Tag Archives: slave quarters

Facing the Past, Facing Your Family

I recently attended the Facing the Past, Freeing the Future: Slavery’s Legacy, Freedom’s Promise symposium which was presented by Randolph College and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. Regrettably, I could only attend on Friday, April 4th but it was a full and good day.

The program opening talk was given by Dr. John d’Entremont, Theodore H. Jack Professor of History at Randolph College. He examined 250 years of how enslaved people built and reformed America through slavery’s existence and destruction and how America grapples with the institution’s legacy and the promises and imaginations of freedom. In fact, his initial comments were that we were meeting on the 149th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Richmond in 1865 and 45 years after Martin L. King, Jr.’s assassination.

Following this, Dr. Theresa Singleton moderated a panel which included Dr. Barbara Heath, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, author of Hidden Lives: The Archaeology of Slave Life at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest; Lori Lee, Ainsworth Visiting Assistant Professor of American Culture, Randolph College; and Jack Gary, Director of Archaeology and Landscapes, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. They discussed how archaeology, especially at Poplar Forest is helping to recreate the material world of slavery at Jefferson’s “retreat” which of course was not a retreat for the enslaved community working and living there.

In the afternoon, Annette Gordon Reed of the Harvard Law School, well-known for her books Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses: An American Family moderated a panel of descendants of black women whose ancestors were caught up in the Diaspora (though one lady’s family was a 20th century move) and most of the panelists were descendants of people who were once enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. However, one panelist, Gayle White is descended through what is likely one of Jefferson’s great-grandson (Side note: Gayle and I met each other in 2013 and discovered we are distantly related).

 

Annette Gordon-Reed moderates afternoon panel "Black Memory."

Annette Gordon-Reed moderates the afternoon panel “Black Memory.”

The morning and afternoon panels were preceded by two one-person representations of fictional blacks who were transitioning from slavery into the post-Civil War period. The morning presentation by a student representing an enslaved woman who had a child with a slave, a child with her former owner and expected to never see him again, and working on transitioning into her new life. It was well received by the audience and she captured the emotions of her character well.

 

Poplar Forest slave quarter area

Morris Lockhart discusses the area where slave quarters were discovered by archaeologists. Sadly, as you can see in the back of the “ghost” structure, modern development has inched into the area.

In the late afternoon, the participants went to visit Poplar Forest. Apparently, the tours there have in the past been very focused on the architecture of Jefferson’s retreat house, which was heavily damaged by fire in 1845. Later alterations inspired a restoration which has included reconstructing elements of the house which have disappeared over the years from the fire and later alterations. While this was the first tour they did which took us to a place where archaeologists located quarters for the Poplar Forest slaves. On my tour, the guide shared stories about William (also called Billy) who went to Monticello in 1812 to learn a trade. However by 1817, he was sent back to Poplar Forest because Jefferson did not like his attitude. Two years later, William attacked an overseer and William ran to Monticello to plead his case to Jefferson. Exactly what happened after that is unclear though William remained at Poplar Forest. Then in 1821, William and two other enslaved men attacked another overseer. They were arrested, tried and William was convicted for attacking the overseer and was burned on the hand and whipped. After this, Jefferson had four men, including William sent to Louisiana. He later tried to escape but was recaptured and sold in New Orleans. Other stories were shared such as Field Hubbard, whom Jefferson gave some small amount of money to to dig his back lawn. In the basement of Poplar Forest, there were exhibits but as we were on a guided tour with a tight timetable, we didn’t get to explore this in any detail. In the house, there is a surviving door made by John Hemmings, who was a joiner and cabinetmaker and a brother to Sally Hemings. This is especially unique considering the 1845 fire and later alterations of the house.

 

 

Nevertheless, the trip to Poplar Forest was a nice treat. Certainly, one of the challenges I found at that site is that since Jefferson did not live at Poplar Forest full time the detailed records, like those at Monticello, are not present. What was the enslaved community’s life like at Poplar Forest?

One way this has been addressed is through the archaeological work that has been going on about 30 years out at Poplar Forest. I’ve got my own work to do in reading Barbara Heath’s book and Jefferson’s Poplar Forest: Unearthing a Virginia Plantation which was edited by Barbara Heath and Jack Gary. However, I’d be ready to go back to Poplar Forest in the future to see how their work is progressing.

Another challenge is that slavery, nor history, stopped when Poplar Forest was sold outside of the Jefferson extended family in the 1820s. In the morning session, Lori Lee and Jack Gary shared information about the Hutter family who owned Poplar Forest in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s. Surviving slave quarters from the late 1850s are still standing but in need of restoration and additional interpretation.

This 1857 slave quarter still remains at Poplar Forest. It most likely housed enslaved domestic servants.

This 1857 slave quarter still remains at Poplar Forest. It most likely housed enslaved domestic servants.

 

The greatest part of this program for me was meeting Prinny Anderson and Tess Taylor, who are white descendants of Thomas Jefferson and seeing Gayle again. My own family tree is linked with the Jefferson family; not as directly as Prinny, Tess, or Gayle. My fourth great-grandmother was an Eppes and Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson’s mother was an Eppes. I am a distant cousin of Mrs. Jefferson. However, Tess and Prinny are very open to recognizing that there are all sorts of relationships that human beings develop. In some of those relationships, children are born. The circumstances of interracial relationships in the 1800s are mostly unknown and often (as has been the case publicly in the Jefferson family) have been hidden, denied, or purposefully distorted.

Sometimes our interpretive challenges rest within our own families and how we deal with them often is more a reflection about us than our ancestors.

