Landscape relationships between outdoor recreation and public history in the US South (2021)

Mary T Biggs, University of North Carolina

Image: “Great Barn” © Mary T Biggs

Project summary

This research will examine the historical and spatial relationships between U.S. landscapes of public history and landscapes of outdoor recreation shape understandings of the past, the natural world, and social justice. What can we learn by interrogating the institutional and physical relationships between these two overlapping, but distinct, landscapes? How can understanding these relationships help us to imagine a more just future? Connecting with nature and the past are both perceived as important for the common good and, in the U.S., are connected. However, the relationships between learning history in place and recreating outdoors remain under-studied, especially through the lens of racial justice.

The project will address the challenges of injustice in landscape by focusing on two North Carolina historic sites – Stagville and Vance Birthplace – that interpret slavery. At both sites, this arguably very un-recreational topic is connected to recreation through amenities like picnic tables and walking trails, in addition to geographic proximity to other outdoor recreation spaces.

In the U.S., landscapes of public history and outdoor recreation have been discursively constructed alongside values of virtue, well-being, and the common good in both distinct and overlapping ways. Outdoor recreation, often portrayed as a way to healthfully unwind in natural spaces, has only grown in popularity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Visiting historic sites is seen as a way to more deeply connect with the past in the interest of a better future, and public historic sites are key arenas through which cultural groups identify and claim social and geographic belonging. At Vance Birthplace, for example, the white supremacist group Sons of Confederate Veterans ensures that the Confederate flag remains over the visitor centre, while local African American communities praise the site’s expanded focus on the Black people who were enslaved by the Vance family. There are many instances like this across the country, all encapsulated in and informed by a context of intensifying white nationalism and rising calls for police abolition, reparations, and long-overdue justice for people of colour.

This research will shed new light on how histories of recreation and historical preservation in the U.S. have shaped modern-day landscapes and ideologies of both recreation and history. By focusing my analysis on landscapes – how they fit together, how they are constructed over time, how they shape and are shaped by human action.

LRG’s contribution will help fund Nvivo qualitative analysis software to enable the effective analysis of the data collected from interviews, archival research and website discourse, as well as travel to the sites and dissemination of the research.

Image: Horton Grove © Mary T Biggs