(by Sughnen Yongo-Okochi)
Julia Butterfield is pursuing a master’s degree in Archives and Public History. Her keen interest in history led her to accept an internship at the Morris–Jumel Mansion, a mid-eighteenth-century federal-style museum located in northern Manhattan. The mansion, which was built in 1765 by Roger Morris, a British military officer, also served as the general headquarters during the American Revolution.
Her focused work at the museum has earned Butterfield a Vision Grant, awarded by Humanities New York to support graduate students working collaboratively with community-based organizations. Butterfield used funds from the grant to begin her project in the summer of 2021.
Butterfield is researching the story of the Northup family, a free Black family from upstate New York, and the family’s involvement with the Morris–Jumel Mansion. “The idea was that I would come up with a program that would narrate the history of the Northup family at the site and figure out how to sync that in with the interpretive program,” said Butterfield.
Although the Northup family was not enslaved, Solomon Northup, the family’s patriarch, was deceived, drugged and sold into slavery by two white men. This tragedy separated him from his family for twelve years, which he spent in slavery in the Bayou Boeuf plantation area of central Louisiana’s Red River valley. Northup later wrote about his experiences in a memoir called Twelve Years a Slave, which in 2013 was adapted into a movie of the same name.
In her husband’s absence, while also fighting to repatriate him from slavery, Anne Northup and their children worked as laborers for Eliza Jumel at her home, now the Morris–Jumel Mansion museum.
Butterfield’s project required extensive research, but the pandemic posed some difficulties – and opportunities. After working diligently to design rooms within the mansion with artifacts and figurines that showcased how the Northup’s lived their lives as laborers, she realized a piece was missing. Because of the pandemic, the museum had stopped offering commentary from a museum guide. This limitation inspired Butterfield to create postcards that guests could read as they guided themselves through the mansion.
Butterfield’s passion for museums and historic sites was first piqued on a field trip with her American history class to the Tenement Museum. “I just really connected to the way that they were telling those stories in that space,” she said. “These people whose stories were being told were immigrants who had been nameless and faceless in my history books. At the museum, it was different. They intentionally focused on the identities and impact of these immigrants, and that left an impact on me and the type of museum work that I want to do.”
Butterfield is thankful for the NYU community and the support and resources that it has afforded her so far. “NYU has given me a lot of opportunities to grow and thrive, especially with this project. My academic advisor connected me to Morris-Jumel,” said Butterfield. “Also, the classes that I have taken have given me a lot of knowledge about how to write grants.”
As far as the future goes, Butterfield would like to continue to work on projects that give a voice to those who would otherwise not have a voice. She is also interested in educating young people and pushing for social equity by re-telling the stories of those whose memories would otherwise be forgotten.
“I am interested in working on programs that address the legacy of people who have endured immigration, slavery, violence, and all other issues that are still a part of our world today,” said Butterfield. “I want to be a part of organizations that are having thoughtful and considerate conversations about these issues and are actively spreading awareness about it.”