by ECW Correspondent Emily Losito
Ever since Krista Castillo was young, she knew she wanted to be involved with history.
“I’ve always had this list of life goals that I wrote right before I graduated high school. One of the items on that list was to participate somehow in the sesquicentennial of the Civil War,” she said. “At that point, as an 18-year-old kid, I thought maybe I’ll get to stuff envelopes. Maybe I’ll be a volunteer on some committee; I just want to contribute something.”
Castillo first started working in the records department in Perry Township, OH. From there, she began racking up experience at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH, the Customs House Museum in Clarksville, TN, and completed internships at the President McKinley National Monument and Museum in Canton and at the Don F. Pratt Museum at Fort Campbell, KY. In November 2008, she joined Fort Negley, located in Nashville, as the educational manager. Then, in 2009, she became the site manager.
Built between August and December, 1862, Ft. Negley was one of several fortifications constructed around Nashville by occupying Federal forces. Star-shaped, it was the largest inland stone fort constructed during the war. Although left to deteriorate in the postwar decades, in the early 2000s, the ruins of the fort enjoyed the benefits of a conservation effort sponsored by the city of Nashville, which reopened it to the public. In 2007, the city built a visitor center. Visitors to the site can see the ruins of the fort, hike the trails, watch a pair of films, and explore a small museum—all of which Castillo supervises as the site manager.
Castillo’s knack for history can be traced back to her childhood. “I would have to credit my dad for [my interest.] He is a huge history buff. He read books to us when we were kids and constantly talked about history,” she said. “Vacations were going to historic sites. We would watch documentaries as a family; we would just talk history and politics all the time. That’s where it all really began.”
Castillo added that her grandmother lived in Virginia, so her sisters and she would spend lots of time at the Civil War battlefields like Petersburg. After she graduated high school, Castillo went to Mount Union College with the intention of becoming an Egyptologist.
“The college didn’t offer anything near Egyptology. The college really only had a couple classes in American history, so my concentration as an undergrad was Asian studies…. Then, when I went to Austin Peay, the Civil War class was only offered online and was so popular, I was never able to get into it,” she said. “So my concentration at Austin Peay was American prisoners that were held by the Japanese in the Pacific. But the Civil War had always been my interest, as well. When the job opened at Fort Negley, I took the shot…. I never ever imagined I would be managing a Civil War site during the sesquicentennial. It’s so mind-blowing how fortunate I’ve been. I didn’t expect to be where I am at when I arrived here.”
Castillo doesn’t just sit behind a desk all day at Fort Negley. She can often be found moving debris off of hiking trails, planning events for the park, and putting out actual fires that may have been started.
“Anything and everything can happen. It amazes me,” she said. “Sometimes people come in and they have expectations that the person behind the desk is a student or a volunteer; somebody that Metro Park sent over from the community center. They don’t expect that this is a profession that people actually study for and earn degrees for it.”
Fort Negley has partnered with Vulcan Materials Company to bring fossil piles to the park so visitors can discover and keep what they find. The park has also worked with Vanderbilt University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science to bring another program to the park.
“Students in the ‘Life through Time’ class basically run the whole program, and it’s part of their grade. They give 10-minute presentations on amazing fossil finds, they give tours on the fossil outcroppings, and they help people identify fossils in the fossil pile,” she said. “They explain to people starting from 500 million years ago how time has progressed. So that’s a great event, and it’s been wonderful bringing people out to a Civil War site that probably haven’t considered coming out to one.”
Working at a Civil War park, Castillo gets to do many things behind the scenes. Her favorite part of her job is the research behind it all.
“I have so many research projects at once, which every historian does. Because of my interest in Egyptology and paleontology, I love going out into the fossil pile and finding some examples to show people what they’re looking for,” she said.
Fort Negley has also partnered with the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt University and the Tennessee Historical Society to arrange guest speakers to talk about Fort Negley as a symbol for Civil Rights.
“We’re really trying to change the narrative. Yes, it was built during the Civil War by federal troops in a southern capital, and some see it as a symbol of oppression,” she said. “At the same time, it’s a symbol of liberty and freedom because it was the first step that runaway slaves made towards freedom when they built this fort. It was the first thing they could take ownership of.”
She said it’s an opportunity to show a new perspective and to show new information. There has been some rehabilitation construction at the park to improve its conditions. Castillo thinks that it has changed the perception of Fort Negley since she arrived.
“Prior to the rehabilitation of the site by the Works Progress Administration, there were actually houses that dotted the hillside. Everyone was under the assumption that those houses were occupied by transient railroad workers because the railroad is just yards from the fort,” she said. “But when we went out and started investigating the area, we started picking up household items dating back to the early 20th century. We were picking up nail polish bottles, perfume bottles, cold cream jars; it was just an amazing discovery because we realized there were women and families here, too. It wasn’t just men.”
At Fort Negley, Castillo is the only full-time female employee. She said technically there are only 1 ¾ employees.
“Each summer, we get to hire two seasonals at 300 hours each. This year, we can hire three. We have employed several women in those positions. All of the nature center managers are female, but many of them generally work with men at their sites,” she said. “It can be kind of frustrating…there are times that a man will come in and ask, ‘I want to talk to the person in charge,’ and I say, ‘Well, that’s me.’ And he’ll say, ‘No, I want to talk to the person in charge.’ It’s as if they can’t comprehend that a woman is in a position of authority [at a Civil War park.]”
Castillo has gotten to work with many types of crowds while working at the park. Fort Negley will often have groups of fifth graders come through the doors on a field trip.
“I hope that they’ll consider a job in the history field. I hope it’s empowering for girls. When I lead tours, I try to get across to kids that it’s okay to embrace your inner nerdiness. If you’re a history nerd, just embrace it.”