Karleigh Kochaniec standing at bookshelfKarleigh Kochaniec is working with the Amherstburg Freedom Museum through the Local Black History Internship Program.

Internship pairs history students with museum

The best collaborations are born out of a mutual need and opportunity.

Last fall, history professor Gregg French established the Local Black History Internship Program between the Department of History and the Amherstburg Freedom Museum. Early this year, they received a Mitacs Accelerate Program grant to support this initiative.

The museum’s assistant curator, Lorene Bridgen-Lennie, said she and Dr. French thought it would be interesting to have interns highlight the museum’s family history series.

“Each month, I research and write about a local Black Canadian family in Essex County which is shared on our website,” Dr. Bridgen-Lennie said. “The intern is adding to the family history series by conducting further research and mapping out the settlement of these families during the 19th century which is not something I have seen applied to Essex County to this extent before. The research is an extension of the family history series which adds to the Amherstburg Freedom Museum’s collection.”

French says the position is meant to give the interns a chance to use their knowledge: “We want to provide students with an experiential learning experience which will enable them to take those skills that they’re learning inside the classroom and apply them in a practical way in the field.”

Undergraduate history students were invited to apply for the internship, and Karleigh Kochaniec was hired. Kochaniec graduated in May with a BA in history and women’s and gender studies, with distinction.

The internship is divided into two sections. The first portion occurred during the winter semester and involved conducting approximately 10 hours per week of secondary research. This researched enabled Kochaniec to immerse herself in the field of study and prepared her for forthcoming archival research.

Starting on May 1, the internship transitioned to the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, where Kochaniec is currently conducting archival research and preparing a permanent exhibit for the museum.

“Karleigh was one of my strongest students in the two courses that I teach on the history of Black experiences in North America,” says French. “So, she was certainly familiar with the topic and also had some pre-existing knowledge about library and archival research, having worked under Dr. Sarah Glassford at the Leddy Library.”

As Kochaniec is conducting that archival research at the museum, she will still be looking for a needle in a stack of needles. But her previous experiences will provide her with the necessary knowledge and skills to know when she has found one.

“I have spent the last few weeks going through primary documents and searching for information related to understudied Black settlements in the Windsor-Essex region,” she says. “Although I have done research on local Black history in the past, there is so much more I have yet to learn.”

Kochaniec is building on the research conducted by staff at the museum and by other historians, and seeing what else she can learn from their work. This is what museums do: they create narratives about a specific group of individuals or a specific space or place.

“At the museum, I can access primary sources that I would not have access to otherwise, which is helpful in advancing my research,” she says. “This experience has also allowed me to use the research skills I gained through my courses and focus my efforts on one big project.”

Currently, Kochaniec is trying to map out settlements and show where there used to be schools, churches, businesses, and properties owned or frequented by members of the Black community.

“What I am most looking forward to is seeing the final product at the end of the summer, which will be an exhibit displayed in the Amherstburg Freedom Museum,” says Kochaniec. “I am hoping to include an interactive element to my exhibit, which will hopefully be interesting to the museum’s guests. I’m excited to see where this research takes me, and I hope people will enjoy my exhibit just as much as I have enjoyed the research process so far.”

Mapping Black settlement in Essex County will provide a visual representation of the Black community’s presence and gives a broader picture. Rather than focusing on just one family as Bridgen-Lennie does each month in the series, Kochaniec is mapping out the settlement of many families on one map. This map has the potential to help determine why people settled in certain areas, but also has the potential to share details beyond “this person lived here” or “this church was at this address.”

By incorporating information from the Amherstburg Freedom Museum’s family history series, Kochaniec’s map project can tell the story of people who lived in that specific location which creates an opportunity for the public to feel connected to these locations. This is not only beneficial for the museum and the public, but also the descendants of these families who spend countless hours doing their own ancestral research.

“Karleigh has made a lot of progress in the short time that she has been researching here at the museum,” says Bridgen-Lennie. “The map she has created is already filled with many of the locations connected to these families. She has also uncovered new information which is exciting.”

In August, near the conclusion of her internship, Kochaniec will write a report on her experiences, which will be posted on the websites of the Department of History and the Amherstburg Freedom Museum.

“I wasn't in an archive or repository until the third year of my PhD,” says French. “How can I not right that wrong? How can I provide that experience to students earlier on? I think this is a great way to do that. Plus, we are forming important connections with the community, which I believe is one of the many responsibilities a post-secondary institution has in the 21st century.”

Bridgen-Lennie says the project offers a chance to rewrite the narrative.

“History is often whitewash, but this project allows us to share Black History and Black experiences,” she says. “When Black history in this region is discussed, the focus is usually the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad is extremely important to this region’s history, but we also need to discuss what happened after Freedom Seekers arrived.

“Organizations were created, churches and schools were built, businesses were established, etc. We are trying to share the experience of Black settlers and give them a voice by sharing how much progress occurred in the post-Underground railroad period as well. Karleigh’s mapping project will highlight this progress.”

The history department has been working to expand the opportunities for experiential learning experiences for undergraduate students. This fall, students can enrol in a new honours program, the Bachelor of Arts in History with Co-operative Education.

Students interested in participating in the Local Black History Internship Program during the summer of 2024 should contact French at gregg.french@uwindsor.ca. A formal call for applicants will go out later this year.

—Susan McKee