Tag Archives: American history

The Hemings Family Tour

I recently had the opportunity to go on the Hemings Family tour at Monticello. A group of 14 people including myself attended this program, which our guide rightfully noted is “probably the most famous enslaved family in American history.”

The tour began on the west side of Jefferson’s home before moving on to the south terrace. There we were able to take in the view where importantly, our guide, Mr. Bill Bergen noted that most of Jefferson’s enslaved laborers were not members of the Hemings family nor worked in and around the house. The majority of those slaves worked in the fields planting predominately grain crops in Jefferson’s years as a Federal public servant, including his years as President and in his retirement from public life. He pointed out the various farms that could be seen from our vantage point, which looked down over this area. One certainly can’t help but think of Jefferson looking over this same space to attempt to monitor the field hands.

View of the agricultural fields at Monticello where most of Jefferson's slaves planted, tended, and harvested his crops. Photo by author.

View looking towards the agricultural fields at Monticello where most of Jefferson’s slaves planted, tended, and harvested his crops. Photo by author.

Quickly Bergen returned to the topic of this tour: the Hemings family. He made clear that the Hemings are a tough subject for many people. As he said “We will deal with some tough subjects but they are important to understanding the Hemings’ and Jefferson.” On this tour we entered the house the way the Hemings (and other enslaved domestic servants) would have, not from the grand entrance on the east side of the building.

Once underneath the entrance hall in the cellar, we were given a piece of paper with the Hemings family tree starting with the matriarch, Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings (1735-1807). After giving a small history of her, Bill pointed out the “Crossroads” exhibit which features cutouts of Martha Jefferson Randolph (Jefferson’s eldest daughter and longest living child) but also members of the Hemings family: Burwell Colbert, a butler; Priscilla Hemmings, the woman who provided a great amount of child care for the Randolph children; Betty Brown, who was a seamstress and lady’s maid; and Harriet Hemings, a girl who also was a seamstress and had other skills. The space had some interactive items: a replica portion of the dumbwaiter used in the dining room in Jefferson’s time as well as a call bell, which other visitors were consistently ringing. The space, with other visitors not on this tour, other employees not giving the tour, and our own presence certainly gave the feel for a lot of hustle and bustle. We ascended a narrow staircase, which forced some people to comment about the struggle in getting materials like food up and down the narrow staircase.

We moved through the principal rooms of the first floor as most visitors to Monticello do; but this time not with an eye to the pelts and bones in the entrance hall. Rather, it was Burwell Colbert would have greeted visiting people at the door. He or others kept this room (and others) warm in the winter. He probably was in charge of keeping the massive clock going in that same hall. Colbert was the subject and the actor here. How he worked and what he did. Jefferson was included of course, but not in the way you usually hear about him on the “normal” tour of the house. Let me be clear though (having been on the traditional tour), Burwell Colbert is discussed on that tour.

In the South Square Room, where Martha Jefferson Randolph’s small office/Jefferson library overflow is represented, the guide created some interactions between Colbert and Mrs. Randolph. In addition, a small writing table is reproduced based on one made by John Hemmings (1776-1833—side note: he unlike the other members of the family seems to always have two m’s in his surname).

The discussion about John Hemmings continued in the book room and book annex, where Mr. Bergen encouraged us to look at the woodwork and reflect on the craftsmanship of John. He asked the audience about what would be advantages and disadvantages in a system of slavery of working in and around the owner’s house. Also, he asked what might have been some advantages and disadvantages of having the light skin of the Hemings in a time where skin color really did inhibit people’s understanding of other people. Visitors were willing to engage with this (though only two of us, self included were black).

After a quick walk through the parlor, we were ushered into the bedroom of Jefferson. There we discussed Burwell again who also saw to Jefferson’s needs as his personal servant. Our guide explained the Burwell was one of those that Jefferson freed in his will and he was given $300 to buy tools that could be used for his skills as a painter and glazer. For me, whenever I go to Monticello I can’t help but stare at the alcove bed and think about the saga of Sally Hemings.

The tour went into the dining room where the wine dumbwaiter and the static dumbwaiter were not described as a unique little Jefferson invention but rather as a way for Jefferson to limit the amount of slaves seen by people in the dining room.