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Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites

On April 21, I posted a video link to a C-Span recording of a session filmed at Monticello regarding interpreting slavery at historic sites. Much of this is centered on a project at Monticello to reconstruct in part or in full Mulberry Row, a series of outbuildings, plantation industrial buildings and slave quarters which sat adjacent to Jefferson’s twice-built mansion.

The author with two friends at the site of a slave cabin along Mulberry Row at Monticello in 2008.

The author (center) with two friends at the site of a slave cabin along Mulberry Row at Monticello in 2008.

Having had time to fully listen to the conversation I had a few thoughts and a few questions for y’all.

The panelists were Sara Bon-Harper, new executive director of Ashlawn-Highland, one of the homes of President James Monroe; Frank Sanchis, World Monuments Fund, United States Programs Director; Ed Chappell, Architectural research director at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; and Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology at James Madison’s Montpelier.

As you’ll see if you watch the video, a lot of the discussion is centered on past case studies of reconstructions of buildings at Colonial Williamsburg and Ashlawn-Highland and methods of interpreting space not reconstructed consume the conversation of Dr. Reeves and Frank Sanchis. However, there were some points made by the panelists and the audience that I think bear repeating.

Sara Bon-Harper reminds us that we often only see the plantation core such as the big house and a kitchen and perhaps a few other outbuildings when visiting historic plantations. We therefore miss the larger plantation landscape. Quite often, this is because a historic site only includes that core as previous owners only saved that core or sold the agricultural and woodlands associated with the estate years ago. Where those lands remain, visitors are either too pressed for time to explore the many acres or there is limited access to those fields provided by the site. Furthermore, unlike in the era of slaveholding, there is usually nothing in the fields now but meadow grasses or woodlands that were not there historically.

Ed Chappell brings up a good point regarding the reconstructed Peyton Randolph slave quarter/kitchen/servants’ hall and the current interpretation there. While the reconstructed spaces contribute to broadening our understanding of the Randolph family and urban slavery in Williamsburg in the eighteenth century, often now when people are cooking in the Randolph kitchen it is being done by white employees. They certainly are well intentioned but Chappell (and I) wonder what type of message does that send? Are people really understanding race relations in eighteenth century Virginia or becoming focused on the cooking demonstration?

The thought of what kind of message are we sending is echoed in Reeves’ comments about the Montpelier slave descendants coming to see Montpelier after the exterior restoration was finished. They were not impressed with the railroad ties and grass representing where the slave housing existed in the Madisons’ time. The foundation has currently installed three-dimensional timber-framed half-finished ghost structures to represent smokehouses and slave quarters. As Reeves states, these buildings juxtaposed with the mansion house create an interpretive tool.

Mr. Sanchis’ comments were centered on his passion for preserving original buildings. He recognized several times that there are few original slave quarters remaining but was generally opposed to reconstructions of missing buildings. Often times, I admit, I found myself in strong disagreement with his commentary especially regarding visitors ability to distinguish reconstructed versus restored buildings (though some of the audience discussion seemed to reaffirm his position; I still think most people can make those distinctions when told). Frank’s comments regarding the Arlington original slave quarters being so altered that he did not feel the originality was curious to me since I had just been to them. While it is true, there have been many changes to those quarters since the 1800s, I still felt the power of them in my recent visit there (which I blogged about). One of the projects Arlington is doing now is restoring one of the buildings with better attention to the details than had been done in the 1930s-1950s when they were interpreted honestly as cottages. One thing he said I agree with, however, I’m curious what you think so I will pose the question later.

One comment from an audience member who works at Colonial Williamsburg is only partly true. While there have been various Blacks affiliated in some manner with Colonial Williamsburg as an operation it is not true that Blacks have always been seen interpreting the experience of eighteenth century free blacks and enslaved people. At least by the 1950s and 1960s, Colonial Williamsburg operated on a specific day of the week for African-Americans to visit the site. Like nearly everything, Colonial Williamsburg was segregated. Recently, a new acquaintance of mine, Tiya Miles reminded folks at a conference to consider that Blacks often had no clue how they would get from their home to a vacation site during the era of segregation and racial violence. Hotels and restaurants often would not serve Blacks and stopping to get gas had the potential to get violent or at least uncomfortable.

Annette Gordon-Reed brought up a concern that reconstructed (and the few originals remaining) slave quarters are often seen as “quaint” by visitors (as was the earlier furnishing of the Arlington slave quarters in the 1940s and 50s) and she wonders how we can make this not seem the case.

Finally, I thought one of the audience members made an amazing point that I was emphasize. Slavery should be interpreted at plantation sites throughout the mansion house tour. Segregating the story to a separate tour, making slavery seem like a beneficial institution for all, or ignoring the story is not acceptable. There are artifacts of slavery in the mansion houses at these sites: who poured wines and served meals in the dining room? Who made the beds in the bedrooms? Who lit the fires throughout the house?

So on to my questions for you (and I hope to hear from y’all with some thoughts/answers/maybe more questions):

  1. In the discussion it was suggested the reconstructed buildings be placed elsewhere for interpretation. How could Monticello illustrate Mulberry Row for the masses of people who come to the site without the reconstructions being on Mulberry Row?
  2. Frank Sanchis asked if there was something to be gained by doing a living history at a plantation site. Are people really grasping what slavery was like through living history?
  3. Sara Bon-Harper’s point about the plantation core is true, so how can plantation sites represent or illustrate the totality of the plantation owner’s lands to the public who are at the mansion house?
  4. Frank Sanchis states that he finds there is little cooperation between historic sites regarding how they interpret slavery. For those of you who are museum professionals, do you find that is true?

So what do you think?

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