Tag Archives: interpretation

“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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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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Remembering and Interpreting the Slave Trade

There is a very good article about remembering and interpreting the trade in human beings in this country. You can read it here: http://www.citylab.com/politics/2015/02/americas-failure-to-preserve-historic-slave-markets/385367/ . Some of you may know there has been a long debate in Richmond about interpreting the slave trade in Shockoe Bottom and some of that is captured in the aforementioned article.

A friend of mine asked me this morning if preserving places where people were bought and sold would be similar to preserving a death camp. Then the important follow up question was “Would some folks be upset by it?”

My response was that certainly some folks would be. I’ve routinely seen people upset by the fact there are museums and historic sites talking about plantation and urban slavery. Yet, this is something often preserved in plain site. Honestly, we think about the urban slave markets like in Richmond, Alexandria, Charleston, and New Orleans but really courthouses and nearby taverns and hotels were often ground zero for selling men, women, and children.

Furthermore, the selling of people was so integrated in American culture that almost no region of the colonial or antebellum America was completely clean of it. Nor many places in other areas of the world. When people say America was built on the backs of enslaved people, some folks get upset. But the truth is, there were cities, banks, railroads, and industry that were dependent on the products produced by enslaved people and some of them were dependent on participating in buying and selling the actual people too.

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1853. Image hosted virtually through "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record" (http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php). You can click directly on the image to go to the it URL.

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1853. Image hosted virtually through “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record” (http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php). You can click directly on the image to go to the it URL.

 

If you haven’t yet, you need to check out the Library of Virginia’s “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade” exhibition. This exhibition is open until Saturday, May 30, 2015.

My research has turned up that sales happened in front of my county’s courthouse, built in 1851. Have you ran across advertisements for slave sales at your courthouse? Found any court records denoting the sale of people at the courthouse? Are there any places in your city where you’ve found people were bought and sold? Are you aware of any effort to preserve and interpret those places?

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Museum of the Confederacy and American Civil War Center Merger

Rumors have circulated for the last several months that the Museum of the Confederacy was exploring a merger with the American Civil War Center at Tredegar. Today, the news broke that despite denying it initially, it is true.

In the initial rumors there was outrage from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a group of Confederate Flaggers (which I refuse to discuss on this blog). In fact, some of my friends and acquaintances (who are not in either of those organizations) are dismayed. Still within this merger, it appears to me that the Confederate Memorial Literary Society is here to stay. It unclear at this moment, how the old museum space will be used (beyond the gift shop) and how many visitors may go to the Confederate Executive Mansion.

The Confederate Executive Mansion in the spring of 1865. Today, this building is surrounded by the Medical College of Virginia creating confusion for the Museum of the Confederacy’s visitors. Image in the Library of Congress’ collection.

It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that I have over the years been a member (and clearly remember not renewing for a while when there was a proposal to move the Brockenbrough-Crenshaw mansion from its original location) of the Museum of the Confederacy. I believe that the institution protects important documents and materials related to the wartime and post-war South through its gamble in creating a separate nation and the methods of remembering the Southern wartime experience. I know some talented folks over at the Museum. Yet, it is clear to me that they have been in a challenging situation with the Confederate Executive Mansion and its neighboring 1970s building now dwarfed by the expansion of the Medical College of Virginia.

The Museum of the Confederacy has had its fair share of interpretive challenges since 1896. Certainly for many decades the issue of slavery and its importance to the Confederate government and many of its white residents was ignored. The impact of slavery on and the notion of freedom among the millions of enslaved people living in the wartime south were also ignored. The 1990s saw the beginnings of changes to the familiar Lost Cause tropes and exploration of race and gender and the new satellite Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox even explores the memory of the Confederacy and the flags.

Yet, for those who are so outraged, failing to support the Confederate Memorial Literary Society could contribute to the disintegration of the very artifacts and documents you profess to want people to have access to. There has to be a balance between the old line supporters of the Museum and new methods to engage the public. I hope that this will be successful; but, I am going to take a wait-and-see approach instead of throwing my hands up in protest or rolling out a red carpet too early. It remains to be seen if the larger public will throw in their support.

