by Cory Schutter
Cory Schutter is a Class of 2019 graduate from Midlothian, Virginia. He double majored in Rhetoric and Communication Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). He was a Bonner Scholar, a Center for Civic Engagement Ambassador, and a Student Coordinator at UR Downtown. He began his involvement with the Race & Racism Project in the summer of 2017, as an A&S Summer Fellow, then joined the team again via Digital Memory & the Archive, a course offered in Fall 2017. This post was written as part of a Spring 2019 independent study with the Race & Racism Project.
I spent the summer of 2017 as a fellow for the Race & Racism at the University of Richmond Project x UntoldRVA collaboration, an experience which shifted the way I viewed the impact of an archive on a community. Summer fellows had the opportunity to perform close-reads of local Richmond stories and trace these accounts back to materials from the public archive.
At the end of the summer, project alum Catherine Franceski and I found ourselves next to a whirring microfilm machine at the Library of Virginia. A footnote in James Sidbury’s book Ploughshares into Swords had us questioning some assumptions we had made about a late eighteenth century Black dentist named Peter Hawkins.
All secondary sources tracked the story of Hawkins life to a single chapter in the 1856 copy of Samuel Mordecai’s Richmond in By-gone Days. Hawkins was described as riding his horse around the wild west of early Richmond, forcefully pulling out aching teeth without ever leaving his saddle. He had strong yet imprecise extraction skills, according to Mordecai, who noted that Hawkins “extracted two for me, a sound and an aching one, with the wrench of his instrument” (Mordecai). Hawkins was the only dentist in Richmond at his time, and also found time to serve as an itinerant preacher ready to “draw the fangs of Satan” from his congregants (Mordecai).
That was all we had on Hawkins, until Ploughshares into Swords came into the picture. When he wasn’t busy being Richmond’s renaissance man of religion and teeth, the book suggested that Hawkins may have also been the emancipator of his wife and child. This was groundbreaking for us–a footnote citing Henrico County records. This was the claim that brought Catherine to the microfilm collections at the Library of Virginia, and I was along for the ride.
The microfilm was difficult to navigate, and the acetate was already breaking down into a soft vinegary smell. Any moment, we were going to scroll through the emancipation papers that would make or break the Peter Hawkins story. The record appeared, and what we found left us with another question mark. The 1801 emancipation record would make Hawkins a 56 year old man (source: Modern Dental Assisting, by Doni L. Bird, Debbie S. Robinson, page 9) emancipating his 22 year old wife and 18-month old child. In an era with an average life expectancy of 38, this was difficult to buy into.
It was clear that there was lack of definition in the timeline of the Peter Hawkins story. There was a second edition of Mordecai’s Richmond in By-gone Days, located two floors above us in Special Collections, perhaps containing an updated story. Catherine and I headed upstairs, and found the book to be surprisingly different. Mordecai did include a new paragraph in this edition, related to the unnamed son of Hawkins. Mordecai described Hawkins, Jr., as a dentist “who depletes the veins and pockets of his patients, and when he has exhausted the latter, the former are respited” (2nd edition, p 272).
Catherine and I headed to a nearby coffee shop to talk things over. This new byline to the Hawkins story complicated things. Not only did it add another person to the narrative, it also did not confirm or deny the emancipation story. Could the Hawkins vignettes, written in the past tense, reset our timeline calculations for an earlier death date? Could the son have also be named Peter, setting up a timeline for a Hawkins, Jr., emancipator?
Catherine reached out to the author of Ploughshares into Swords to ask for further guidance. In a response received a few days later, James Sidbury confirmed our concerns that the ties holding Peter Hawkins together as dentist, preacher, and emancipator, were tenuous. And instead of a thorough account of Hawkins, we seemed to be left with little more than Mordecai’s abstracted descriptions: “Peter Hawkins was a tall, raw-boned, very black negro, who rode a raw-boned, black horse” (2nd edition, p 272).
Before our summer fellowship with the Race & Racism Project ended, Catherine created a detailed resource page with all the information to be known on Peter Hawkins. The end to our research story arc was frustrating, leaving me with questions I still think about today. Why was Peter Hawkins missing a story?
Peter Hawkins had a story, one which did not have enduring value according to those who preserved to the history of Richmond. No records were maintained to add any additional texture to his life, there was no material representing his own voice, and there did not appear to be a way to move forward with our original vision of Hawkins. The mysteries of Peter Hawkins opened up a window into the shortcomings of public memory. What is remembered, what is forgotten, and who gets to tell the story?
Everything we know of Richmond’s first dentist comes from the writings of a white pro-slavery sympathizer who rose from his sickbed to write in a negative review of Peter Hawkins’ son. The lack of information effectively cancelled out important parts of the story, making it impossible to verify the facts.
The archive is only neutral for those flourishing in power, as it has historically preserved only the stories of wealthy white males. This culture of white heteronormativity has remained solidly entrenched in public memory due to the fact that many histories are written as white histories. The entire history of modern dentistry in America is a hagiography of white men and women until 1869, when Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman became the first African American with a dental degree. While white dentists like Isaac Greenwood are recognized as the first American-born dentists, it is more than likely that American-born Black dentists were practicing on the same timeline and would never find their way into the archives.
It is a mistake to assume that an archive can be neutral. The system of collecting stories considered valuable is historically flawed, and systematically denies people of color a place in history. Archive acquisitions fail to represent people of color, and collections which make their way into digital form can perpetuate the silencing of stories (Jules 2016). As I have continued to work with the Race & Racism Project, this has become even more evident to me.
Students of color have been present at the University of Richmond since at least 1921, when the Chinese Students Club was formed. Black staff members have likely supported the University through their work since the formation of the university, but their names are often omitted from the public record.
Marginalized people have been essential to the history of the United States and the University of Richmond, but have been historically denied the basic right to belonging in the public memory. Countless individuals have been written out of the archive, not possessing enduring value to the curators of collective memory. The level of determination it takes to push for answers and read against the grain demonstrates the legacy of marginalized people being forced to prove their humanity through Herculean efforts.
The Race & Racism Project jumps into the archive to confront the disconnect between history and memory. This effort to step into the archive and read against the grain of a University historically entrenched in white supremacy has resulted in recentering histories buried in puff pieces, opening stories of sanctioned minstrel performances and literary works where Black people were used as comedic punchlines, and shed light on University reports highlighting evident administerial disdain for social progress. Archivist activist Jarrett M.Drake stated that, “the implicit function of the liberal arts college is to reproduce structural inequality,” and this is more than evident in which stories the University of Richmond has placed at its institutional center.
Peter Hawkins has been stripped of the bare minimum of human memory, refused the brackets of time, spatially erased from the City of Richmond, and denied any information to build out a framework of history. His story is one that is significant and meaningful but does not meet the verification requirements for a Wikipedia page, his story has been distorted through the pen of white supremacy, and without continued research could easily disappear from a public archive. We may never have the chance to grasp the story of one of America’s first Black dentists.
It is crucial to collect information before it disappears, to continue to open up the archive for research, and to continually recenter University history on the stories we have not yet heard. Each student at the University of Richmond is currently producing a story, one that should not be lost to the future. I want to imagine a University that will build a memory that is representational of all experiences. I want a future where students of color are not excised from the archive or information we collect. And I am excited to continue work with a project that works hard to affirm the enduring value of its community.