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(Re)Living Black Histories with Niya Bates

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by Channing Mathews, PhD

This month I have the honor of introducing our newest contributor to Vinegar Hill Magazine, the soon-to-be Dr. Niya Bates. Niya is a public historian working to preserve the stories of the rural African American community in Central Virginia (VA). She directed the Getting Word African American Oral History Project at Monticello, and her work is featured in several news outlets. However, you might be most familiar with her from her recent stint in episode 3 of the Netflix series High on the Hog, which details how African American cuisine is embedded within the American story. Niya expertly describes the conditions under which Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, James Hemings (brother of Sally Hemings), came to Monticello and merged the techniques of Virginian and French cuisine to delight the many guests Jefferson hosted in his home.

two people walk on a dirt road

Stephen Satterfield (left) with Niya Bates (right) on Mulberry Row at Monticello. 2020. Photo Credit: Netflix

My interests in Black food histories led me to Niya, and she enthralled me with the story of her career journey. I learned of her work as a public historian dedicated to preserving the collective memory of African American residents in Central VA—including that of her own family. As a Charlottesville native, Niya has traced six generations of her family across Albemarle, Orange, Louisa, and Fluvanna counties in Virginia. Her journey as a double Hoo (i.e., she holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Virginia) is a story of return to her roots and finding her place within the communities that most nurtured her.

As I sat down to interview Niya, her joy and brilliant smile lit up the cozy coffee room at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center as she shared with me her public history journey. We laughed together as we connected on our academic journeys, with me assuring her that this too (i.e., doctoral grind struggles) shall pass. It is here where I leave it to Niya to take you on the brilliant adventure that is her journey to becoming a public historian.

Channing Mathews (CM): {Laughter} A learn-ed person who just wanted more learning. I love it. So, tell me, how did you get your start as a historian?

Niya Bates (NB): Oh, man, I wouldn’t say being a historian was my first calling.  When I went into school, I thought I was going to work in advertising. In high school, I had been pretty artsy and I thought, “Okay, let’s continue this.” And that’s what we want to do professionally. But after matriculating at UVA, I took a class that was an intro to African American studies that was taught by [Dr.] Claudrena Harold and I was pretty much hooked from there forward… It definitely shaped my career path. It was actually a year spent serving in AmeriCorps that got me thinking about how identity and place are interconnected. The kids that I was working with also grew up here in the Charlottesville community. Those kids had such a different worldview than my own. I couldn’t process why at the time, but it made me want to think more about place and people. That led me to architectural history, which really was a godsend, pulling together all the things that I’m interested in: Black communities, rural landscapes, and thinking about these ideas about how spaces shape our beliefs. So, I kind of stumbled into this career and I’ve really enjoyed it.

CM: So you describe yourself as public historian. Could you tell us what that means? What made you want to be a public historian versus any other type of historian?

NB: Yes, I also stumbled all the way into public history. In grad school, I interned at Monticello in the Restoration Department. At the time, they were researching how to restore the landscape of slavery and that meant restoring Mulberry Row, which was the plantation main street where the bulk of the activity of the enslaved laborers took place. I interned there for a year and I absolutely loved it. I’ve never wanted an office job and I’ve never wanted a job that would be the same every day. That internship showed me how I could use that academic study of buildings and landscapes and apply it in very real world, public facing conditions that would allow people to see a different aspect of the history they weren’t familiar with. So, we traveled all around the state that year doing documentations of slave quarters, kitchens, different details like door moldings and window moldings— the kind of bricks and sticks things that architectural historians are interested in.

But that’s when I kind of knew that I wanted that to be my career. After I graduated, I worked at Montpelier for a year, where I was a founding member of the Preservation Department there. They were in the process of restoring their slave quarter and a slave yard at the South Yard at Montpelier. While there, I was doing more traditional architectural history. I enjoyed that because I enjoyed bricks and sticks and buildings and decorative little things, right? But I wasn’t working with people. And I really love people. So, I jumped at the position that came open at Monticello to be their public historian and to lead the Getting Word African American Oral History Project. And it’s been probably the honor of my lifetime so far to serve those descendants, and to be able to reconnect them with their ancestral landscapes and knowledge and the communities.

six people seated and speaking as a panel

Niya Bates (third from right) with panelists on stage at Unmasking Cville. 2018. Photo Credit: Virginia Humanities

CM: So, tell us what does your day-to-day work look like since you don’t have a typical office job?

