When I attended the National Preservation Conference in Savannah, Georgia in 2014, I met Kristen Laise, Executive Director of Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, Virginia. Kristen and some of her board members attended a Black history tour that was sponsored by the Slave Dwelling Project. I recall talking to Kristen and her board members about the work that they were beginning to do at Belle Grove about telling the stories of those who were enslaved there. I then pledged my willingness to come spend the night there if the opportunity presented itself. It was one of those conversations that one usually walks away from saying if it happens it happens, if not, so be it.
Fast forward to present and I get a call from Dr. Brian C. Johnson, Academic Advisor and Director of the Frederick Douglas Institute for Academic Excellence at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Brian’s request was for a group of students to have a sleepover experience in a slave dwelling. My immediate response was that they would not have to travel far for that experience. In making the decisions to arrange sleepovers, too much knowledge is not always good. While I was thinking about the slavery that existed in the state of Pennsylvania, Brian was thinking about giving the students an experience at a southern plantation. We will get back to that point.
Enter Lynda Davis. Lynda is from Baltimore, Maryland and is an avid member of the Slave Dwelling Project and a member of Coming to the Table whose mission is to provide leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery. Lynda has a number of sleepovers in slave dwellings in the vicinity of Baltimore, in fact, she has arranged a few of them. So, I consulted Lynda about Brian’s request to spend a night in a slave dwelling with his students in a southern state relatively close to Bloomsburg University.
With all of the aforementioned elements coming together, Belle Grove Plantation fit the category as the site that could satisfy everyone’s request. The only thing missing was the outbuildings where the enslaved would have slept, but the fact that some of the enslaved slept in the lower level of the big house was good enough for all involved. So on Saturday, September, 15, 2016 it was on.
The National Park Service has many sites with extant slave dwellings, however their bureaucracy has been a tough nut to crack. Before Belle Grove Plantation, I had only one sleepover in a National Park Service site. That site was Magnolia Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. Belle Grove Plantation is jointly owned by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With Cliveden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Montpelier in Orange, Virginia already in the portfolio, Belle Grove Plantation would be my third sleepover at a National Trust for Historic Preservation site.
According to its website:
Major Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite (sister of President James Madison) built Belle Grove in 1797. The grandson of Shenandoah Valley pioneer Jost Hite, Major Hite expanded his original 483 acres to a prosperous 7,500-acre plantation, growing wheat, raising cattle and Merino sheep, and operating a large distillery and several mills.
Visitors to Belle Grove’s plantation grounds can explore the Manor House. Once called “the most splendid building west of the Blue Ridge,” the Federal-era home was based on design principles of Thomas Jefferson and constructed of native limestone quarried on the property. The grounds also feature the 1815 icehouse and smokehouse, demonstration garden designed by the Garden Club of Virginia, slave cemetery, and a heritage apple orchard.
Belle Grove is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and operated by Belle Grove, Inc.
The opportunity to use extant slave dwellings as classrooms is becoming more common. School teachers, college professors and site managers are seeing the value in offering students and their chaperones a more meaningful and value added visit to their sites. Brian Johnson of Bloomsburg University did his homework and seized the opportunity for his students to have a sleepover experience in a slave dwelling. The stars aligned and Kristen Laise of Belle Grove Plantation was receptive to the idea. So now the stage was set.
Happening on the same weekend of the sleepover was the Civil War battle reenactment of Cedar Creek. This was interesting to me because I am a Civil War reenactor of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. This was the group that was portrayed in the 1989 award winning movie Glory. I had this grandiose idea of somehow finding the time to don my Union uniform and participating in the battle, so I bought my uniform just in case that opportunity presented itself. Not doing my research, I had no idea if Black union troops even participated in that battle or if any of the participating organized units would even let me join their ranks.
When Terry James and I arrived at the site, we were most amazed by a functioning hearth in a historic building because this is rare. The smell of smoke permeated the space which made it seem more authentic. White women in period dress were preparing the food that we would consume. My immediate thought was of, on the next sleepover, bringing our troupe of African American living historians who would take on that cooking role. The space that we would sleep in was adjacent to the kitchen. Although other spaces were available throughout the house, we made a decision that because the size of the group was far less than anticipated (6 students and not 25), we would all sleep there.
We were introduced to the amazing Shannon Moeck who would join us for lunch at the Wayside Inn in Middletown, Virginia. On our way to the inn, every other flag that adorned the street in Middletown was a Confederate flag. Kristen and Shannon made us aware that the flags were specifically because of the Cedar Creek battle reenactment and not a common thing. Also joining us was Kelly Schindler of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Kelly was with us during our last sleepover in Annapolis, Maryland, however she did not spend the night, she opted for a nice comfortable hotel room instead. This encounter with us would have her spending the night with us in the big house which was an indication to me that the relationship with the Slave Dwelling Project and the National Trust for Historic Preservation is still relevant and strengthening.
