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  • Ettienne LeFebre

The Esek Hopkins House: Artistry and the History of Racial Injustice

This post is part of a series of case studies investigating innovation in historic site interpretation. The case studies explore new technologies, advanced approaches to storytelling, community engagement, and multi-sensory experiential learning. Research and writing for the series was completed by Ettienne LeFebre during her 2023 summer internship with Groundwork, with contributions and oversight by Gretchen Hilyard Boyce.


The Esek Hopkins House is a National Register of Historic Places listed property in Providence, Rhode Island. The house sits on seven acres of its original two hundred acre site and was historically associated with the first commander of the American Navy, Esek Hopkins. Hopkins built the house in 1756 and lived there until his death in 1805. The property stayed in the Hopkins family until 1908, when the family transferred ownership to the city with the stipulation that the property be preserved in Hopkins memory and utilized as a public park. The house operated as a museum until the 1970s and portrayed Hopkins as a hero despite his notable involvement in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and being fired as Navy commander by George Washington. Since the transfer of ownership, the Providence Parks Department has struggled to preserve the house and promote community awareness of the site due to limited funds. As a result the house was listed on the Ten Most Endangered Properties in Providence List by the Providence Preservation Society in 1995, 2011, and 2015.


Providence Preservation Society, The Esek Hopkins House, https://guide.ppsri.org/property/esek-hopkins-house.

After years of financial problems and lack of community engagement with the site, the Providence Parks Department and the Arts, Culture, and Tourism Department established an artist-in-residency program with the goal to “activate vacant city-owned spaces in public parks across Providence.” In 2020 the Haus of Glitter Dance Company, a creative collective of primarily BIPOC and queer artists, moved into the house. The Haus of Glitter’s primary goal when beginning their “PARKist” residency was to implement community wellness programs at the property. However, their residency goals shifted when they were given access to historic collections at Brown University associated with Hopkins. Led by dance company co-leader Matt Garza, the members studied primary documents associated with Hopkins and developed an artistic response to the site and associated archival materials. The company developed a site-specific multidisciplinary dance performance interpreting the legacy of Esek Hopkins through a less idealized lens, which reinvigorated life and brought attention to a forgotten historic resource in Providence.


Stephanie Alvarez-Ewens, The Haus of Glitter in front of the Esek Hopkins House, 2020.

The performance, “The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins,” tells the story of an unnamed enslaved woman whom Hopkins noted in the logs for his ship, the Sally. The woman hung herself on the maiden voyage of the ship, and the Haus of Glitter were struck that this woman was buried at sea not as part of a group of enslaved people that rebelled or died of disease, but as an individual that Hopkins and the crew were forced to recognize as such. This, and Hopkins notable brutality as a Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade ship captain, inspired the company to create their performance to communicate to the public the untold histories associated with Hopkins: the stories of the enslaved people he transported and delivered to America and the indigenous peoples whose land he occupied.


“The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins” offers a striking and unique visual and auditory performance which also served as an engaging interpretive tool. Garza, who holds an MA in History Education from New York University, emphasized that historic preservation as a field, due to its focus on the built environment primarily, has always privileged white-centric histories. The performance not only offers an updated interpretation of the life of Hopkins, but also encourages the interpretation of slavery and colonization at the site, which is an interpretive shift that can be replicated at other sites associated with early American history. Instead of simply referring to those brutalized as an indistinguishable group, the Haus of Glitter highlighted one individual from the historic record, inferred what they could about her life from the broader historic record of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and told that story as a counternarrative - reminding the audience that the hundreds of thousands of enslaved people transported to the United States were individuals with their own lives and stories.


