The Social Antiquarian
Our story takes us to Crossroads, a hipster cafe in Richmond, Virginia. Picture tattooed bearded fellows hunched over Mac Books and bespeckled girls with vegan treats and books in hand. These mostly young folk belong to Richmond's community of bona fide and wannabe artists, musicians, literati, activists, and--as the protagonist of our tale shall soon betray--historians.
Enter Bayly Ogden, chair of The Alexandrian Society's Service Committee at Virginia Commonwealth University. Donning a black felt hat and a swipe of red lipstick, she blends seamlessly into Crossroads' customer base. The difference is, unlike all the quiet, pensive types sipping their teas and espressos, Bayly can't keep her mouth shut—in a good way.
Bayly, like her comrades at The Alexandrian Society, loves history and education. From the moment she meets me at my narrow side table with the sinking armchairs, Bayly's chirping about what she's wearing, costume history, and The Alexandrian Society's fall book drive.
Since Spring 2011, Bayly's job at The Alexandrian Society has been to socially engage the student group with the Richmond community. In a city with over 50 historically-minded institutions, Bayly's opportunities for promoting The Alexandrian Society through public projects abound. She's already brainstormed outreach efforts in the historically black neighborhoods of Carver and Jackson Ward, as well as held a coin drive to benefit The Byrd Theatre, one of the oldest cinema houses in America.
There. Now back to Bayly's charming monologue:
After explaining the vintage of her outfit, Bayly tells me that her biggest project to date as The Alexandrian Society's Service Committee chair was the Fall 2011 book drive. Teamed up with an African American student group, The Alexandrian Society collected 250 books from campus donation boxes and Virginia Book Company, a local book store. Then on November 6th, the student groups gave the books to members of Richmond's homeless population.
“Unfortunately, stats and kids' books were not a big success,” Bayly quips, “I also couldn't pawn off the Reagan memoir.” She nonchalantly pushes a few strands of auburn hair from her face and half-smiles.
More seriously, Bayly says the best reward was seeing the homeless enjoy their books. During the drive, one homeless man told Bayly, “Knowledge is my one possession.” Bayly puts a hand to her heart and sighs, repeating the line. Another story for the grandkids? Shortly after the drive, Bayly spotted a homeless woman sitting on a park bench, reading.
While the book drive was a noble project, The Alexandrian Society, as previously mentioned, really focuses on organizing a symposium that rouses minds. The spring symposium is not a quaint little get-together for history nerds. Bayly's hazel eyes light up as she fills me in on the symposium's purpose. The symposium is a respectable, even elite, convergence of scholars and eager students in a city with prominent significance in American history. The Service Committee does what it does in part to publicize the spring symposium.
Last spring's symposium, “Slavery, Revolution and Freedom: Haiti and the Atlantic World,” featured speakers from Wesleyan University, Duke University, Howard University, and Mount Olive College. Franklin Knight, Ph.D., delivered the keynote address, entitled, “The Collective American Debt to Haiti.”
Spring 2012's symposium will take place March 21st. Since January's typically the month that Bayly says the Topics Committee “hits the ground running” and VCU's not back in session until January 17th, lecturers are still being secured. As usual, the symposium will be free and open to the public.
Such a huge endeavor may appear too challenging for the average student group to accomplish. While it helps that the student group has a base of ten committed members (and many more peripheral ones), Bayly also thanks faculty advisor Dr. Bernard Moitt—a “very influential” man, she says—for his guidance and connections.
Dr. Moitt, chair of the VCU History Department, studies Atlantic history, both African and American, with concentrations in French West Africa and the intersection of women and slavery. Since 1997, he has led a summer study abroad program to Barbados, where students learn about plantation slavery, architecture, archeology, music, migration, and more. Dr. Moitt has published two books: Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848 (Indiana, 2001) and Sugar, Slavery and Society: Perspectives on the Caribbean, India, the Mascarenes and the United States (University Press of Florida, 2004).
In addition to orchestrating the spring symposium, The Alexandrian Society also puts on a single lecture in the fall. Admittedly, it's a far less complicated affair than the symposium.
Just days before chatting with Bayly on November 13th, 2011, The Alexandrian Society sponsored its fall lecture. On November 9th, Dr. Edna Greene Medford of Howard University spoke on “A Determined Revolution: African Americans Respond to the Emancipation Proclamation.”As stated in the event's press release, Dr. Medford sought to “explore how enslaved African Americans learned of their freedom, what they did to secure it, and how they thought of Lincoln after emancipation was granted.”
The lecture lasted about an hour and a half and followed with a Q&A session. Bayly says that while students often feel intimated to ask questions of a renowned scholar at lectures, Dr. Medford's approachability encouraged students to spark a conversation.
Moving away from The Alexandrian Society for a moment, I ask Bayly about VCU's History Department and her plans as a History major. Bayly explains that, naturally, many of the History courses at VCU are “Southern-based.” Clearly this bias tends to affect the lecturers The Alexandrian Society invites to its spring symposium. Members of The Alexandrian Society tend to favor like-minded topics and eras: the American Civil War, Atlantic history, Colonial history, and certainly American history overall.
After graduating from VCU this May, Bayly hopes to attend graduate school, where she'll study historic preservation. Eventually, she wants to work at a museum, handling artifacts.
As Bayly and I end our chat, I glance around the room and ponder how many of the other cafe customers, scribbling in notebooks and pouring sugar in their coffee, have such ambitions. Not all antiquarians are hipsters, but, as self-proclaimed pioneers who go for old stuff before it has a chance to become cool, there's at least a shred of antiquarian in every hipster.
Listen, then, Richmonders, for you have a symposium to attend this spring. Make Bayly beam.