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“Was he bi-polar?!” OR Interpreting the Violence of Enslavement

This post’s title is inspired by comments that I have recently been asked while interpreting a slaveholder at work. I include the same overall historical facts in all of my tours of the plantation big house; though I vary the arrangement of the words. The owner of the property had a few enslaved laborers who were clearly his favorites. He complimented their “good conduct” and the work they performed. If unsatisfied with that work he “scolded” or “spoke to” those whom he liked. He gave monetary gifts at Christmas to most of the enslaved community (by 1860, 113 individuals) and for his favorites, he gave monetary gifts at other times of the year.

Yet, these were a few individuals and it is clear even as they were his favorites, he still believed white Southerners were superior to people of African descent. As members of the enslaved community resisted his authority, he, like the clear majority of slaveholders, turned to a variety of non-violent and violent methods to show that the slaveholder held considerable power. I’m interested in telling my visitors about the tug-of-war over who had more power (those who were enslaved or the enslavers) and the techniques both used in that power struggle.

So the question I hear “Was he bi-polar?” strikes me as strange because I have no belief that this plantation owner was bi-polar. I also have no ability to make that judgment 117 years after his death. What I think this stems from is a lack of our plantation sites or museums including the violence of enslavement.

Often visitors to historic plantation sites are invited to witness the “splendor” of furnished rooms or to understand the “hospitality” of the plantation owners. Yet the majority of the people who lived (and labored) on these plantations were people of African descent not welcomed into the grand parlors or elaborate dining rooms of the people who owned them.

The wonders of the Internet make is possible for us to see a variety of plantation rules, such as Joseph Acklen, who lived with his wife Adelicia at Belmont Mansion in Nashville and the sugar plantations she got after the death of her first husband (who was a well-known slave trader). As you can see here whipping was how he, his overseers, or agents dealt with the enslaved laborers he owned.

While it appears Thomas Jefferson preferred not to whip people, his overseers did perform the task (see Lucia Stanton’s “Those who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). Enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon, home of the nation’s Revolutionary hero and first president were whipped by overseers and Washington supported the whippings as a means to control those who resisted. Wesley Norris, former slave at Arlington, the Custis family estate (now dominated by the Arlington National Cemetery), recalled he, his sister, and one of their cousins ran away in 1859. Their escape failed and upon return to Arlington, he recalled Robert E. Lee, administrator of George Washington Parke Custis’ estate, ordering the overseer to whip them. The overseer having balked at this task, Lee had a local constable called in who was told by Lee to “lay it on well” (see Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters).

Aunt Sally being whipped

Slavery and violence go hand-in-hand. Slaveholders thought nothing about their carrot and stick methodology to try to control the enslaved men, women, and children on their properties. The interviews conducted with former slaves illustrates the personal experiences of individuals who coped with a series of non-violent threats (such as the thought of sale), non-violent actions (selling people, cutting off access to food, or restricting a person’s ability to leave the slave owner’s property), violent episodes (such as rape, mutilation, or the extremely common whippings), compliments, and rewards. I cannot think of a single slaveholding site or museum that exclusively discusses the brutality of enslavement (it would be historically inaccurate to do so); but I can think of many that refuse to engage with the vicious nature of human bondage.

We need all of these places to use the historical record (i.e., eyewitness accounts) to present a full record of the events that occurred on slaveholding properties. As hospitable as someone could be to a sibling or neighbor is as wicked as he or she may be to an enslaved person on a given day and then be complimentary of that same enslaved person some weeks later. I am not convinced that slaveholders were on the whole “bi-polar;” but, I am convinced that historic sites and museums still have more research to undertake and (most importantly) have to broadcast their findings in a responsible way.

