Cassandra Fay Smith

1999 Wallace Fellow
Historian, Miniaturist, Writer
Detroit, Michigan

Research at AAS

My proposal was to research slave clothing to be used to costume miniature porcelain dolls, however my fellowship resulted in several museum installations including a miniature reproduction of George Washington’s plantation. The exhibition and lecture “Slavery and the Birth of the United States” was presented at Casa de Africa, Havana, Cuba, 2019. In addition, five books and a play are at various stages of completion using the research I began while working under the “Great Dome”. I received the fellowship at the beginning of my artistic career. It was the catalyst that merged scholarship and art.

In 1979 I left the PhD program at Howard University without completing the degree. I taught at Howard University and worked at the Smithsonian Institution, National Archives and National Park Service and was trained in Museum Administration at Colonial Williamsburg. With a B.A (University of Michigan) and ABD/PhD (Howard University) the Smithsonian Institution rejected my application for museum administration because I was “too good a researcher". I then earned a M.B.A. from the University of Southern California but when Coca-Cola recruited me I followed the money and didn’t return. In five years I hit the concrete ceiling and after ten years left to write.

I combine firsthand accounts of slaves and free blacks with photos and present a narrative. Faceless stories and nameless faces. Historians research and then retell the story. I will not impose 21st century thinking and aesthetic upon 19th century people. No one can tell their story better than they can. My work is neither fiction nor nonfiction. It lies at the intersection of art and scholarship combining the principles and rigors of both to create an experience with history that the general public can enjoy.

I quickly realized that the collection was too immense to research in a month. First I researched slave clothing using family portraits that included slaves in the background along with the furniture and the dog. Slave nannies hold the baby still for photographs yielding a rich source of photos of slave women and girls. I used fashion magazines, plantation documents, runaway ads and firsthand accounts to costume the dolls accurately by decade, region and occupation. The term “negro cloth” was used in runaway ads to describe what fugitives were wearing. The fabric was so identifiable that it was never described. Negro cloth was manufactured in Massachusetts factories by the “Mill Girls”, an ironic link between two varieties of forced labor. Shoes and other plantation supplies were manufactured in Massachusetts.

The second week I selected four drawers from the card catalog. The drawers for “N” as in Negro and “S” as in slavery. I filled out dozens of call slips and in the evening sorted and prioritized the next day’s work. This slightly scholarly, slightly random approach yielded great results. I kept the call slips and used them on my second visit and again as the collection became available on the Internet.

During my 1999 fellowship there was one item that haunted and taunted me because I couldn’t figure out how to use it. It was an accounting ledger from the slave trading house of Dickerson and Hill Comp. Richmond, Virginia. The ledger listed the name, age, occupation and value of the slaves received that day on consignment. They were listed under the name of the owner who brought them for sale. Each day the ledger lists sales and who was purchased. This was merely a business document. I did not know how to use it. I did notice that each slave entered in a group and left in a different group. They entered the auction house with friends and family and left with strangers. Business was slow in December and closed on Christmas Day. This was the one day that nothing changed. The same people were together for 24 hours.

Twenty years after discovering the ledger, it became the basis of a stage play in progress, “Christmas Eve in the Negro Pen”. The doll house installations were exhibited in Chicago galleries and museums including the Museum Science and Industry and the Casa de Africa in Habana, Cuba. Thank you to the American Antiquarian Society for their early support and constant support of my desire to work from the viewpoint of African Americans and to present history in writing and three dimensional miniature format.

Click here to read an interview with Cassandra Fay Smith from the Sunday Telegram, Worcester, Massachusetts (1999). Cassandra Fay Smith's work also appeared in the February 1999 publication of Dollhouse Miniatures.


Other works-in-progress by Cassandra Fay Smith:

10 miles of Negroes
How African Americans Revolutionized the Civil War into a War to End Slavery

Where Were You When You Learned You Were Free? First Hand Accounts of the First Moments of Freedom

Bought, Sold, Transferred
The average slave changed owners three times in their lifetime separating them from family and friends and many stories of anxiety and heartbreak.

Mama Said
Every slave remembers the last time they saw their mother and the last thing she said to them. Includes stories of people who searched for their mothers after the War.

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