Saving Slave Houses: Why Skeleton Key Lent Its Support to an Important Preservation Project

Many of the organizations we serve are businesses and governmental organizations, but we’re also proud of the work that Skeleton Key does with not-for-profit organizations. While many of the challenges not-for-profit organizations face are unique, many are also similar to those faced by any organization trying to manage large amounts of data: staying organized, logging data appropriately, making that data usable for the future, and doing all of this within a defined budget.

We’re happy to have lent our expertise to one project in particular that is both unique and important: Saving Slave Houses.

Saving Slave Houses

The Saving Slave Houses project seeks to change the way our society understands and researches the “landscape of slavery” and the lives of enslaved people in the U.S.

The idea behind the Saving Slave Houses project starts with the recognition that the ways in which we talk about race and slavery in this country are very much tinted by racist themes and tropes. To make any sort of progress in a discussion of race or racism, it is necessary to stand back from the “given” ways in which we were taught about slavery and racism, and thereby discover a different perspective.

This is why a study of the spaces occupied by enslaved people is so critical: it provides an alternative look at the lives of these people, through the spaces they occupied—most often domestic slave buildings. The project sits at the nexus of interdisciplinary research into the architecture of slavery, the influence that these dwellings had on the lives of their inhabitants, and the preservation of the history of enslaved people.

The Saving Slave Houses project (together with its website and research database) are the brainchild of Jobie Hill, MS, MA, a licensed preservation architect with over 15 years of professional experience. Her hope is that, through encouraging preservation, research, education and outreach, our society will begin to change the ways in which we think, talk and teach about slavery.

Why a Focus on Slave Houses?

To truly understand Hill’s project, and why she (and we!) are so passionate about it, it helps to understand the answer to the question: “Why houses?”

“The idea of a home is something that everyone understands and can relate to,” says Hill. “Everyone, in some way, has a home. Homes might be very different, but everyone can understand the idea of a place where you go to rest, to feel safe. A place where your family is.”

This wasn’t any different for the homes of enslaved people. “Even though they were enslaved and being oppressed, their houses were a place where they had some small control over their lives,” says Hill. “They were able to spend time with their family. They found a little peace and comfort.”

“So not only are they spaces that we can all relate to, but they provide examples for us. Examples of these people’s strength and perseverance. And the mechanisms that they used to cope with their situation.”

The Challenge: Documenting the Details

Hill began using Claris FileMaker as a database for storing the data she collected for the project. It quickly became apparent that building the database correctly, and getting the functionality from it that she needed, would take more time and expertise than she had.

For example, the data for this project has a lot of complex relationships that can’t be easily captured in, say, a spreadsheet or table. This data comes directly from architectural and anthropological surveys at select sites. A single site might have multiple buildings with different purposes, and any number of architecturally interesting features, i.e., doors, windows, foundations, etc. There might also be several pieces of documentation associated with a given building or site.

Many of these relationships are not one-to-one. For example, a single person might own several different sites, or ownership for one or more sites might pass through many hands, or be spread across an entire family. Or, many sites might house a certain type of building, but each site might also have several different types. Likewise, several sites might exist in several counties across a single state.

Preserving data in the right format was also an important consideration. Research databases like this can be around for decades, housing large data files from multiple projects. How can one ensure that the photo and document files being used today will translate into formats usable 10 or 20 years down the line? Thinking through the preservation and future usability of the archived data was thus a priority, too.

Making the database usable and useful required capturing these relationships correctly and ensuring that the data collected fit these relationships in the right way. Even with an easy-to-use platform like Claris FileMaker, getting these elements right sometimes takes a little added expertise and experience. 

Skeleton Key Offers Its Expertise

Hill reached out to Skeleton Key for pro-bono help building the database for her project. Although we have typically donated funds and not our development efforts to support various causes over time, we felt that the project was both interesting and important. We couldn’t resist getting involved directly.

Much of that assistance came in the form of consulting and educating about the platform, giving Hill the freedom and the tools she needed to expand upon her DIY solution. We helped her map out the data and think through the kinds of searches that would need to be done, answering her questions as they arose. “Our goal was to engineer Hill’s data in a way that could be easily used, searched, reported on and, most importantly, preserved,” says Monica Sheridan, the developer who worked with Saving Slave Houses.

This kind of personal attention was important because of the unique nature of the project. It’s one thing to build a custom CRM, for example, where the topics and considerations are relatively familiar. It’s quite another thing to take a unique project, ask the right questions and help architect the data from the start.

“Skeleton Key was very good about asking questions to understand what I wanted to do,” says Hill. “Not just asking questions, but the right questions. They really made me think about how I was going to use this data, and came up with some ways that I didn’t even think of.”

Sheridan also appreciated the engagement. “I was grateful for the opportunity to assist Jobie Hill in building her database,” she continues. “It was a great way, as a developer, to become more educated about the history of the homes of enslaved people, as well as to help with a wonderful project that is making an impact.”

For now, Hill is working on ways to make her database open and available to the public so that other researchers, or simply those who are curious, can find out more about these sites and the lives of the people who once lived there. 

What Projects Can You Dream Up?

It doesn’t matter if an important project seems commonplace, or if it’s unique and innovative: A solution built on the Claris FileMaker platform can be a valuable tool in keeping almost any kind of data and workflows organized.

If you are wondering if Claris FileMaker or another solution is right for your project, fill out our contact form and we can arrange an initial discussion to learn more about the project and suggest how to proceed with the discovery process.