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About “Ask A Slave”

This past week I received approximately 20 people sending me a YouTube web show called “Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey who portrayed an enslaved maid at Mount Vernon. Through this medium of YouTube she shares some insensitive and not very thoughtful questions asked by people at Mount Vernon (and at a host of other sites that deal with slavery). Like others I appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project. My friends want to know “What do you think?”

The problem I have with this show is that interpreting enslavement in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts must be taken seriously by the presenter and also by the receiver. Poking fun at visitor inquiries is not the best method of interpreting (to be fair this web show is not claiming to interpret). However, the questions posed by visitors are their (albeit often poorly worded) way to find some information regarding the lives of people of African descent who were enslaved. It is the interpretive staff’s job (and if you’re lucky—their passion) to relay the truth of historical events.

As someone who regularly interprets slavery for employment and as a hobby, I have been asked many of the questions presented in the “Ask A Slave” episodes. Sometimes it is while I am portraying a real or composite character of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and other times it is while wearing modern clothing and doing third-person interpretation.

One issue visitors most often return to is why slaves did not run away from a degrading institution. The question, even in first person, should be answered thoughtfully and not flippantly.

Visitor Question at 18th century slave site: “Why don’t you just run away through the Underground Railroad?”

Flippant answer: “What is a railroad?”

Visitor: (internally agitated/angry) “You know what I’m talking about! Harriet Tubman and all that.”

Flippant answer: “Well, I don’t know about any Harriet Tubman or this railroad. Maybe you need to be checked into the insane asylum.”

I received this exact question from a young girl and her father in 2008 when I was portraying an enslaved man in Massachusetts at Minute Man National Historical Park. The event was built around those of us in historical reproduction clothing experiencing (and helping visitors experience) life outside Boston in the summer of 1774 with the port of Boston recently closed.

My friend Neal (at right) and I portrayed a New England slaveholder and his enslaved laborer, Peter, at Minute Man National Historical Park. Here we are in front of the Hartwell Tavern (built 1732-1733).

I was in the Hartwell Tavern, which had reproduction newspapers scattered about. I used the props and encouraged the father-daughter team to really think about where it was that an 18th century enslaved person would go. Through our day-long interactions, the daughter read the reproduction 18th century newspaper for runaway ads. She sometimes read them to me and as she read about red headed, freckled Irish indentured maids or Scottish male indentured servants I had to tell her, “But young lady, you see those people do not look like me. There are not a lot of people who look like me around here (see the 1765 Boston census here).”

Daughter: “Oh.”

She left and came back a while later and said “Well, can’t you get on a ship and leave?”

I said “Oh no! I can’t get on a ship. The port of Boston is closed because of the anger of the people here with the King. Remember that in the newspaper?”

The father and daughter: “Yes.”

Me: “Furthermore it may be a slave ship and then I get sold.”

Family: “Oh.”

Finally I explained (all while never breaking character), that I certainly could not go to Virginia or South Carolina or Georgia for slavery was there. I could go west but what about the Indians and I asked even if I left the colony, where would I land and be free? I asked them whether they liked sugar to which they said they did, the girl (like most kids) loving candy. I asked if she knew who harvested sugar in 1774. She did not. I told her that it was in the Caribbean islands where thousands of slaves worked, most of them only living a few years before dying and then the plantation owners there would bring in more people. We talked about tobacco and rice as well all based on fact but also what my character had heard through the grapevine.

This family walked away with some knowledge about 18th century slavery without reading a 400 page book and in fact, partly discovered through their own work why there were not wholesale disappearances of enslaved people in the 1700s toward some other place. The details about the coming of the Revolution were less important for me than those portraying the Sons of Liberty.

At our mid-19th century historical sites in the context of more vocal anti-slavery people, groups, and the presence of the Underground Railroad, interpreters have to balance why slaves did not run away with other methods of resistance.

All of this reminds me of a post I recently saw through social media where someone asked a friend of mine a very important question:

“What are some intelligent questions to ask a slave [someone portraying a slave is what was meant]?  I’ve wanted to engage some ‘slaves’ in conversation before, but frankly I feel too inadequate.”