We went down into the south dependency and into the kitchen. Bill Bergen discussed James Hemings (1765-1801), who Jefferson took to Paris, France when James was 19 years old. For three years, James learned the art of French cookery and though he was technically not enslaved in France then, Hemings returned to the United States. While in Philadelphia, Jefferson and Hemings agreed that if Hemings taught another slave of Jefferson’s the art of cooking in the French style, Jefferson would emancipate James. This was done in 1796 and here Bill Bergen noted that we have the clear sign that James was also educated. James compiled an inventory of kitchen items at this time. James’ brother, Peter filled the void. In 1801, Hemings as a free employee returned to work at Monticello briefly before dying of what appears to be suicide later that year.

After a quick five-minute break, the tour began again outside the South Dependency. Here, the guide pointed out that one of the rooms in the south dependency housed Sally Hemings at one point. That room (which had been a restroom) will have archaeology done and work will go forward with representing the space, as Sally would have experienced it.

View of the southern wing which includes a room that was used as a slave quarter. Work will be done to begin a restoration of the quarter space. Photo by author.

View of the southern wing which includes a room that was used as a slave quarter. Work will be done to begin a restoration of the quarter space. Photo by author.

We went over to the weaver cottage/slave quarter on Mulberry Row, one of two original buildings that survive on the row. As a part of the “Mountaintop Project” (heavily funded by David Rubenstein), the cottage will get much needed restoration work to bring it back to its appearance when Jefferson lived at Monticello and when free and enslaved laborers worked in this space. This is another space that the guide pointed out that Sally Hemings occupied at one point.

 

View of the reconstructed John and Priscilla Hemings cabin. Photo by author.

View of the reconstructed John and Priscilla Hemmings cabin. Photo by author.

 

We finally came to the reconstruction of John Hemmings’ and Priscilla Hemmings’ (1776-1830) cabin. Mr. Bergen encouraged us to take note of the petrified chinking that was discovered in an archaeological investigation with the imprint of a hand on it. One visitor asked if the size of the slave quarter was typical. He noted that though the building was not original it was recreated based on archaeology and contemporary historical documentary evidence. He did state that one exception was that the log chimney would have likely leaned further away from the structure in the event of a fire the chimney could be pushed away from the rest of the structure to save the majority of the structure. We went inside the cabin where there were some items such as dishes, a table filled with some personal items, and one bed. There was also a root cellar represented but unfortunately moisture was trapped beneath the Plexiglas so as to prevent us from seeing what foodstuff was represented in the root cellar. Another visitor asked if there would have been bedsteads for children or if they slept on the floor. Here Bill explained that the best evidence beyond the archaeology of the site was the account of Martha J. Trist’s (great-granddaughter of Jefferson) 1889 memoir recalling the interior of the cabin. Jefferson’s granddaughter, Cornelia also provided some description of what was in the space by recounting Priscilla’s death.

It was also outside the reconstructed quarter that we delved into Sally Hemings (1773-1835). Mr. Bergen noted that the story dates back to the early years of Jefferson’s presidency and is shrouded in mystery as neither Jefferson nor Sally Hemings made any public or private written statements. Jefferson’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren attempted to push the blame onto other family members. The 1999 DNA testing had to be done with a male Jefferson family member not of a direct descent to Thomas Jefferson because Jefferson lacked a son. However, the evidence did prove it was a Jefferson (not a Carr) who fathered Eston Hemings (and probably all of Sally Hemings’ children who were all light skinned and three light enough to pass as whites). He also noted that the post-1999 vogue idea for those who cannot imagine Jefferson having children with Sally, has been to blame Jefferson’s brother, Randolph. He highly credited the thinking of Annette Gordon-Reed. He said “I doubt a man would have thought of this; but, she looked back at the 9 months prior to Sally having a child and found Jefferson was at home and no evidence of Randolph having been at Monticello.” Bill said that some people have left Monticello as employees since this controversy of the late 1990s/early 2000s but that others have come on and are willing to deal with the reality: that it is very probable that years after Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was dead, Jefferson had a relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings. He said that some people on the other end of the spectrum feel like the foundation doesn’t go far enough in calling out the way in which Sally may have had these children (i.e., by force); but, he said it is impossible to know if any legitimate feelings of love existed between the two or not.

In all, I thought the tour was well received and conceived. Mr. Bergen noted that Monticello could not have existed without slavery. From the very removal of part of the top of the mountain, to the brick masons and carpenters and cabinetmakers, to those who made clothing and dumped urine and feces out of chamber pots, over to those in the fields. The Hemings were clearly the focus but their unique set of circumstances was also not privilege. Some family members were able to be free, at least Sally’s oldest sister, Mary had a long-term relationship with a white man. Still, she was not able to get her four enslaved children out of slavery after she was free. James Hemings (son of Critta) was whipped and later escaped (though interestingly enough, Jefferson did not go looking for him). And some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren suffered the fate of many slaves: sold at auction because of the debts of a single slaveholder.

