Anna Agbe-Davies is preserving African-American women’s history through archaeology – one house at a time

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By Becca Kronebusch

For anthropology professor and Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar Anna Agbe-Davies, archaeology is not digging through dirt searching for bones. Her work at the Pauli Murray House in Durham has her preserving and contextualizing the childhood home of Murray, a lawyer and co-founder of the National Organization for Women and unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement.

Now a National Historic Landmark, the Pauli Murray House will soon give visitors an opportunity to lean in and explore Murray’s life of civil and women’s rights activism. Agbe-Davies is passionate about this project because her work showcases the contributions of African-American women in America, which she said are historically overlooked and overshadowed.

Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar Anna Agbie-Davies“What I do is public archaeology,” Agbe-Davies said. “For me, archaeology is a way to understand our humanness. There are interesting archaeological problems everywhere, and I didn’t need to go to a far-off place to find them. It was important to do work that would benefit those around me.”

In addition to the inspiration from the historic women she studies, Agbe-Davies credits the Carolina Center for Public Service’s Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholars (FES) program with helping her branch out and interact with scholars in various disciplines. FES brings together selected faculty from across campus to engage in a two-year experiential, competency-based curriculum designed to advance their engaged scholarship. Scholars participate in sessions in community settings to learn from Carolina faculty and their community partners. While developing individual projects, each class of scholars forms a learning community to support one another’s projects and community partners.

“The key thing for me about Faculty Engaged Scholars is talking to people in other disciplines about what their engaged scholarship looks like,” Agbe-Davies said. “It has helped me see possibilities I hadn’t envisioned before and made me think more explicitly about what makes archaeology different. Interacting with scholars across disciplines helps me see what makes the work I do unique and how it contributes to the broader conversation to make the world better.”

Before signing onto the Murray project, Agbe-Davies worked in Chicago as an archaeologist for the Phyllis Wheatley Home, which was established in 1896 as a resource for African-American women who were moving from the South to the North. The home provided these women migrants with lodging, educational programs, work assistance and other opportunities. The Chicago home, as well as others across the country, was named for Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American and U.S. slave to publish a book of poetry.

“I’m now working on a project that brings these two sites together and understand more broadly the impact of African-American women in America,” she said. “It came together when I needed it to come together.”

Agbe-Davies said her discipline is increasingly aware of the need to do more work that matters to society at large and not just to archaeologists. Her work with the Murray House is one example of the way that she and other archaeologists can use their passion to preserve pieces of history and give more representation to underrepresented peoples.

-Carolina-