By SUZE WESENFELD
Not everyone has the chance to be Indiana Jones. Shannon S. Mahoney, archaeologist and former Cabrillo College student, has come closer than most. As a grad student, she rediscovered an African American community in Virginia that had flourished off the written record for nearly 50 years after the Civil War.
It’s not quite the stuff of crystal skulls and lost arks, but her research broadens what we know about African American history.
“What compelled me,” Mahoney said to an audience at Cabrillo’s Sesnon House on Feb. 22, “is the way that African American history is told is not the way it should be told. I think we need to help redesign that.”
The residents of Charles’ Corner, Va. faced hunger, short supplies and racism, like other freed slaves, but they created the type of rare, self-reliant community that history teachers don’t pay much attention to.
A 1994 survey of history textbooks, she said, found that 14 glossed over key themes in African American culture before and after the Civil War, including community building — a key to Charles’ Corner’s success.
Mahoney knew how the community began and how it ended. But without records, the reasons it succeeded were a mystery.
She sifted through crumbing, rusted debris forgotten in the Southern woods, excavated wells and collected a range of artifacts left by those who had lived in Charles’ Corner. Her excavations in 2008 revealed a stove, a harmonica reed, jewelry, parts for dolls and bottles near home sites or by wells — evidence of a socially strong community. The village, home to 76 households, had a church and raised funds for a school. They were connected to the Chesapeake Bay’s network of communities by the boats they used to harvest oysters. Mahoney traced residents’ travels by the city names on bottles she found.
Charles’ Corner also networked nationally with organizations that “placed a lot of emphasis on getting the community together,” she said “raising money and saving it for community causes. Sometimes it could be invested in proper burials or emerging businesses, but it was important that they gathered the money together for the community.”
How was this possible for a group of freed slaves starting new lives after the war? Creativity, Mahoney discovered. They built their economy on various activities, including personal gardens, raising livestock, and harvesting oysters and timber.
The variety was “incredibly important for economic stability,” Mahoney said. “I cannot over-emphasize that.”
The majority of African Americans in the South relied on sharecropping — a risky practice in which workers farmed an owner’s land for a share of the proceeds. They lived on credit, with on payment a year, and could end up in debt to the owner. But Charles’ Corner residents took in multiple cash payments from different resources, and this gave them a vital economic edge.
Mahoney knew there was a lost story on the site when she looked at records from 1918, including a government property assessment that she called “a snapshot in time.” It meticulously listed the households and property values. The assessment found the area to be well cared for and prosperous, she said, better than average for African American neighborhoods in the South.
But the assessment marked the beginning of the end.. The U.S Navy commandeered the waterfront property during World War I efforts. It gave residents one month to relocate.
Residents signed a petition to delay the eviction, hired a lawyer and wrote letters protesting the land grab, displaying “a considerable amount of organization,” she said, and showing a strong, tight-knit community. They managed to postpone the eviction a few months and hung on to the land a few years, but ultimately, Charles’ Corner sank into history.
When she looked at these records, Mahoney said she realized “something really outstanding” had happened there.
Mahoney said later that she plans to contact the authors of the 1994 history-text survey to see if they’ve updated it.
“It appears that African American history is (now) more readily incorporated into history texts,” she wrote in an email, “but the themes that (the study’s authors) focused on … are not as integrated.”
Mahoney earned her doctorate in 2013, and is an associate archaeologist with a group in Reno, Nev., but, “the start of my career was here” at Cabrillo, she said. She attended from 1995-96 and credits Cabrillo for hands-on archaeology experience. Her first dig was run by Cabrillo at Mission Santa Cruz, near Holy Cross Church above downtown. She earned her bachelor’s degree from UCSC. But, instead of its academic approach, she said, Cabrillo “provided me with the skills I needed to be an archaeologist.”