The Griot Apprenticeship

by Leondra Burchall

Historic Preservation Redefined

Historic preservation is often identified with tangible objects like buildings or documents. This limited, largely Western view is not shared by many African, Eastern, and indigenous populations throughout the world who value intangibles. Each group, community, locale, or tribe creates a sense of place on its own terms. For centuries these populations have transferred and preserved invaluable records and other links to the past through their oral traditions.

When stories are not shared, we lose the rhythms of our past and our sense of place and connection to the communities that form our present. – The Public Historian, November 2012

This intergenerational sharing goes beyond our limited understanding of oral tradition. Oral history, strictly defined, is a small part of a much larger set of oral traditions that includes the transfer of knowledge, cultural practices, memories, skills, histories, secrets, lessons, and warnings. A community’s attitude toward history is a reflection and embodiment of what that culture values as history. It is not static; it is a dynamic, conversational, and interactive discipline in which we all have a place.

In many African American communities, history is passed down orally. Individuals, families, and neighborhoods learn about their traditions, challenges, and milestones through elders. These traditions can be traced back to West Africa where the Djeli or Jalo perpetuates the traditions and history of a village or family. Today, African American histories throughout the Commonwealth are being lost because the tradition-bearer is often the sole source of local knowledge. When the person who carries this knowledge dies, these larger cultural understandings are lost.


Falls Church Team

Alyssa Walker, Spencer Crew, Edwin Henderson

The Griot Apprenticeship Program, newly established at VFH in February this year, seeks to honor and preserve what is most important to Virginia’s African American communities. The term ‘griot’ (pronounced gree-oh) is used within the African diaspora to describe the human repository who retains, protects, and shares the community’s stories and values.

Griots exist in every community. As a historian I’ve often received urgent requests to capture and preserve the stories of these griots, elders who, in the words of their fellow community members, “have such a wealth of knowledge.” Fortunately, beginning in the late 1970s, many academic and community scholars began to address this issue through formal oral history projects and programs. As a former director of oral history I realized that conducting only random or systematic interviews was insufficient.

When I joined the VFH staff in the fall of 2011, I began to expand and create new African American programming at the VFH. For the first time I had an opportunity to consider and contemplate how I could address this ongoing challenge within the African American community. As director, I had the time, ability, and institutional support to make a difference. My ideal was a program that both preserved community history and engaged the public in the discourse. I also wanted to establish a structure and format for knowledge-transfer, continuity, sustainability, and intergenerational exchange.

As I noted in an article that appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Public Historian, “good historical work and insight occur when people in the present ask questions of the past in a way that includes broad portions of the community as participants in the ongoing dialogue.” The Griot Apprenticeship unites the community historian or tradition bearer with a local apprentice, academic historian, and one or more students for a twelve-month period. We launched the program in two regions (north and central) with seven individuals and two neighborhoods: Tinner Hill, located in Falls Church, and Richmond’s Jackson Ward.

Richmond Team

Talesia Johnson, Dr. Maureen Elgersman Lee, Elvatrice Belsches, Marcus James

Edwin Henderson , founder and president of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes awareness of Northern Virginia’s African American history and its civil rights pioneers, is the Falls Church griot. The apprentice is Alyssa Walker , a teacher with the Fairfax County Office for Children; the team scholar is Dr. Spencer Crew, professor of public history at George Mason University.

Elvatrice Belsches, an independent historian, researcher, and author was chosen as the Richmond griot with her apprentice Marcus James, museum assistant at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Dr. Maureen Elgersman Lee, executive director at the Black History Museum who also teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the Richmond team scholar working closely with Talesia Johnson, a senior history major at VCU.

Each team is designed to facilitate the program’s objectives of fostering the growth of a new generation of tradition bearers, developing or strengthening community and academic collaborations, and encouraging local or regional research programs.

For example, the Falls Church team’s primary objective is to identify African American communities and a pattern of land dispossession in Fairfax County through World War II using a combination of oral interviews and primary source research. The Richmond team’s primary objective is to strengthen the apprentice and student’s core knowledge in the areas of Richmond’s enslaved and free black populations, Reconstruction, early black professionals, Jackson Ward businesses, and social col – lectivism using oral and other primary and secondary source material. At the end of the program year apprentices will be presented to their communities as tradition bearers at a public forum hosted by VFH. The Griot Apprenticeship Program acknowledges and honors African American history and traditions. Through this work we have an opportunity to make an enormous difference in Virginians’ self-understanding. The stories of African- Americans are an indispensable thread in the multiple strands of our shared pasts. Griot apprenticeships will provide vital opportunities to preserve as many crucial components of these narratives as possible and facilitate intergenerational dialogue and layered learning.