The Bridgwater Collection & the Responsibility to Construct a Plural American Story

Samuel Bridgwater was born in Smith County, Tennessee in 1861 to enslaved parents. By 1880, he was a Buffalo Soldier, having enlisted in the 24th Infantry Regiment. He was stationed at various forts in the west for the better part of a decade, and married Mamie Anderson in 1892 at Fort Huachuca, located in Arizona Territory. Private Bridgwater also fought in the Spanish-American War; he was injured on San Juan Hill, and suffered from yellow fever in the Philippines.

After the war, Samuel and Mamie settled in Helena, Montana—where they raised their family of seven and became involved in the small but active local African American community. Their family home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Octavia, one of Samuel and Mamie’s daughters, followed in her father’s footsteps and served in an all-Black unit of the Army Nurse Corps during World War II. She returned to Helena after the war, and worked as a community nurse midwife.

In the last few weeks of my internship at NMAH, I was tasked with beginning the accessioning and cataloging work of a portion of the Bridgwater Collection. The papers of the collection remained in the purview of the Archives Center; in the Division of Home and Community Life (HCL), I had the task of researching and cataloging personal effects and home furnishings. I happily spent hours in the division’s secured storage areas with the Bridgwater family Bible, Octavia’s purses, multiple sets of family china, tablecloths, napkins, silverware. One of the objects I was most interested in was Octavia’s nurse’s cap. I saw it in the Objects Processing Facility, and assisted with transporting it to collections storage. However, I did not get to catalog it, as it was moved from HCL to the Division of Medicine and Science.

To be clear, collections work is time intensive and is for the detail-oriented. As I mentioned in my first blog post, I was (and am) interested in both collections (the physical objects) and the work of collections management, so I appreciated this opportunity. The storage areas are large and they were quiet (except for the music from my various Pandora stations). Outfitted with archival pens, tags, gloves, and a digital camera, I truly enjoyed interacting with the objects, looking at the various patterns on the tablecloths and napkins, and researching specific china patterns to ensure correct classification in the collections management database.

In addition to being a beneficial learning experience, working with the Bridgwater Collection helped me to begin answering a question that had been lingering in the back of my mind throughout my internship. Walking through the Object Project exhibit, there is a window through which I could see the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) taking shape as its grand opening approached. I wondered how NMAAHC’s opening would impact (if at all) NMAH’s collecting and its collections. I was concerned that NMAH would defer to NMAAHC in collecting African American objects and stories, which would negatively impact NMAH’s ability to tell a plural narrative. Working with this newly acquired collection, and learning of other possible future acquisitions gave me some reassurance that there are curators who are committed to telling an inclusive American story. I hope this commitment continues.


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