Questions to first person characters do require some contextual thought. You should not ask someone portraying Mary Lincoln what it was like to have her husband murdered if you’re attending a program that talks about the Lincolns in 1863. The assassination is two years in the future. The same would be said for not asking someone portraying a slave in Florida what it is like to meet Frederick Douglass. Most enslaved people never met the “famous” folks of the past regardless of race, economic station, gender, etc.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

Generally, any question you have is probably one that the interpreter is willing to answer. I’ll tackle some good ones that always need an answer:

  1. Why did the former slaves on this plantation/in this urban dwelling stay here after the Civil War?
  2. What kind of work do YOU do? What kind of work do other people do here? Easily flipped for non-character portrayals to “What kind of work did the enslaved people do here?”
  3. What is the most difficult thing for you each day?
  4. What fears did the enslaved people have regarding their interactions with the community at large and specifically their owner and his/her family?
  5. Can you tell me about your family? (And don’t leave it to the person having a spouse and some kids.) Follow ups: What do grandparents do here? What does your little girl do here? How do you take care of your children? When do you see your siblings?
  6. Where did the slaves live? What happened in the slave quarters? Why were those quarters built there and not somewhere else?
  7. When the slaves here got angry, how did they show their unhappiness?
  8. Have you ever been punished by the owner of this place? (And if the interpreter answers no, ask why not. If yes, the likelihood is the interpreter will tell you.) OR How were the enslaved community here punished? OR I’ve read about whippings but where were other ways that a master/mistress may discipline enslaved people?
  9. What sources do you have about slavery at this place? Did the owner leave records? Are there any interviews done with former slaves who worked and lived here?
  10. What types of food did the slaves eat? When did they have time to eat? Where did they eat?
  11. What will you do now that you’ve been emancipated?

These are just some immediate thoughts that came to mind. Others can be asked if you are in a very specific situation. The more you know the better questions and dialogue you can have with the interpreter(s). Tweaking the above questions will work for a first person conversation or one taking place in the 21st century with 21st century interpretive staff.

Again it bears repeating that this web series is not interpretation and it is not claiming to be; however, “Ask A Slave” may create uncertainty from the public to ask professional or volunteer staff the tough questions about slavery and those people who experienced it in bondage or as the slaveholder. As I visit historic sites from battlefields to plantations to museums in modern buildings dealing with historical events, I continue to be amazed that as much progress as one place has made another site has not.

I welcome questions and comments at work, in other presentations, and here. I ask questions when I am a visitor. I am not asking to simply create a “Gotcha!” moment. I am curious to see if the site has researched the lives of enslaved people and their work because it illustrates that the staff values that information and finds it important to share.

Often the change our historic sites need come from the questions visitors have. Hopefully some of what I have said above will allow all of us to think about what types of questions are we asking. Equally, our staff (professional or volunteer based) needs to be able to intelligently answer in a manner that allows people to get the most meaningful answer to create historical understanding.

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A Visit to Arlington House

Recently a friend and I visited Arlington House. I will not retell the history of the Arlington estate in this post but direct you to check out the website.

Side view of Arlington House including the massive front portico.

Side view of Arlington House including the massive front portico. Photo taken by me.

I will retell the experience we had at the site. Upon entering the area immediately around the house, visitors gather on the front portico which has a stunning view overlooking Washington, D.C. The ranger explained a few details of the house’s architecture regarding the brick construction to which stucco was applied and scored to look like marble. He then explained that this was the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington and step-grandson of George Washington. He noted that Custis and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis had only one child to survive to adulthood, Mary Custis. The guide noted that Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831. He then saw an opportunity to get us into the house and said he could allow 15 into the building and so we progressed forward into the central hall.

The family parlor at Arlington is where Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831.

The family parlor at Arlington is where Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831. Photo taken by me.

