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Archaeologist’s experience with historic sites propels her work as a scholar and educator
Story by Ann Whitcher-Gentzke; photo by Nicholas McIntosh
For archaeologist Cheryl J. LaRoche, BA ’82, each object in a dig is imbued with some form of personal history or cultural significance. This is especially true when studying the burial grounds of Africans brought to America as slaves, or exploring the Underground Railroad that allowed escaping slaves to find freedom in the North. Working as a conservator in an African burial ground in lower Manhattan in the early 1990s, LaRoche found herself in the middle of a contentious debate about who could best analyze, evaluate and preserve artifacts of African experience in colonial America.
LaRoche, who teaches African-American visual and material culture at the University of Maryland, steadily developed her academic and research career by focusing on archaeological hotspots like the New York burial ground, then finding the tools and training she needed to do more. “In New York, I was mending and conserving artifacts, but I couldn’t speak about what they meant,” she says. “I couldn’t speak about the larger context because that was reserved for others. I wanted to think more broadly about the artifacts we were finding, put them in context and think about the meaning, the history, the visual culture that was involved.”
At this point, LaRoche began to expand the work she had done for her master’s degree at SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology where she first encountered archaeology as part of a program in decorative arts and conservation. Earlier, she did conservation framing as owner of a picture frame shop after graduating from UB with a double major in art and psychology. After receiving her PhD in American studies from the University of Maryland and being recognized for her efforts at the New York burial ground, LaRoche was tapped to work on a significant site in Philadelphia—the grounds of George Washington’s executive mansion when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. Once again an archaeological quest had far-reaching import.
“We pretty much knew that the main footprint of the executive mansion probably had been destroyed,” LaRoche says. “But the outbuildings, the kitchen and the areas where the enslaved population may have worked, might have survived.” Although the slave quarters remain buried, excavation of the outbuildings led to a movement among historians and Philadelphia’s African-American community to focus on the story of George and Martha Washington’s nine slaves when the President’s House site opened at Independence National Historical Park in 2010.
LaRoche observes that her work has often been associated with thorny public issues, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “The New York burial ground, for example, was the place where I began to learn to listen to the public, to engage with the public, and to walk the line between my intellectual community and the academic discourse required there, and to translate what is sometimes dense scientific discourse and bring it to the public.”
Today LaRoche consults on Underground Railroad sites across the country, blending her teaching with research and consulting work. In 2011, she received the John L. Cotter award for “scholarship that is truly outstanding” from the Society for Historical Archaeology. She lectures widely and strives for curricular advances that would make African-American history a part of the core curriculum at all educational levels. “I think African-American history is a very important and effective vehicle for teaching so many of the precepts that we actually want our students to learn philosophically at the undergraduate level,” she says. “And it is something about that field that most educators don’t understand.”
New York, N.Y.
Attended schools in France, Japan and Germany while her father served in the military
Yoga and meditation as a Buddhist
Recent books read
“My Song: A Memoir” by Harry Belafonte and “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson” by Wil Haygood
Mother of three daughters and a grandmother
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