Brian and the students joined us at the restaurant. After lunch we walked over to the National Park Service headquarters where Park Ranger Moeck gave us an overview of the Battle of Cedar Creek. She then took us on a riding tour of the battlefield which highlighted the complexities of the battle.
Before dinner was served in the big house, Ranger Moeck conducted a program in the kitchen titled: Kneading in Silence: A Glimpse into the Life of Judah the Enslaved Cook. This compelling presentation kept everyone, even the students, engaged. It garnered questions from the students that provided evidence that they were taking the opportunity to sleep in a slave dwelling seriously.
After the meal, we participated in a presentation by Wayne Sulfridge. Based on a true account, it involved the murder of Hettie Cooley, the mistress of the second owner of Belle Grove. We walked to various parts of the house as he recounted the story of the crime and the trial of the enslaved woman Harriet Robinson who was accused of committing the murder. While I went into this exercise with skepticism, it brought to light the many injustices of slavery in a way that kept our minds engaged as we attempted to solve the murder. I even woke up the next morning expressing my thoughts about the crime.
After breakfast, we were led by Lynda Davis of Coming to the Table in a powerful and emotional session that allowed us to describe our sleepover experience. It was quite a moving experience because confessions were made and tears were shed.
After that session, I went outside to interact with the Civil War reenactors that slept outside in front of the big house. The confederate flag that they had at the encampment did not give me good vibes as I approached. I must admit that I had one of the richest conversation with them about slavery. One of the reenactors was even familiar with the Slave Dwelling Project because of a recent news story about slavery at Monticello which was done by Harry Smith of NBC news. They really engaged when the conversation turned to slavery in northern states.
The public sessions of the Slave Dwellings Project sleepovers are beginning to become routine. I give a power point presentation and then Terry James, Prinny Anderson and Lynda Davis play clean up if they are there. This time was different because we yielded some time to the students so that they could give testimonials to the audience of their sleepover experience. They all did a wonderful job.
Sleeping in extant slave dwellings around this nation has allowed me to connect some dots. Several times I’ve slept at Montpelier, the home of our fourth President, James Madison. I’ve also slept at the Octagon House in Washington, DC where President James Madison and First Lady Dolly Madison occupied after the White House was burned by the British during the War of 1812. And now, Belle Grove where Nelly Madison the sister of President James Madison once owned.
I also have the pleasure of using these sites as classrooms. There have been several occasions when I have had the opportunity to spend nights in extant slave dwellings with students and their chaperones. Sleeping at Belle Grove was one of those occasions.
Many antebellum historic sites refuse to interpret the stories of the enslaved because the outbuildings that they once occupied are no longer on the landscape. Belle Grove Plantation is proof that without the outbuildings, the stories of the enslaved can still be interpreted because the enslaved interacted throughout that house and sometimes lived in them. Belle Grove is also proof that it takes a willing staff and the support of its board to ensure the stories of the enslaved will be told.
Staff at some sites feel that they don’t have enough information to interpret the lives of the enslaved. Well, if we wait for that information to present itself, the stories of the enslaved may never be told at these sites. The fact that the owners of the big house was also an enslaver should be evidence enough. The wealth of that owner was usually rooted in the institution of slavery. Who built the big house? Who cut down the trees that framed the house? Who made the bricks that is now that house? Whose labor provided the wealth for that house to be built? Just by answering those questions, one can easily weave the stories of the enslaved into their interpretation of the big houses. Like Belle Grove, one can go even more in depth if the names of the enslaved exist.
Excuses for not interpreting the existences of the enslaved and the time for making them are fading. Historic sites like Belle Grove Plantation and group leaders like Dr. Brian Johnson are collaborating with the Slave Dwelling Project to ensure that the enslaved Ancestors will not be forgotten.
On my way to Belle Grove Plantation to do the overnight with the Slave Dwelling Project and the students from Bloomsburg University, my GPS (Waze) took me through Middletown, VA. I was stunned to see the streets lined with a United States flag and a Confederate flag every few feet and to see all of the people preparing for the re-enactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek which happened on October 19, 1864. Considerably fewer people were at Belle Grove Plantation when I arrived. Staff there told me that the flags lining the streets of Middletown represent memorials to the soldiers (5,665 Union and 2,910 Confederate) who died in the one day Battle of Cedar Creek. I wondered where the memorials were to those who perished during the long history of enslavement in the United States. I then realized that the Slave Dwelling Project and its hosts for the overnight stays like the one at Belle Grove Plantation are memorializing the lives lost to enslavement and bringing to light the strength and resilience of those who endured and survived enslavement.
