Tag Archives: plantation

“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.


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.


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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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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Notes from the Front

I’ll soon have a new post about my recent trip to Baltimore; but, in the interim here are some news stories on a variety of issues:

The disgusting news that part of the Dachau Concentration Camp gate was stolen: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/pat-gate-dachau-concentration-camp-stolen-26638489 .

The more pleasing news that Prince William County, Virginia has successfully moved a historic home that once belonged to former slaves. While it is always preferred that a historic house remains in its historic setting, development pressures forced the building to be moved in 2004 and now to a place for its long term preservation. See more about that: http://www.insidenova.com/headlines/special-delivery-home-of-freed-slave-moves-to-montclair/article_df4d2d9c-62a2-11e4-aa6a-d79f017cf5a5.html .

Montpelier, the estate that belonged to President James Madison, has been given $10 million by David Rubenstein. $6.5 million will go to research and refurnishing the original house of President and Dolley Madison and another $3.5 million will go toward reconstruction of slave quarters that have long since vanished but have been investigated now for years through archaeology. See more about this exciting news: http://thegrio.com/2014/11/01/james-madison-slave-quarters/ .

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News from the front

I apologize for the lack of posts. Between work and recent travel, I just haven’t had the time.

Nevertheless, there is some good and interesting news from the front.

First, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources added nine more sites to the Virginia Historic Landmarks Register. Among the most interesting is the Robert Russa Moton boyhood home. Moton was  a black educator and author born in 1867. In his adult life he served as an administrator at Hampton Institute and following the death of Booker T. Washington in 1915, he became principal of Tuskegee Institute until his retirement in 1935. The boyhood home was slave quarter which was slightly altered in the aftermath of slavery for the recently freed people. The building is regrettably in a perilous shape and immediate attention will be required for its preservation. Photos of not only the Moton boyhood home but also the big house on the Pleasant Shade plantation can be found here: http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Counties/PrinceEdward/073-0030.MotonHouse.photos.html

Another interesting new site added is Walnut Valley Plantation, which is inside Chippokes State Park in Surry County. It includes a circa 1770 big house and a circa 1816 slave quarter. Photos can be found here: http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Counties/Surry/090-0023_WalnutValley.photos.html

The full list is here: http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/state-regional/virginia-landmarks-register-adds-sites/article_e3065924-e63c-11e2-8e39-001a4bcf6878.html

Another interesting bit of news comes from Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison and more than 100 enslaved men, women, and children. You can learn more about the archaeological work being done to investigate the quarters of the Madisons’ field hands here: http://www.montpelier.org/blog/update-quarter-field-slaves

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Surry County’s visit with Joseph McGill

Preservation Virginia hosted Joseph McGill, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose Slave Dwelling Project came to Bacon’s Castle in Surry County, Virginia on October 5th and 6th. Mr. McGill is a descendent of slaves and with the  Slave Dwelling Project he travels to and sleeps in slave dwellings across the country to raise awareness of the need to preserve these structures so important to our history.

Unfortunately, I was not able to go, but I was particularly pleased to see the press coverage here. Within the link, you will find that two sisters took advantage of the treat to sleep where their great-great-grandmother Camilla Pierce may have slept or at least passed by as, Camilla Pierce was born into slavery at Bacon’s Castle in 1830.

I encourage you to follow Mr. McGill’s efforts here.

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