In this tour the Hemings enslaved community had names and families but also were talked about in an active voice. They loved, they worshipped, they resisted the institution of slavery, a small few were emancipated, and they suffered under the yoke of bondage. I would say that my only real critique is that I wish more time had been given to day-to-day life of these people. One example is in Jefferson’s bedroom there is a chest of drawers with some personal bric-a-brac. It would have been easy to discuss Burwell Colbert’s interactions with these items as Jefferson’s personal servant as a means to illustrate Burwell’s work and drive home the point about work in the “big house” not necessarily being easy. It’s always a good time to see what Monticello is doing and certainly now, as Bill Bergen said: the staff is more committed than ever to not using passive voice and getting the story of slavery out to the public.

 

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Civil War History Article

I apologize for the silence lately. I’ve been busy engaging with history (as usual), just not in any way to make a substantial post here.

Today I received my copy of the June 2016 Civil War History. Back in March 2013, I, along with hundreds of others attended the Future of Civil War History Conference. The conference was both fun and enlightening in many ways. I was happy to be on a panel regarding U.S. Colored Troops during the war.

In the aftermath, there were plans for a book length project of essays to address various themes in the conference. Unfortunately, life happened, illness struck, and a host of other decisions that resulted in the book going to the curb. Instead, there would be fewer essays and still, Kevin Levin, Beth Parnicza, and I were asked to participate in an essay. The title of the essay, “Interpreting Race, Slavery, and United States Colored Troops at Civil War Battlefields” appears in this June issue of the journal.
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My section of the essay fulfilled the needs of the article (though I’m still unsure if I like the emphasis on me). What I really am hoping is that people will substitute the historic names of the real people who existed at the sites I help interpret and my name and look at their site(s) and insert themselves and the names of the historic characters at the site(s) that are interpreted. 

The other articles are equally interesting and should challenge those who write history for a living, teach in classrooms (K-12 or college/university), and who work at historic sites to ask themselves and continually ask themselves: how can I use more techniques to reach my audiences to connect with the complicated history of the Civil War era.

Regrettably, the article isn’t posted online. But I think the preview paragraph on the journal’s website gives some hint as to where Beth and I go with our texts. Kevin ably shaped and edited the article so it reads well.

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Interpreting Christmas and Slavery

Let me apologize for the silence. However, I’m back to what I affectionately call “my poor, neglected blog” for a seasonal post.

This week an article appeared about a Christmas program at Gunston Hall, the plantation owned by George Mason (an often forgotten Founding Father) located in Fairfax County, Virginia. The program they had was titled “Plantation Christmas” which is a program about Christmas in the late 1700s. The author notes that various folks on Twitter were critical of the event through the site’s marketing and through a photograph that appeared on Twitter from David DuVal, director of marketing and public relations.

The site’s executive director responded to Mother Jones and you can read the article for yourself. What I’m less interested in is talking specifically about Gunston Hall and talking broadly about interpretive output at Christmas events at historic sites.

I am known around some in the museum community as the guy who hates “cider and cookies programs.” They exist at 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century sites from Maine to Florida and from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to California. I actually like cider and I like cookies. However, what is the purpose of these programs? What window do they offer people into the specifics of the historic site or the historic context of the people who lived/worked at this place?

I took this subject on in my work (which y’all know I attempt to steer clear of discussing on my personal blog but I think in this case it is valuable).  We had a program at the Grant’s Headquarters at City Point unit of Petersburg National Battlefield years ago that featured cider and cookies, Christmas carols, dancing on the lawn, Civil War Santa, and kids’ crafts (such as construction paper chains and stringing popcorn and cranberries). In December 2001 (my first year working this program), I decided to insert a lecture about the lives of enslaved people during the Christmas season somewhat broadly but also bringing out information about the folks who lived and worked on the Eppes family’s plantation. I gave the program twice to a group of about 30 people each time.