In the hall we had a ranger who explained that we could look into the Family Parlor, which is where Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee were married. She also explained that the main portion of the house where we were standing was not finished until 1818. The crush of the next group pushed us along while we picked up brochures and some other literature and snapped some photographs of the Family Parlor and Dining Room. We passed through the Hunting Hall and then upstairs.

Upstairs, for an unknown reason to us, a volunteer was engaged in a deep discussion with some visitors about Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). Perhaps he had been questioned by the visitors about Lee at Gettysburg. Thus I couldn’t fault the volunteer, though, I wished there had been some interpretation about the Custises and Lees at Arlington. As there were a lot of visitors upstairs and more coming, we had to be quick about our looking into the bedrooms. The staff was in the process of repositioning the furnishings in these rooms. Arlington’s furnishings were removed from the house for a few years while a major restoration took place, interrupted in part by the now infamous 2011 earthquake.

The White Parlor at Arlington was not finished until 1855 and the Lees purchased fashionable Rococo Revival furnishings for the space. When we think about the beauty of these furnishings, we must also think about who had to clean and maintain these items. In the Lee household, that task fell in part to the enslaved housekeeper, Selina Gray.

The White Parlor at Arlington was not finished until 1855 and the Lees purchased fashionable Rococo Revival furnishings for the space. When we think about the beauty of these furnishings, we must also think about who had to clean and maintain these items. In the Lee household, that task fell in part to the enslaved housekeeper, Selina Gray. Photo taken by me.

Back down the stairs we go and through the White Parlor and then into the Morning Room. It was there (finally) that I didn’t feel pushed along by the force of the people progressing through the house. The ranger in this room explained the art painted by G.W.P. Custis, several of which were exhibited and all of which show George Washington during the Revolution. Additionally, she stated that it was in the office that they believe Lee wrote his letter of resignation from the U.S. Army in 1861. She noted that Mrs. Lee spent a considerable amount of time in this room as her rheumatism decreased her mobility in the 1850s. I questioned her about how many slaves the Custises owned. She responded about the 63 that were at Arlington. I clarified “As I recall, there were over 200 scattered across all the different farms?” She said “Oh yes, that is true. Properties that extended into multiple counties.” She then launched into a discussion about Selina Gray, who was an enslaved domestic servant that was not taken by Mrs. Lee and her children but rather left to guard the Washington and Lee family furnishings in May 1861. The ranger (rightfully) credited Gray’s determination to see the furnishings preserved by the occupying Federal troops during the early months of the Civil War. Then we exited the back of the building.

So I have asked myself some questions:

1. When touring the house did I learn anything about slavery? Not as slavery was practiced by the Custis or Lee families at Arlington or as it was experienced by the 63 people who lived and worked as slaves there.

2. Did I gain any insight on the relationships between slaves and masters? Somewhat through the story of Selina Gray but in that case it was more about the relationship between Gray and the Federal troops.

3. Did I learn anything about the relationships between slaves and other slaves? No.

So we progressed on to two surviving slave quarters for domestic servants in the rear of the Custis-Lee mansion. These two slave quarters are masonry, covered in stucco and composed of three rooms. The south Slave Quarters has an exhibit on slavery and the Freedmen’s Village and a model of the Freedmen’s Village. The village established during the Civil War, was a camp of thousands of slaves who had escaped in search of freedom.

George W. P. Custis painted this horse to represent one of George Washington's above one of the doors on the north Slave Quarter. Two others depict the American eagle. All of these Americana scenes, ironically painted on a building to house people whom at no level of government were considered American citizens. Photo taken by me.

George W. P. Custis painted this horse to represent one of George Washington’s above one of the doors on the north Slave Quarter. Two others depict the American eagle. All of these Americana scenes, ironically painted on a building to house people whom at no level of government were considered American citizens. Photo taken by me.

The panel “Slavery and Emancipation at Arlington” discusses individual enslaved people’s stories, perhaps one of the most interesting to me was Sally Norris, who prepared bodies for burial amongst the enslaved community. Photographs were present of several people as well.