NB: I would say when I worked for Monticello a day could look like regular administrative stuff in the morning and maybe an afternoon spent interviewing a descendant. Or it could be a morning spent doing archival research and an afternoon spent walking around with descendants in the landscape and getting their advice on what they want to see in the interpretation, or what stories they want us to share in the exhibits. It could also just be a full day of giving tours… or it could be visiting other historic sites and seeing how they interpret slavery. So, my days were very different at Monticello. Now, I’m a grad student, and my days look pretty much the same. I crack open a book, do some reading, take some notes, and then I’m writing. So, my days are pretty basic now {Laughter}. This too shall pass?

two people address an audience outdoors

Niya Bates (left) and Justin Reid (right) at Pine Grove School in Cumberland, VA. 2020. Photo Credit: AMMD Pine Grove Project

CM: Yes, that too shall pass…eventually. {Laughter} As a public historian from Charlottesville, what does it mean for you to study Black history from this context and being from here?

NB: I think in many instances, as you know, the academy prioritizes distance from your topics, right? That there’s this “objective” perspective where you could be outside of a story. And you really can’t. Every writer, and every person who presents stories brings who they are into it, which for me has been so interesting. The more that I studied this area’s history, the more I learned about myself, my family, their contributions to this area. You know? The more I study this place’s past, the more I learn about opportunities and possibilities for our future, if that makes sense. So, I do this work, because in my mind it is very future oriented, because I think we can actually make this community better for everybody. But that involves being honest about our past and reckoning with some very ugly things: racial violence, slavery, toxic development, all sorts of things. But we have to do that in order to know how to fix those problems. And to make it better.

woman standing on an outdoor walkway

Niya Bates under the South Wing at Monticello. 2018. Photo Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation

CM: Yeah. Holding all of us accountable to understanding and the true history.

NB: Yeah, I mean, if you need somebody with receipts, right?

CM: Exactly. You got all the receipts! I love it. I love historical receipts. Yeah. So, in thinking about this work, what’s the greatest challenge around it?

NB: I think in the time that we’re living in where people feel like they are lied to about the past. No matter how they approach that history, it’s challenging to present facts and have people understand that those things are, in fact, facts, and not speculation. It’s not “woke history,” it is just history. Like, these are just the stories that have been either omitted from the archive or forcefully suppressed through years of white supremacist perspectives about this nation, about this city, and about our history. And so, I think the hardest thing for me is trying to figure out how to communicate the truth, as we see it through the archival sources, through research and through landscapes, and to get people to receive it openly. And not to call it “woke”, or whatever, to label it that way.

CM: Yeah. I love it. I love it. And as a soon-to-be contributor to Vinegar Hill Magazine, tell us a little bit about your column.

NB: Yeah, I’m really hoping the column will make history something people love again. You know? I think so often because our history is presented in such negative ways, it’s overly focused on the negative. I hope my column can highlight resilience, resistance, joy, what people did for fun, like those upbeat elements of Black history. Because I think we need more of those stories. We need more of the stories about what sustained us and what kept us, and less of the stories about what attempted to break us. Because the attempt to break Black people was never successful. So, we have to talk about what keeps us here and what keeps us going and what makes Black culture and Black history so great.

CM: Absolutely.

Niya and I hug goodbye like two old friends who just caught up over a few cocktails, eager for the next meeting. I’m excited to share space with her as a columnist here at Vinegar Hill Magazine, and I hope that our shared space helps you to feel the same. Be on the lookout for Niya’s column entitled “(re)Reflector” to hit the magazine very soon.

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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