Sometimes some things take persistence. About two years ago, I got an email from Tim Talbott, Director of Education, Interpretation, Visitor Services & Collections at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. Tim was interested in the Slave Dwelling Project coming to Pamplin Park to conduct a sleepover and other programs. Well, we couldn’t agree on a price to make it happen. One Executive Director later, and for the same price, we made it happen.
Not only did Tim Talbott make the program happen, but he also made it more robust. He added African Americans Union Civil War reenactors from Ohio, an African American female living historian to portray a cook and two costumed storytellers who portrayed Harriet Tubman.
The programs that Tim planned packed a powerful punch but unfortunately, the number of people that came to view them was minimal. This lack of visitors at antebellum sites that we visit is becoming more common, or maybe I’m just noticing it more because I have a bird’s eye view of the matter.
My association with Pamplin Park goes back to a period when I was job hunting. I had a telephone interview for a position there. Before the Pamplin Park position decision, I accepted a job in Iowa.
I had visited Pamplin Park physically on another occasion. I knew its capacity and was hoping for the best in attendance. Arriving later than expected, I hit the ground running as I had to do a quick change into my Civil War uniform to conduct a lecture on the Slave Dwelling Project. My lecture immediately followed a performance by an actress portraying Harriet Tubman and was to a group of about 20 people that included students from Virginia State University. Our setting was in front of two replicated buildings that resembled slave cabins. In the question and answer period, all the questions came from the adults, from the students, I got nothing, but they were there, and that is half the battle.
Original Slave Quarters and Kitchen
One of the few remaining original slave dwellings in Virginia is located behind the Banks House. The four-room building includes two rooms on the bottom floor that were used as the plantation kitchen and laundry. The upper floor contains two rooms that were the living quarters of the house servants.
This structure has been restored to its wartime appearance.
It would only be me, Tim Talbott and Slave Dwelling Project Board members Prinny Anderson and Donald West sleeping in the cabin. Having few people was good for Pamplin Park because Tim Talbott had the benefit of having all our knowledge at his disposal and we are always willing to advise on how historic antebellum sites can engage the enslaved descendant communities. The unfortunate thing for Tim was that I was overcome by sleep early in the process and I was out by 10:00 pm.
The structural soundness of the slave cabin would be tested throughout the night as the wind blew harshly and relentlessly and it eventually rained. Despite all that Mother Nature threw at us, the sleep in the cabin was comfortable. In addition to the four of us who slept in the cabin, we could have fit six more people in the space comfortably. It has a loft, but I would not venture up there to sleep.
The next day of activities gave us hope. Mother Nature cooperated by giving us sunshine. Despite the quality of the programs that were offered throughout the day, by my account, less than fifty people participated in all the day’s activities.
But the programs were grand!
The Slave Dwelling Project accepts invitation to those places that express an interest in preserving and interpreting the buildings that once housed enslaved people. The public attendance at these sites is usually hit or miss. We have gone to some sites where the attendance in the planned activities is continuous and robust throughout the day, and then, we have attended some events that are lacking in audience participation for various reasons.
What we learned internally in this journey is that we too must reach out to the potential audience of which the hosts are trying to appeal. In most cases, these are the descendants of the enslaved who normally do not engage with sites that once enslaved their Ancestors. What I’ve also learned is that there is usually one genealogist in every family. Find that family genealogist, and you can find the descendants of those who were enslaved on your property, if that information does not already exist.
There are many sites out there that do a great job in engaging the descendants of the enslaved communities. Monticello, Montpelier, Brattonsville, and Stagville are great examples. For many sites, this is a new and scary concept.
Our seven years of experience brought us to the conclusion that engaging the descendants of the enslaved is usually a good thing, especially those enslaved descendants who live within a reasonable radius of the antebellum sites that enslaved their Ancestors.
Interpreting the history of the enslaved is also a method of antebellum sites offering their general local audience an opportunity to learn elements of history not commonly interpreted in the past. While each antebellum site has its way of concluding that interpreting the history of the enslaved is a good thing, some sites are contemplating the appropriate method that might work best for them. Despite the progress of more antebellum sites telling a complete story, there are still those that still refuse to go there by not interpreting the stories of the enslaved at their sites. They just linger in that comfort zone of telling the stories of the enslavers.