The next year I suggested canceling the Christmas program to give us time to dig deeper into Richard Eppes’ diary to investigate the specifics of Christmas in the 1850s and 1860s on this plantation. We did not have a program again until 2007. I organized a group of living historians to assist me in representing specific people who were at the Eppes’ plantation (white and black) at Christmas 1858. A loose script was developed and I e-mailed the details of individual enslaved persons, the Eppes family, and their visitors. There were three stations (one in the big house parlor, one in the kitchen/laundry, and one outside on the lawn). This allowed people to hear about the lives of these people and their perspectives during this specific time of year (when a lot of us reflect back on our lives’ broadly, the past year, family, religion, and discuss preparations and gifts).

Gone now was Civil War Santa (it’s the 1850s after all), a Christmas tree (the historic record noted the first Christmas tree in the house in 1866), no more stringing popcorn and cranberries, no dancing (no evidence the Eppes’ did this outside or inside the house), and instead the interpretation happened of this specific site in the context of the 1850s and based in primary source evidence.

Christmas18582007

Christmas 1858 (in 2007) with living historians portraying Elizabeth Eppes, Susan Slaughter, and myself as George Bolling.

The program ran the next year and then in 2009 we started following the 150th anniversary of events (2009 was Christmas 1859, 2010 was Christmas 1860, 2011 was Christmas 1861). Each one wrapped in the evidence from Eppes’ diary and other contextual materials where the diary was lacking. There has not been an event 2012-2015 because the Eppes’ plantation complex rapidly disintegrated as a result of the Eppes family’s refugee status during the war and the enslaved people’s desires to be free and their own action of escaping in the spring and summer of 1862 and Union occupation from May 1864 through the end of the war.
A challenging component to any of these programs is shifting the focus back onto the people who lived these experiences: good, bad, and the ugly. For example, Christmas 1858 was a happy period for the person I was portraying, George Bolling who got married having successfully convinced Richard Eppes to allow him to marry someone who wasn’t on the plantation (which Eppes usually did not allow). However, that in and of itself opened the door for the interpreter to discuss with the visitors on these tours the degradation of adults who were enslaved. Black adults asking one man who has decreed in his mind that he should get to say on who others can marry.  George and his wife undoubtedly had concerns within that happiness about the stability of family when a slaveholder might breakup the union. Yet the preparations for the wedding spoke to the power of love to endure great strains.
Plantation sites have a lot of unresolved stories because the people who experienced slavery died long ago with many of those same people not feeling at peace. Our job in being able to connect our sites with the public should strive to not continue perpetuating slights to those whose stories have often been hidden in the shadows.

I agree with the comment of the Twitter user @slwill who asks if the story of the enslaved and the slaveholder are combined. I cannot speak to the program at Gunston Hall (though the site director says that they are committed to finding out more about Mason, the idea of slavery, and the specifics about the enslaved people at Gunston Hall); but, this should be a question always asked by interpreters at sites with connections to slavery. How can we (who work in these sites) help open up conversations with our visitors about the multiple perspectives that slaveholders, overseers, visitors, and the enslaved viewed the “big house,” the associated outbuildings, and the stuff within those buildings? We have to start with being honest about who built and maintained these structures, who cleaned silver and laid it out on dining tables, and the feelings that the enslaved person may have gotten from a pretty piece of art versus that of the slaveholder.
Tours guides and printed literature must carefully have the tone that shows they are serious about being inclusive of the variety of experiences people had on the plantations, in city houses, and at industrial sites. The tours must be grounded in the hard, but rewarding work, of primary source research. The research should be multi-disciplinary combining archival work, historical architectural and historical landscape design, archaeology, and material culture (or in other words–the stuff people owned whether it survives or not). The stories discussed with visitors that come about from this work must also be honest (slave trading, whippings, threats, resistance, etc.), and they must be human (all the people on the plantation have humanity–even negative human traits). Tell the stories of love/heartache, hate, ideas, courage, success/failures, faith, intelligence, beauty, fear, generosity, and creativity. The brilliance of what is often seen in these places of slavery (furnishings and buildings) could only have been sustained through the variety of enslaved persons who built and maintained buildings, planted/tended/harvested crops, dusted furniture, washed dishes, made nails, pried open oysters and turned them into soups and sauces, and washed clothes. These stories must exist alongside the stories of the slaveholders, because that was the lived experience of slavery.

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Evaluating the Civil War Sesquicentennial

First, let me apologize for the lack of posts. I had an idea prepared but real life made me reconsider posting. In fact, blogging in general has gone in a direction that I’m not interested in. So the posts will be much more infrequent which inevitably will mean some of you will forget about the blog. I am sorry about that.

