“Kneading in Silence: A Glimpse Into The Life of Judah the Enslaved Cook.”

National Park Service Ranger Shannon Moeck of Belle Grove and Cedar Creek National Historical Park (and admittedly a friend) has taken some time to work with Kristen Laise, executive director of Belle Grove Plantation to put together a program Shannon titled “Kneading in Silence: A Glimpse Into The Life of Judah the Enslaved Cook.” She did the program on July 30, August 6, August 13, August 20, September 3, September 10, September 17, and September 24. I finally had the time to attend on September 24th.

Shannon was thinking deeply on this subject as she told the crowd of 52 visitors that she included “kneading” because of the work that Judah performed as a cook at Belle Grove Plantation and she included “silence” because of the lack of documentary evidence contemporary to Judah’s life about her. Furthermore “silence” was included because later generations have too often ignored the experiences of those who lived in slavery.

With that context, Shannon began populating the plantation, noting the owner, Isaac Hite had married Nelly Madison (sister of the President) and that the big house at Belle Grove was finished in 1797 and that Hite remarried after Nelly’s death to Ann Maury. Shannon read aloud an August 25, 1785 letter in which James Madison, Senior (father of the President) conveyed 15 slaves to Isaac Hite, Jr. A portion of the letter helps to illustrate the perpetuation of slavery indefinitely as Madison, Senior wrote in part, “To have and to hold the said 15 slaves together with such of their increase as may have happened since the last day of March one thousand seven hundred and eighty two, and all their future increase to the said Isaac Hite Jr. and his heirs forever.”  Just to clarify “increase” means children and “future increase” are the children of the 15 slaves as well and those children’s children and the subsequent generations. All of which Shannon connected back to the 1662 Virginia statute that the condition of the child’s is dependent on that of the mother. So the Hite’s plantation grew from those slaves that Hite, Jr. inherited from his father as well as those conveyed to Hite, Jr. by his father-in-law to the natural reproduction of the enslaved community and also purchasing. Eventually there were some 276 enslaved people at Belle Grove between 1783 and 1851.

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NPS Ranger Shannon Moeck in the basement kitchen.

Shannon asked visitors to consider just the types of work that the enslaved domestic servant staff would have performed at Belle Grove and how we really in the 21st century don’t think often about this work: from making candles to use to see with after dark; to making soap for a variety of tasks; to doing laundry for multiple days instead of a couple of hours with machines to wash and dry.

Still, Shannon notably said that this program would likely cause more questions than answers based on the paucity of source material. It was not, as she noted, a program about slavery everywhere and across all space (time and geography). It wasn’t even a program fully about the life of those enslaved by the Hite family at Belle Grove. It was instead a “glimpse” (again because of the lack of materials) into the life and work of one person: Judah.

Judah was owned by the Bowman family from her birth in 1794. She was purchased by Isaac Hite, Jr. from his cousin, Abraham Bowman about 1816 along with her two children. She served as the cook until her death in 1836. While at Belle Grove, with an unknown man (or possibly men) Judah had ten more children. Because of the lack of information from Judah’s own hand or that even of her children, Shannon passed around small cards with the names of Judah’s children and when they were born. The visitors read the names and birthdates aloud to those gathered as Shannon attempted to “give some voice” to those who had been silenced for too long.

For all those children, only daughter Maria (born February 15, 1825) has a group of children that the documentary evidence sheds light on. Shannon again had visitors read aloud the names of Maria’s children: Emelia (b. Sept. 4, 1844) Amanda (b. Jan. 28, 1847) Willis (b. Aug, 31, 1848), and Ann Eliza (b. Jan. 25, 1850). Shannon asked the audience: “What happened to the other children’s children? Did they have children? Who are the father/fathers of Maria’s?”

While we were in the kitchen underneath the house, Shannon asked us to take a moment and imagine. Imagine the sounds Judah heard from the parlor upstairs while the Hites, their children, and guests would gather within this beautifully decorated and appointed room with carved Corinthian pilasters and carpeted floors. Imagine the heat and relative darkness from this kitchen. Imagine when Judah was pregnant and was lifting pots and pans or cutting up vegetables. She pondered aloud in a way that forced the audience to think too: “How does Judah care for her children?” “Where did Judah live? In this room? In a quarter nearby?”

Weeks before her first program, Shannon asked me how she could better help to showcase the skills of Judah in cooking when there isn’t a lot of evidence from the Hites about their meals on a regular basis. I suggested that she employ a tactic that I have used: read a recipe from a historic cookbook that is tied to the family.

Shannon indeed looked into the Hite family’s records and there was a historic cookbook from which Shannon read a recipe.

Shannon read from one of the pieces of evidence about Judah’s life from Ann Hite, the second mistress of Belle Grove. She wrote to a friend of hers in 1836 about Judah’s death and how awful it was for Judah’s children, the last one, Jonathan was just five weeks old at the time of Judah’s death. She lamented too that she had lost Judah which was an “inconvenience” because of course, Judah had provided many meals for the Hites in their elaborate dining room.

Shannon asked us to consider what “legacy” means to us. She contrasted that with the Hites’ legacy inclusive of furniture, land, silver, a large house, children, and slaves. What then was Judah’s legacy? In large part we don’t know because we don’t have enough information about Judah’s children: unlike that of the Hites. Judah didn’t live to see any of Maria’s children but she knew what all enslaved parents knew: the condition of their children and future generations followed that of the mother. So Judah died and left twelve children as the personal property of the Hite family. She may have had plenty of hope that slavery would end but in 1836, she had no realistic idea of when or if that would ever happen.

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Belle Grove Plantation’s big house.

Several visitors asked good questions at the conclusion of the program and Kristen Laise and Shannon asked people to spread the word that Belle Grove is trying to do to undercover the history of any person who was enslaved at Belle Grove. With Belle Grove now under the leadership of Kristen and the Belle Grove & Cedar Creek National Historical Park, I believe that research will continue and I hope that anyone out there who has information (written or good oral history) will come forward to continue to flesh out the stories of those who could not and did not leave a written record of their life in bondage.

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