I believe this memorialization is a key factor in helping us as individuals and as a society deal with the trauma related to enslavement and the Civil War. I have often heard people ask “why don’t they get over it?” In this case “they” is African Americans and “it” is slavery. One could ask in turn “why don’t they (those who fly and wave the Confederate flag) get over the Civil War? I believe these are the wrong questions to ask for several reasons: the questions continue to divide us and it is not possible to “get over” trauma. Perhaps better questions are “how can we deal with and learn from our past and, in turn, transform our future?”
The Slave Dwelling Project and another organization, Coming to the Table (CTTT) to which I belong, offer suggestions on how we can deal with our past and transform our future. This includes practicing the four approaches of CTTT (facing and uncovering history, making connections, working toward healing, and taking action) all of which I did during the overnight stay at Belle Grove Plantation. I faced the history of the Battle of Cedar Creek and the lives of those enslaved at Belle Grove; I made connections with others (the young students from Bloomsburg University and staff at Belle Grove Plantation and the National Park Service); and I worked toward healing (by having self-compassion as a descendant of an enslaver and having compassion for the descendants of the enslaved and the descendants of all of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War). Hearing the stories of the enslaved and sleeping in the space where people were enslaved, reinforced the strength and resilience it took to live through enslavement and empowered me to continue taking action to address the historical harms and eliminate the present-day systemic inequities.
Another way we can deal with our past is to go through the grieving process. As Robert Frost said, “the best way out is always through.” The five stages of the grieving process, as described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In reference to the United States history of enslavement and its legacy, I would argue that we are in the denial phase and need to break out of that by moving through the other stages and using the approaches mentioned in Strategies of Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program: mourning, grieving, naming and/or confronting fears, accepting loss, memorializing, reflecting on root causes, acknowledging the others’ story, committing to take risks, practicing tolerance and co-existence, engaging the offender, choosing to forgive, acknowledging responsibility, etc. (see http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/make-it-right/healing-historys-wound). I was able to do some of this during the overnight stay at Belle Grove Plantation. As I went through all of this, I felt personally transformed and inspired to continue taking action to transform our future and to do so with compassion for myself and others.
Belle Grove, the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia – Untold Stories Yet to Be Discovered
In the 18th century, as European immigrants to the British colonies of North America set out to claim more land, they followed the travel routes used for many thousands of years by many earlier groups of people who lived in the Shenandoah Valley, including the Catawbas, Shawnee, Delaware, Susquehannocks and Iroquois. Relatively little is known about these original occupants of the Valley, either as tribes or as individuals. Only a few individuals are named by European writers, among them the Iroquois chief Sherando and the son of the Powhatan, Sheewa-a-nee. https://www.nps.gov/cebe/learn/historyculture/natives-americans-in-the-shenandoah-valley.html What further stories might there be to tell about the original occupants of this land?
The Shenandoah River and a network of trading and hunting paths served as the first trails through the Valley for the advancing Europeans. Among the German immigrants was Jost Hite who had been granted 140,000 acres in the Valley. His grandson, Major Isaac Hite, Jr., married Nelly Madison, the sister of the future president, and in 1794, about ten years later, they had a large house constructed out of local limestone. The Hite family lived in this house, Belle Grove, until 1851. Given Hite’s participation in the Revolutionary War, and his first wife’s Presidential connections, stories of their lives can be found in histories of the colonial and antebellum periods as well as in archives and historical collections.
Alongside the Hite family members lived a total of 273 enslaved Africans, over the course of almost 60 years. Many of them are named, which is more than can be said about the enslaved people of many other plantations, but most have only first names. And they have very little history, in terms of where they came from, how they were interconnected, what skills they had and what trades they practiced. There are no journals or letters, so nothing can be told directly of what they thought and felt. Much of their story remains to be discovered, deduced and imagined, recorded and published.
Recently, the staff of Belle Grove’s stewards, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, led by Kristen Laise, and their associates at the National Park Service site, Cedar Creek Battlefield, primarily Shannon Moeck, have been researching and writing up as much as they can find about the enslaved community. These stewards do recognize the importance of sharing the stories and the people in them because they know it was the enslaved people who most likely helped build the mansion, quarrying the limestone, bringing the building materials in by wagon, hewing trees and turning them into planks, mortaring and nailing together the stone exterior and the wood interior elements. It was also the enslaved people whose skills and labor fed, clothed, warmed, cleaned and lit up the daily lives of the Hites, adults and children. It was the enslaved people who raised the crops and animals and made the saleable products from the land that provided the income to maintain the Hite family’s lifestyle. A great deal more of their story remains to be told.
The Belle Grove website says, “Outlasting weather, war, family triumphs and tragedies, Belle Grove [the building] testifies to the persistence and courage of those who strove to excel, and who built their homes to make a lasting mark on future generations.” http://bellegrove.org/about/history
While this statement may have originally been intended to apply to the plantation owner’s family, the people who care for Belle Grove today are working hard to make sure visitors learn about the persistence and courage of all the enslaved people who equally strove to excel at the property.