Booker Taliaferro Washington was an American educator, author, orator, and advisor to presidents of the United States. Mr. Washington is best known for his involvement in creating Tuskegee University.
So, what does Booker T. Washington have to do with the Slave Dwelling Project? Well, for the first nine years of Booker’s life he was enslaved. Booker was Mulatto and was born April 5, 1856, on the plantation of James Burroughs near Hale’s Ford in Franklin County, Virginia. Booker’s mother Jane was the cook on the plantation and one of eleven people enslaved by James Burroughs.
The property is now owned by the National Park Service with the purpose of interpreting the life of Booker T. Washington. Being a National Park Service site, we had expectations of seeing our tax dollars at work. In this quest to sleep in slave dwellings, I have discovered that the National Park Service is a tough nut to crack. Previously, I had slept at Magnolia Plantation in Derry, Louisiana and Belle Grove in Middletown, Virginia. All my other attempts to spend nights in slave dwellings on National Park Service sites have failed but the requests continues.
I would not stay at the Booker T. Washington site alone. In fact, it is seldom that I sleep at any of these sites alone anymore. The site also requested an element of our living history program Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. To that end, Jerome Bias, our lead cook for our living history troupe and Prinny Anderson, a board member for the Slave Dwelling Project, joined me.
Upon arrival at the site, I had about 30 minutes to get acquainted with it before a group of 5th graders was scheduled to arrive. This was not a problem for me because my presentation to them was going to be at the recreated slave cabin and I would talk about sleeping in similar places throughout the United States.
Before we watched the 12 minutes movie about Booker T. Washington in the visitor’s center, I detected the group’s preparedness for a visit based on the questions they answered asked to them by the park ranger. The movie was impressive because nothing about slavery was sugarcoated. I learned some things from the movie about Booker T. Washington that I did not know before.
I, like the students, would see the property for the first time as we all proceeded with the park ranger to the replicated cabin. It surprised me that horses, chickens, pigs, and turkeys are kept at the site. The dimensions of the cabin were determined by some archaeological work that was done on the site. The cabin had two levels, but oddly, access to the top level could only be gained by a ladder from the outside of the building. This could be an indication that another family lived on the top level. An outline of the big house was well marked, but it was not rebuilt. This was an indication to me that the focus of this national monument was indeed Booker T. Washington.
The cabin had a functional fireplace where our cook Jerome Bias would cook the meals. Originally, the cabin had the floor made of dirt, but this floor was made of concrete which was fine by me because sleeping on dirt floors give me the creeps. All the students fit into the cabin, and I presented to them there. Most got it when I explained that this space that was smaller than some of their bedrooms was a space that was designed to house an entire family. The students were most surprised that slavery existed in northern states. I was quickly reminded that more than 10 minutes with 5th graders was too much because they tend to lose interest after that.
Jerome Bias and Prinny Anderson took control of the space and began the cooking in the hearth. Jerome and Prinny’s forward-thinking turned the slave cabin into a classroom. They arranged chairs along the back wall which enabled the few visitors to sit and ask questions while they observed the cooking demonstration.
In addition to Prinny, Jerome and me, one park ranger would spend the night in the cabin with us. Our attempt to interact with the two horses on the property proved unsuccessful. The two pigs were just the opposite and were delighted that we gave them some attention. We decided to sleep with the door closed for fear of any animals that might want to join us while we slept as we were made aware that coyotes and bears were in the area. The fire in the hearth kept the cabin nice and toasty while it burned throughout the night.
On the final day of our presence at the site, our hopes were high that we would get far more visitors than the previous day. However, those hopes began to fade as it started to rain early in the morning. We managed to muster only twenty-two visitors throughout the day, but the quality of the visitors was high. One of the visitors is now on board to assist in the publicity effort when we return to the site in the future. The most interesting visitors was a group visiting from Durham, North Carolina. The extended conversation became about race and the challenges that we face in this current political climate.
While members of the Slave Dwelling Project prefer to sleep in authentic slave dwellings, that is not always the case. We have pitched tents at sites that do not have dwellings at all, recreated or authentic. Our goal is to interact with those sites that show a willingness to interpret the stories of the enslaved Ancestors.
Our visit to the Booker T. Washington National Monument was not all that it could have been. The sparse number of visitors was a disappointment. The opportunity to engage willing participants around a campfire at the site was not achieved. This aspect of the Slave Dwelling Project’s presence is becoming much more powerful than sleeping at these sites. Budget cuts by the National Park Service were quite prevalent, and it hampered us in our ability for the program to reach its fullest potential.
One take away for us is that in addition to the marketing that sites may or may not do, the Slave Dwelling Project must also go the extra mile to advertise our presence at sites. While there is a cost for the Slave Dwelling Project to come to sites and educate the public, we do want these sites to get their money’s worth by informing potential participants of our upcoming visits. We come in peace, we mean no harm, it’s all about honoring the enslaved Ancestors.
We left the site with an invitation to return in the future. Interpreting the life of the great Booker Taliaferro Washington is worthy of a return visit. We will do our part to ensure that our return visit is more robust and worthy and respectful of the Man that this world owes so much.
THE BOOKER T. WASHINGTON BIRTHPLACE – Meditation on Two Women in Nineteenth Century Hale’s Ford, Virginia
During our two days at the Booker T. Washington Birthplace National Monument, we got acquainted with two women: Jane (Burroughs?) Washington Ferguson (generally referred to as Jane Washington) and Elizabeth Robertson Burroughs. These two women, one enslaved and one the enslaver, were bound together in a life of remote, rural farming right before and during the Civil War. Neither woman had an easy life but the hardships that came with slavery were incomparably worse. Furthermore, the hardships of the enslaver’s life invariably created greater hardships in the enslaved woman’s life.
