.
The symposium involved professors from the Archeology Department, Middletown citizens, Pastor Moses Harvill and AME church members, the Middlesex Historical Society, and University students. In the spirit of community archeology, all were asked to give their input and raise questions about how the project will be conducted. The hope of collaborative archeology and the Beman Site, is that all invested parties, whether they be academics, locals, or merely interested individuals, have a say in the conduct and process of the dig.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Archeology Professor Sarah Katharine Croucher, is at the forefront of the new project and was central to the creation of the symposium.
“It’s a way to open up a conversation about what community archeology is about so that when we start the research, authority is shared between wider community stakeholders, my students, and myself,” Croucher said.
Though it focused on the current project, the symposium also hosted important speakers in the field of archeology to provide a wider range of information. The symposium explored the importance of working collaboratively on archaeology projects to serve community interests rather than separating academics and locals.
Cheryl LaRoche of the University of Maryland discussed the importance of public involvement and the responsibility a community has to its own histories, thereby placing the Beman project in a national context.
“Most of our resources are buried in the ground,” LaRoche said. “If we do not remember these small communities, we are destroying a huge history.”
Stephan Silliman of the University of Massachusetts, Boston added that when encouraging a collaborative process, it is important to involve as many people as possible.
“Archaeology is inherently collaborative,” Silliman said. “Everyone brings in unique ideas, different skills, and everyone is part of different communities. The goal is to find out how to integrate this.”
Whitney Battle-Baptiste, from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst discussed the importance of understanding varying ideas of community when involving oneself in collaborative archaeology.
“I learned to back up a little bit and let the people I was working with tell stories,” Battle-Baptiste said. “I had to let them know I wasn’t just going to take their information and walk away.”
At the end of the talks, the entire room discussed immediate plans for the project in Middletown in a joint conversation among panelists, archeology students, church members, Middletown citizens, Wesleyan students, faculty, and others. Croucher pointed out that dialogue and collaboration is what makes this type of archeological project so special.
“The questions that could be asked could open up really exciting angles in themselves,” Croucher said. “That’s why community archeology is important. You realize that, as an academic, you don’t necessarily have all the answers.”
This Saturday’s symposium was a continuation of archeology’s long history at the University and in the greater Middletown community. In 1976, students excavated the Hall Site on Main Street and the Page Site on Union Street in Middletown. Croucher emphasized the significance of these discoveries, as well as the privilege of still being able to use artifacts that were found in the ’70s.
“I teach with materials that were excavated before I was even born,” Croucher said.
These materials from past sites formed the original basis of Wesleyan’s “Middletown Materials” class, which will now be at the forefront of the Beman Triangle excavations. These students fittingly conduct their work in a lab located in the basement of the old AME Zion Church.
The collaborative archeological process is a theme that the Archeology Department aims to utilize. It is an idea present in other digs as well; Manda worked on a site in New Philadelphia, Ill., a project with a similar relationship to black history and the cooperative process as the Beman Site excavation.
“There are very few sites in the U.S. where blacks owned their own property and were able to sustain themselves during this time,” Manda said. “Professor Croucher is working toward making this [excavation] a community project, too, and working with the current pastor and church members.”
Creating a collaborative space for archeology involves many logistical factors—from questions on how to get community youth involved, to how to get the site protected and recognized by the state. The process has taken years, but the “Middletown Materials” class will finally start digging at the Beman site by the second and weekend in April.
The students will be unearthing, recording, and collecting older artifacts—as well as washing, categorizing, and dating them—using trowels, shovels, and screens to extract material. The students will help to analyze the materials in the post-excavation phase.
“We also do an old-school drawing with pencils to map in all our plans,” Croucher said. “A good archaeologist learns how to interpret soil and gets a feel for where they’re working. It is very tactile and sensory.”
Archaeology is exciting, according to Croucher, because it can be open ended and even surprising.
“You never know what you’re going to find until you’ve found it,” Croucher said. “You can learn what people were using, how they were using it, whether they had matching tableware or funny knickknacks, and so on.”
Manda agreed, stressing the relationships that are built through archaeology and the learning experience that emerges from these connections.
“You’re in the field from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and it’s blistering heat or pouring rain, and you’re in a little confined space with someone,” Manda said. “You’re having fun and getting to know people. Everyone brings in different interests, and you are also figuring out your own interests.”
Next year is, in fact, the 180th anniversary of the AME Zion Church; Croucher hopes to connect this event with the current research. There are hopes to have the area placed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as to present the findings to the public.
“We could display some of the materials in 160 Cross, where the old church was, since it’s on the site and has this ongoing tie with the community,” Croucher said.
The group and the class could potentially place findings in Olin, the Middlesex Historical Society, or the church’s new location near Long Lane Farm. This display would be another way of involving more students in archaeology.
“I think a lot of people don’t know what you can do with archaeology,” Manda said. “It’s not just about ‘dinosaur bones,’ and I think it’s important to bring light to the Archaeology Department within the context of Wesleyan, because it’s a really cool, hands-on way to look at history.”
Croucher summed up the importance of such a project and archaeology as a process of recovering history in her own way:
“Archaeology is real, immediate,” Croucher said. “It’s about being in that place and thinking about what that means. I think that has a whole different immediacy than just being told about historical narrative.”