Erin Smithers, “The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins” site-specific performance, September 2021

The company performed “The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins'' at the Esek Hopkins House in September of 2021. Through music and traditional African and Latin dance, the Haus of Glitter uplifted hundreds of marginalized voices of the enslaved people at the historic site who were previously silenced in the portrayal of Hopkins as an undisputed hero. They combatted white-centric and colonial narratives by honoring the history of this individual woman and her passage on the Sally. The performance’s second act also offered a non-traditional interpretive spin, the Haus of Glitter portrayed a reality in which the woman never died, and instead she created an underwater kingdom after her burial at sea. In this kingdom there was no slavery or colonization, and all people were free. The Haus of Glitter’s intention in performing this imagined reality was to encourage their audience, especially the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ members, to imagine a reality free of injustice, and that imagining such a reality is the first step in making it possible in contemporary society. While the show expands beyond the historic record, it does so as an interpretive strategy that also promotes the advocacy mission of the art collective. The performance was well-received by the Providence community and brought more attention to the once neglected historic house and an expanded understanding of its history.


Although the Haus of Glitter’s residency at the house ended in 2022, the group continues to advocate for the city to rededicate the Esek Hopkins House and include the unnamed African and Indigenous peoples enslaved and displaced by Hopkins in the site’s historic interpretation. In response, the city installed a temporary sign outside of the house and park acknowledging the BIPOC individuals associated with Hopkins. The Haus of Glitter continue to perform their dance opera on tour and co-created the advocacy project “Heal Esek Hopkins” to further transform the history of the site and legacy of Esek Hopkins across Providence.



About the Author

Ettienne LeFebre is currently completing her Master’s degree in Public History at Sacramento State University, with a focus in historic preservation and cultural resources management. Her research centers around the diversification of historic resources, increasing public interest and engagement at historic sites, and the preservation of intangible heritage. She specializes in California and Southwestern U.S. history, and aims to preserve historic resources related to the complex and diverse histories of these regions for the benefit of contemporary communities. In her free time she enjoys hiking along the American River, reading, creative writing, and exploring Sacramento’s incredible food scene.


References


Alumni & Friends - Brown University. “Reimagining history through radical art.” YouTube. June 17, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdxxtzmER3w.


Barnett, Chris. “Rhode Island Foundation awards $25,000 fellowships to three RI artists.” Rhode Island Foundation, June 13, 2023, https://rifoundation.org/news/rhode-island-foundation-awards-25-000-fellowships-to-three-ri-artists.


Brown Alumni and Friends. “Reimagining history through radical art.” Brown University. May 18, 2022. https://alumni-friends.brown.edu/news/2022-05-18/haus-glitter.


Brown University. “This is America: Re-imagining Memorials and Commemoration.” YouTube. March 11, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50j-nW5LVvs.


Chhaya, Priya. “Regeneration: The Haus of Glitter’s Intervention to Transform the Esek Hopkins House.” National Trust for Historic Preservation, March 14, 2023, https://savingplaces.org/stories/regeneration-the-haus-of-glitters-intervention-to-transform-esek-hopkins-house.


The Haus of Glitter Dance Company / Performance Lab. “Highlight Reel: The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins: An Activist Dance Opera.” YouTube. September 17, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbUqieC8GBM.


“Heal Esek Hopkins.” Heal Esek Hopkins. Accessed July 10, 2023. https://www.healesekhopkins.com/home.


Jurado, Juan de Dios Sanchez. “Scenes From an ‘Activist Opera’ at the House of Yes.” Bushwick Daily, November 22, 2022, https://bushwickdaily.com/arts-culture/house-of-glitter-house-of-yes-opera/.



Murray, Kaitlyn. “House of Glitter and Providence Parks Take Historic Steps with #HealEsekHopkins.” Rhode Island Monthly, January 13, 2023, https://www.rimonthly.com/haus-of-glitter-heal-esek-hopkins/.


“Our Historic Intervention.” The Haus of Glitter. Accessed July 2023. https://www.hausofglitter.org/home/about.


“Esek Hopkins House.” Providence Preservation Society. Accessed July 10, 2023. https://guide.ppsri.org/property/esek-hopkins-house.


RI Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. “Come Back to the Future conference Day 2 | Curators in the House: Creative Models for Stewardship B1,” YouTube. September 1, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqcRVsVNHbU.


Solondz, Simone. “The Revolution Will Be Choreographed.” Rhode Island School of Design, May 10, 2022, https://www.risd.edu/news/stories/haus-of-glitter-dance-collective-visits-risd.


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