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Anthropology and Museum Studies

Story Behind Smithsonian “Ashley’s Sack" Uncovered by CWU Professor

For almost a decade, a slavery-era artifact known as “Ashley’s Sack” has intrigued historians unable to identify Ashley—the girl’s name preserved in needlework. The Smithsonian, where the sack is on display, may now attribute the recent discovery of Ashley’s identity to Central Washington University Professor Mark Auslander.

Auslander, who teaches in the department of Anthropology and Museum Studies and is director for the Museum of Culture and Environment spent the last year researching the lineage of the three women whose names were needle worked into the cloth. Research led him to North Carolina and Philadelphia where he searched slave, court and estate records, as well as early bank and census data.

Ashley's Sack“The object has become a kind of obsession for me during this past year,” said Auslander.

His findings were recently published in the article Slavery’s Traces: In Search of Ashley’s Sack,” in the noted academic journal Southern Spaces.

Ashley’s Sack, on loan from Middleton Place in South Carolina, is currently on exhibit in the newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

The original object was found in 2007 at a flea market in the small town of Springfield, Tennessee. Little was known of its history, but it gained great attention by historians and academics. Even less was known about the females listed on the sack.

Ruth Middleton created the embroidered sack in 1921. In needlepoint lettering, Middleton presented an account of her family's legacy. She traced the story of nine-year-old Ashley, who was born a slave, being sold to another owner, and how Ashley's mother, Rose, provided her with simple yet meaningful family keepsakes. Ashley was Ruth's grandmother.

Since its rediscovery, the sack is now considered a lasting legacy of slavery and the resilience of families to keep connected.Timeline

Auslander mentioned that there are very few objects that were passed along through the generations from slaves to free slaves. Often family histories were maintained through oral storytelling, but in this case, Middleton transferred her family’s story into writing.

Auslander recognized that hundreds of thousands of children were torn apart from their mothers in slavery. Yet, each mother and child had their own unique story.

“I felt a moral sense to honor this specific story,” he said.

Auslander uncovered the potential identities of all four generations of women spanning the full 150-year history of the sack.

His work with slavery and the importance of inherited objects has extended beyond that of Ashley's Sack. In 2011, Auslander published a historical book The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family.” He has also published Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian: Reading the Stones,” on the role of enslaved persons in the construction of the original Smithsonian building.

Auslander is currently preparing for an upcoming exhibit “The Things We Carry: Objects in Motion.” This exhibit will feature stories about journeys—from people living in Kittitas County— told through the medium of physical items such as beloved articles of clothing, a family photograph, keepsake, or heirloom.

The CWU Museum of Culture and Environment will display these stories and objects from January 10-March 11, 2017.

Photo credit:  Ashley's Sack, Charleston, South Carolina, 2016. Photograph courtesy of the Middleton Place Foundation.

Media contact: Dawn Alford, CWU Public Affairs, 509-963-1484, dawn.alford@cwu.edu.

December 6, 2016

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