Jane Washington was the mother of Booker T. Washington, as well as a second son and a daughter. She was the cook for a large household on a relatively small farm in southwestern Virginia. Her husband was Washington Ferguson, a man of color who had escaped from slavery and lived and worked in the salt furnaces and coal mines of what is now West Virginia. Before his escape, Washington Ferguson and Jane had two children together. Jane Washington was owned by James Burroughs, and brought from Bedford County, VA, to Franklin County in 1850 when Burroughs bought land in Hales Ford.
Elizabeth Robertson Burroughs was the wife of James Burroughs. She married him when she was 18 years old, in 1818, and between 1819 and 1846, she gave birth to 15 children, on average one child every 18 months, six sons and seven daughters. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Elizabeth survived all those childbirths.
It was alleged that three of the enslaved adults on the Burroughs’ farm, Sophia, Jane and Munroe, were also fathered by Elizabeth’s husband, James Burroughs. From their births until Emancipation, Elizabeth lived and worked alongside the offspring of her husband’s infidelity. No matter how often it is claimed that no notice was taken of the enslavers’ children with their enslaved women, it seems hard to believe their presence had no impact on the enslaver men’s wives.
But worse is that Sophia, Jane and Munroe were the children of rapes and forced sexual encounters for the enslaved woman or women who were their mothers. Furthermore, rape and forced sexual assault continued into the next generation. Booker T. Washington was also fathered by a white man whose identify is uncertain. His father may have been his owner, James Burroughs, or one of the Burroughs’ sons. If that were so, then incest is added to the cruelties inflicted on Jane’s family and the Burroughs’ enslaved community. Or Booker’s father may have been either one of two neighboring farmers, more casual encounters but no less an outrage.
The Burroughs’ farm was occupied by the twelve members of the Burroughs family and ten enslaved people. A unique hardship that set Jane’s life apart from Elizabeth’s was the work required to sustain all these people. Unlike Elizabeth, Jane did the cooking, two or three meals a day, seven days a week. Wood had to be hauled into the small kitchen cabin several times a day, and buckets and barrels of water had to be carried from the creek at the bottom of the hill. In addition, the cook may have carried out the secondary butchering of pork, beef and venison. She may also have had to catch and clean chickens, ducks, rabbits, maybe even small game. She probably processed all the fruits and vegetables after they were harvested. And she undoubtedly “put by” meat, corn, other grains, fruits and vegetables for later consumption. Two more jobs may have fallen to Jane Washington – supplying hot water to the residents of the “Big House” and helping with the laundry. She did hard physical labor from early in the morning until late at night, snatching moments to look after her own babies.
Both women endured the hardship of losing their spouses. Jane’s chosen partner, the father of two of her children, the husband whom she sought out upon Emancipation, had escaped to freedom in another state. He could not help her keep house, raise children and obtain the extra food for her family. He could not comfort her or protect her. To have his own freedom, he had to leave her behind. Jane raised their children alone, under difficult circumstances. The difference between Jane’s hardship and Elizabeth’s was that, after the war, Jane and her children were reunited with their husband and father. They were free, and they went on to make lives for themselves.
Ten of the Burroughs children were still living with James and Elizabeth when the family moved to Hale’s Ford in 1850. The youngest was 4 years old. Eleven years later, in 1861, when the Civil War started, all six sons enlisted, and James Burroughs died later that year. Elizabeth Burroughs was abandoned to manage the farm and face the fears of wartime without the support or protection of her husband or sons. She was also responsible for a household of women – daughters and daughters-in-law. Her situation did not improve with the war’s end. Her husband was dead and five of her sons were either dead, badly wounded, or sick. By 1870, the family had left the farm, never to return.
The departures and deaths of the six white men at the beginning of the war had two immediate impacts, one specific to Elizabeth Burroughs and the slave-owning family, and one that affected everyone on the property. On her own, in a remote area, with reduced access to news about the war or even regional happenings, Elizabeth Burroughs found herself living in proximity with and totally dependent upon 4 enslaved adults and at least 3 enslaved teenagers. It is easy to imagine that the fear and anxiety that brewed below the surface for many enslavers in good times would rise to the surface and color the Burroughs’ lives in this time of war.
With the farm work force cut in half, its output of both food and cash crops must have been reduced, leading to shortages. Booker T. Washington wrote later, in Up From Slavery, that everyone suffered from less food, but the suffering was worse for the white people who had no experience of deprivation! Nonetheless, the hardship was probably worse for the enslaved community: with fewer farm workers and reduced farm production, it seems likely that while the white family had somewhat less food, the enslaved families had significantly less to eat.
From both before and during the Civil War, Booker T. Washington recalls a childhood of deprivation – little quantities of food snatched when possible, not served at meals; only a pile of dirty rags to sleep on. He remembers a time when his mother woke him “in the middle of the night” so he and his siblings could eat the chicken she had stolen from the farm and cooked secretly. This account of his childhood memories raises questions. Before the Civil War, why would it be that a farm with 70 or so acres in grains and vegetables could not provide at least a basic diet to its cook’s family? Or, if the enslaved families were expected to provide for themselves from their own vegetable gardens, why would the cook’s family not have those supplies too? Perhaps in Jane’s case, without a partner to help and with an endless day of work, there was no time to keep her own vegetable garden and chickens.
Perhaps because our time at the National Monument ended on a grey, sharply chilly day, my meditations were bleak. I came home with a strong impression of lives of hardship for Jane Washington and Elizabeth Burroughs. Nothing compares to the oppression of enslavement and the violation of rape – these hardships were not part of Elizabeth’s experience. But there were other hardships along common themes: loss of family members, fear of what the war could do to them all, and lack of food.