It was also within this panel that you learn some of the names of the people who worked and lived at Arlington. Men like Lawrence and Jim Parks, who were field hands and Eleanor Harris and Ephraim Derricks who were domestic servants.

Interpretive signage is generally short, which makes this one rare with three full paragraphs. Some sentences did raise curiosities which needed further explanation such as “Far from powerless, many slaves possessed significant authority, and sometimes dictated the daily routine at Arlington.” What did the slaves do at Arlington to dictate the daily routine? I think the inclusion of Sally Norris helped illustrate that slaves possessed some specific authority.

The panel highlights manumissions given by George W. P. Custis and the dispersed status of some of those manumitted. Even though the site’s subtitle “the Robert E. Lee Memorial” could lead to a wholly one-sided view of the famed Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commander, this panel did not ignore the reality of the enslaved community’s dislike of Robert E. Lee compared to G.W.P. Custis. In one statement you can see that Wesley and Mary Norris ran away (though the story as printed on the panel does not follow-up what happened with them).

The north Slave Quarter has just recently been vacated of office space and a bookstore and is undergoing rehabilitation to reflect the people who lived in the building. The interpretive panels in this space were some of the best at the site.

This interpretive sign gives you a sense of how this building was used. Notice that Eleanor Harris lived upstairs and she aged considerably in her years as she once was George W. P. Custis' nurse and then his daughter Mary's nurse, and later a housekeeper as noted in another sign.

This interpretive sign gives you a sense of how this building was used. Notice that Eleanor Harris lived upstairs and she aged considerably in her years as she once was George W. P. Custis’ nurse and then his daughter Mary’s nurse, and later a housekeeper as noted in another sign. Also notice the photographs of the 1959 interpretation of these rooms. Photo taken by me.

In the center room, you see a floor plan of the structure which shows how the spaces were divided. The center room was occupied by Nurse Judy, while the room to the left on the lower floor housed father and son, both named Daniel Dotson. Both were coachmen and Old Daniel Dotson also served as a butler and mailman (presumably someone who took letters to be mailed and picked things up from an unknown location). Perhaps the most surprising element on this sign was the discussion regarding Custis’ manservant and gardener, Ephraim Derrick who reportedly smoked cigars on the portico with Custis at night and then closed up the house at 10PM. The inclusion of the possibility of Derrick sleeping on a pallet on the floor in the hall in order to tend a fire in Custis’ bedroom sends a clear message, however, that Custis did not treat Derrick as an equal.

Also on the same sign was some institutional history. Three photos show how the National Park Service (NPS) interpreted these three rooms in 1959. There was some fairly fine furnishings in these rooms in 1959 which do not accurately reflect how these enslaved people lived in the space. The signs stating “Restoration in Progress” as well as other signs that mention the NPS is embarking on a historic structures report and furnishings plan give great reason to hope that one day we’ll see a more accurate representation of how the domestic servants lived.

While around the north Slave Quarter, we encountered a great ranger, Dean Bryson. My friend and I conversed at length with Dean about the challenges of trying to discuss in any detail anyone (white or black, free or enslaved) when you literally have thousands of people coming through the house daily. But it was also clear that Dean knew and was passionate about Arlington’s plantation history and the NPS’s ownership history. We chatted about those slaves less concerned about the Washington-Custis-Lee family furnishings such as the Bingham family. Dean told us that the Binghams were some of the slaves who reacted negatively to Robert E. Lee’s management of Arlington. Austin Bingham ran off in 1858 into Washington, D.C. where his sister, Caroline and her child were also trying to evade Lee. Fellow blogger Jimmy Price is investigating if their other brother, Lucious may have enlisted in a US Colored Troop regiment late in the Civil War and Dean told us this story as well. We also discussed that while Selina Gray’s determination to save the historical objects associated with George Washington was important, she does present a “loyal slave” narrative. Her image appears frequently throughout these quarters. Dean’s knowledge of the Binghams helps to balance that there were a multitude of feelings within the enslaved community at Arlington. Finally, we discussed the challenges of representing the plantation landscape at large when most of it is now covered by Arlington National Cemetery (not administered by the National Park Service). I am hopeful that Dean may find permanent employment in the agency. We have to have people like him at all our historic sites.

