Ask Me Anything: Dr. Charlene Fletcher, Historian

Conner Prairie has long been called a living museum. But what version of history? Its dynamic curatorial director hopes to paint a more inclusive, nuanced picture with promised land as proving ground, officially opening this month.

Why did you focus on African American faith traditions in Promised Land as Proving Ground?
That decision was made before I arrived at Conner Prairie. They applied for a religion-rooted humanities grant from the Lilly Endowment, so that’s the focus of this particular funding string. I think they applied for the planning grant in 2018, and the implementation grant came in 2020. I joined the institution in 2021.

Why did they bring you in?
I’m an historian specializing in 19th-century U.S. history and with expertise in African American history and gender studies. I was brought I specifically to curate this exhibit.

When you toured Conner Prairie to prepare for jumping into the project, what were your initial thoughts?
Well, I had a fourth grade field trip to Conner Prairie like every other Indianapolis resident. But as an adult, I was kind of taken aback. What’s there is very Eurocentric. The historic village is sort of a composite, as are the characters portrayed in Prairie Town. They’re not actual historical figures, so as a historian that’s one of the things that kind of got to me. It’s possible to tell a historical narrative that also happens to be grounded in the experiences of real people.

With Promised Land as Proving Ground it’s all fully researched, and the characters are all real historical figures. When people experience the exhibit, they will learn about African Americans who lived in Indiana during the 19th and 20th centuries. This will all happen immediately adjacent to Conner Prairie’s fictional characters. We’re telling a more inclusive story and expanding on the historical offerings.

What is an example of that expansion?
We’re giving more context than what one typically sees. You’re walking through this space, and it’s supposed to be 1836. Andrew Jackson is president. But what does that mean for people of color and Native Americans? Who was Andrew Jackson? That context wasn’t there. As a curator, my hope is to give visitors that context, so that they know what was happening during the time period we cover. Visitors might need to have that context and not just a basic or even romanticized story. Let’s dig into things just a bit more.

Does your end result deviate much from the original plan for the exhibit?
The original plan was to focus on 19th-century African American religious history … specifically the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and Quaker interactions with African Americans. I said no to that because it goes back to context. Why are we speaking about this particular denomination? AME didn’t start in Indianapolis, so why do you need that backstory? And why limit the stories of Black Americans in Indiana to their interactions with Quakers? It’s far, far vaster than that.

And Black people aren’t monolithic. When we talk about faith traditions, it’s worth remembering that not all Black people go to church. And those who do aren’t all AME parishioners. Some are Baptist, some are Muslim, and some practice traditional African faith systems. So to just lump everything into the AME experience did not truly engage this idea of exploring the African American experience in Indiana. I broadened the horizons.

So how does the exhibit work?
Three buildings on the property are central to the exhibit. The first is Origins Cabin, where the tour begins. The second is called the Resistance Cabin, and the third structure covers the 20th and 21st centuries. The exhibit is self-guided and located in various parts of the grounds, from those three structures to the blacksmith’s shop.

We’re covering a swath of history, and we chose to do that through technology. An augmented reality experience features locally produced segments about actual people who lived during [those] times [that] dive a bit deeper into elements of the story. Visitors can download software on their devices to watch this material. Members of the Asante Art Institute portray those actual figures from Indiana history. With your device, you can meet them. It’s unlike other elements of Conner Prairie where you have the costumed interpreters. You don’t need to engage with interpreters to experience the exhibit.

That’s a good segue into your opinion on costumed interpreters pretending to be period characters.
That’s quite a topic among historians because in some ways it can be troublesome. Those first-person portrayals are entertaining for some guests, but are people truly being educated? You have a lot of emphasis placed on the interpreters creating a specific narrative, and so they wind up not being able to give those who engage with them the opportunity to have a conversation about the things they’re learning. Let’s say you have an interpreter portraying Frederick Douglass. How is he able to really engage guests? Can he suggest that they read a particular book or provide answers to questions when doing so would require breaking character?

When you get locked into a certain character and the context around that character isn’t given or only one particular story is presented, what’s being lost in those interactions can be rather problematic. To give another example, Civil War history is never just cut and dry. Actually, I don’t care what topic, era, or region you look at, all of history is very complex. When you have a set script that focuses on a fictional character, or even if it is an actual historical figure, without proper context or without the opportunity for guests to engage that interpreter, a lot is sacrificed.

Researching for this exhibit must have been an incredibly intensive process.
For the past two years, it’s all my team has done. I have a team of four young, emerging historians who have done a brilliant job. They’ve learned a lot along the way, not just in terms of mining primary and secondary sources to provide context for the exhibit, but also growing into their professions. One of the most rewarding parts of all of this for me has been seeing them grow and develop.

What’s the most surprising thing that research turned up?
I was stunned by some of the individual stories of the Hoosiers we researched for the augmented reality experience. For instance, Lucy Higgs Nichols was an African American Civil War nurse attached to the 23rd Indiana Infantry Regiment. She was denied her pension after the war, but members of her regiment accompanied her to Washington to bolster her claim. Supported by those soldiers, she received her pension during a special session of Congress.

What was the most challenging part of the project?
This is dramatically different from anything Conner Prairie has ever done. That alone was one of the bigger challenges—just creating this new exhibit with technology that this institution has never deployed before, plus confronting a history that the institution hasn’t addressed before.

Meeting those challenges turned out to be very much a community effort, with folks like the Asante Art Institute and the Center for Africana Studies and Culture at IUPUI [being] instrumental in bringing this project to fruition. We were able to bring something new to Conner Prairie, an institution that hadn’t had a longstanding relationship with the African American community.

What are you going to do next?
I’ll be moving on to Butler University to serve as a history professor. I also have a book coming out in 2024, tentatively titled Confined Femininity: Race, Gender and Incarceration in Kentucky, 1865 to 1920.

What do you most hope visitors to the exhibit will take away from it?
A sense of pride surrounding African American history—and curiosity. This country tends to want to start the discussion of Black history with enslavement. But that’s not where the story starts, and that’s not where it ends. I hope to ignite a desire to know more and to have necessary, critical conversations about this history. This is especially crucial given the current political climate with our elected officials actively working to pass legislation to ban the teaching of Black history in schools. It’s essential that these conversations continue so that folks actually understand this history and are not satisfied with some version of a watered-down narrative that we’ve all been taught for too long.