That said, back in August I was on a panel with several other folks regarding an assessment of the Civil War 150th. I will maintain that I am tired of the narrative that the 150th was a “failure” simply because each event didn’t have 50,000 people at them. The 150th commemorations varied in scale, places, and indeed more people saw more about the Civil War than they did during the centennial. I know for one, no one in my family attended anything during the 1960s commemorations when they were still attending segregated schools in Southside Virginia. Yet, members of my family did join me on some programs during the 150th.

The 2011-15 commemorations and promotion had the benefit of not only print media and word of mouth, but social media platforms online.

The link to the conversation can be found here: http://www.c-span.org/video/?327502-2/discussion-evaluating-sesquicentennial and I welcome any sane feedback.

Thanks!

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Confederate Flag Controversy

“The Conquered Banner,” Library of Congress.

First, let me apologize for the lack of posts.

Secondly, let me say that the link below is the *ONLY* thing I have to say about the latest Confederate flag drama. There are many other bloggers (several of them I consider friends and/or great historians) who have long followed this. I have consciously opted to ignore it on this blog. However, it is hard to ignore these days. I know some people have asked me my opinion. I extend my thanks to my friend, Dana Shoaf, editor of the Civil War Times for asking me to share my thoughts.

My thoughts can be found here: http://www.historynet.com/embattled-banner-the-convoluted-history-of-the-confederate-flag.htm.

People are welcome to disagree but any profanity/racism/nastiness will not be approved in the comments.

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More on Finding Your Roots controversy

As some of you may be aware now, Ben Affleck released a statement about the episode with Henry Louis Gates.

However, there is more troubling news surrounding Gates. Gawker got access to the script. So it is clear Gates knew about the request from Affleck as you can see in the link of timing of the e-mails versus timing of the air date. It’s also clear that the initial plan was to include Affleck’s slave holding ancestor.

I do not know why Gates censored this through editing. I really enjoyed this show but I am left wondering, what else has been cut or altered? The best line I ever heard about genealogy: You have to take your family tree. All of it. When you start trimming branches, you leave a part of your history on the ground.

Seems strange that Henry Gates became the gardener in the history field.

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The Complexities of Families, Historic Sites, and America’s Past

As many readers are aware, it was revealed through the Sony e-mail hack that Henry Louis Gates censored the family history of Ben Affleck in an episode ofPBS show “Finding Your Roots.” Mr. Affleck requested that this be done. 

I don’t know why (or if) Affleck thought this would somehow damage him. Honestly, I thought more of him as a man who is involved with charity work. He clearly has not followed the path of his ancestor who did own someone.

I join my friend Kevin in wondering more what does this say about Gates and the show? Gates in some ways blows this off saying there were more compelling stories.  He said in part:

“Finding slave-owning ancestors is very common in our series. You can see why when you remember, for example, that 37% of the families in Georgia, where Ben’s ancestor lived, owned slaves in 1860, the year before the Civil War broke out.”

Indeed, slaveholding was common. Gates obviously knows that. While I don’t blog generally about my own family, my great-great-great grandfather was a slaveholder (my third great grandmother a free mulatto woman). Through him, an overwhelming number of the white members of my family tree owned people of African descent from the 1700s through the end of the Civil War.

Why do people have a need to be connected to what they perceive as great American moments, i.e., the American Revolution (Mr. Affleck was very happy about that) but not want to grapple with the complexities of the subjects of race and gender in the past? Furthermore, why do modern people feel the need to deify people of the past?

So often historic sites engage in this behavior too. Fortunately, our historic sites are getting better with this but some people create all sorts of narratives that often say more about our modern political thoughts or personal feelings when we (who interpret and manage these places) should be using the documents/objects/buildings/landscapes to best offer how what happened, even if that is uncomfortable (like slaveholding or historical genocides) and even if it involves people that were respected in their community, in their nation, and/or beyond (think American Presidents).

A parting thought I have is that we (Americans) often have a need to dwell on why we’re exceptional. The nation would do well to remember how woven slavery was in the colonial period and through the Civil War and how its collapse was equally woven into the nation’s history. Slavery was an awful institution but it was not exceptional to only the United States and the nation benefitted from the common-practice.  Historic sites and museums should be places to have the discussions that have for so long been pushed aside in an effort not to ruffle anyone’s feathers.

So certainly, Mr. Affleck (and anyone else) can request that these aspects of their family’s past be skipped in the final version. However, I think Henry L. Gates should have pushed for this story line to be included in order to show how pervasive the institution of slavery was.

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