Our final stop was in the Robert E. Lee Museum, housed in a portion of what had been part of a greenhouse. This is the one area of the site that has largely outdated exhibits. However, in the current environment, it will probably remain this way for a while. In a few places the text was difficult to read due to flaking over the years. However, even with the budget challenges, there was a refreshing sign simply typed in a word processing program and printed with your basic inkjet.

This text almost screams of the ragged Confederate, Lost Cause ideology present at many Civil War sites for generations. Like many other memories of Appomattox Court House, this one fails to mention that Lee attempted one last offensive maneuver on the morning of April 9, 1865 before deciding to surrender his army.

This text almost screams of the ragged Confederate, Lost Cause ideology present at many Civil War sites for generations. Like many other memories of Appomattox Court House, this one fails to mention that Lee attempted one last offensive maneuver on the morning of April 9, 1865 before deciding to surrender his army. Photo taken by me.

That sign updated the old exhibit about Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army in 1861. This is based largely on a letter written by Lee and Mary Custis Lee’s daughter also named Mary Custis Lee. The information was discovered by author Elizabeth Brown Pryor (who wrote Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters published in 2007). So can exhibits be updated on a shoestring budget? Yes. Should they be? Not really; however, this temporary fix sits in juxtaposition with the exhibit featuring miniature representations of Lee and some of his family at the time. It elicited curiosity from other visitors and helps to illustrate that history isn’t always something that we’ve known since a long time ago. New research and interpretation is on-going in the history community.

This simple piece of paper printed and laminated helps to address new interpretations through historic research. Public historians can really help to spread the word about academic historians' books and articles as is illustrated here. Photo taken by me.

This simple piece of paper printed and laminated helps to address new interpretations through historic research. Public historians can really help to spread the word about academic historians’ books and articles as is illustrated here. Photo taken by me.

So I have asked myself the same questions again:

1. When touring the slave quarters and talking with Dean did I learn anything about slavery at Arlington? Yes. I asked about Ephraim and the smoking of cigars with Custis as that still fascinates me. It was apparently recalled by one of the former slaves or one of their children when interviewed in the early 1900s. I also heard about resistance to Robert E. Lee. Through the exhibits in the buildings, I saw what slaves were doing in their tasks on the estate and ways that they were entrepreneurs.

2. Did I gain any insight on the relationships between slaves and masters? Yes, Ephraim clearly had a different relationship with the Custis family than many other slaves. Dean discussed how Selina Gray’s domestic service would have made her acutely aware of what were the “Washington Treasures.” And yet, clearly in the panel in the south Slave Quarter and in conversation with Dean, (the evidence comes from Lee’s letters and memories of the formerly enslaved, see Pryor’s Reading the Man) there was unhappiness over Lee’s management of Arlington so evident in some of the Norrisses escape mentioned in the text and discussed by Dean regarding the Binghams.

3. Did I learn anything about the relationships between slaves and other slaves? Yes. Time and time again in the panels in the north and south quarters. From family relationships with the Daniel Dotsons to the people who were freed and that stayed nearby as at that point they were intertwined in marriage and extended family with the enslaved people at Arlington.

So what can be done to address the challenge of the mass of people who come to Arlington National Cemetery and then enter the Arlington house? I’m not sure. Other than creating a timed ticket system, there will be no other way to control all the people. The NPS has a ticket system to access Independence Hall. The boats to Fort Sumter also operate on a timed ticket system. While it isn’t optimal, this could help improve the time spent in the house for fewer people but with greater interpretive power.

I really did enjoy my visit to Arlington house, even though I continue to maintain that it should be remembered as Arlington House, a memorial to George Washington and then left to Mary Custis Lee and a place of bondage for numerous families from 1802-1861. 

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