So, Pamplin Park is in a place where they should be encouraged to keep moving forward in interpreting the stories of the enslaved because how can you tell the story of the Civil War without including that element? I guess that is a rhetorical question because some antebellum sites do just that.
As part of work’s “Reflect and Respect” African American history event this past weekend, I had the opportunity to stay the night in an original slave dwelling (shown above) on Saturday night. It was an experience I will not soon forget.
I had contacted Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project to see about his interest in doing a sleep over a couple of years ago. However, at that time, budget constraints did not make it possible. When funds did become available for the “Reflect and Respect” event, I contacted Joe again and this time we made it happen.
Now, I’ve spent many a reenactment or living history night on the hard ground in all kinds of weather situations, but something about this night was much different. After a nice conversation with Joe, and two of his board members, Prinny and Don, we made our places on the heart of pine floor boards.
As I lay there in the pitch dark, all kinds of thoughts filled my head. I was exhausted from an early start to the day and from the day’s previous events, so I thought about my sore legs, shoulders, and back. Then my train of thought shifted tracks to how the cook who once worked in that very kitchen we were sleeping in must have felt after working what was probably a good fourteen hour day (if not longer), stooping over heavy pots, sweating from a scorching hot fire, and keeping a vigilant eye to avoid catching clothes ablaze.
My thoughts then turned to the following day’s events. I ran over the schedule in my mind and wondered how things would go and if we would have good audience attendance. As those images floated away in a seeming fog, I focused back on our scene and imagined what enslaved individuals must have worried about in terms of their tomorrows. Likely they fretted over whether they would be in their present situation or if something might arise to change it drastically. Would they be sold because their owner was in debt? Would their children be sold? Would this week’s rations be plenty or would they be scarce? Would the master be in a good mood tomorrow, or would he be in a furor? My concerns paled in comparison and suddenly a grateful mood washed over me.
Being thankful for my present life situation and employment condition set me to thinking about how only several generations back one’s life situation could often be closely defined if one’s skin was not white. Solely based on race, one’s options were extremely limited or seemingly limitless. People of color were assumed to be enslaved in Virginia in the first half of the 19th century. It was up to that person to show proof of their freedom if they claimed to not be a slave. Racial prejudice, the lack of opportunity, and the subsequent economic, social, and political limitations, not only in slavery, but through Jim Crow and up to the present has left an indelible mark on our nation. Recognizing this and educating oneself about this history is a good first step in correcting the problems of race in our country. Is it easy to process? No. Can it be emotionally exhausting? Yes. However, recognizing the legacy of slavery on America is vital.
Some people think that if we do not talk about race, racial issues will go away naturally. I am not of that mind. I think we need to seek out opportunities to talk about the past so we can navigate the present, and hopefully offer a more equitable future for the greater good of all. I feel fortunate that I had this opportunity and recommend it for everyone.
PAMPLIN PARK: THE BANKS HOUSE – THE POWER OF EMPTY SPACES
By Prinny Anderson
The Banks House sits on about 7 acres at the edge of Pamplin Park, in Dinwiddie County, VA. The site consists today of a white, two-story farm house that, in the 1860’s, was occupied by John and Margaret Banks, owners of a 231-acre farm. At the back of the farm house is an open space, a yard, with a small smokehouse to one side (built after the Civil War). Across the yard from the farm house is a two-family slave dwelling and work building. The two enslaved people on record as belonging to John Banks must have lived in that structure. Although the Park’s interpreters have looked through the documents naming the white owners of the farm and showing they owned enslaved people, they have not been able to find the names of the enslaved. The documentary record is empty of names of the enslaved.
Today, the slave dwelling is empty of people. It shows signs of having been adapted for use by a single family for some period of time after 1865. There is a wood-burning stove set up to use the chimney flue in one of the downstairs spaces. However, the torn up condition of both fireplaces suggests that although they were originally built to heat the rooms and provide cooking facilities, they have not been used for either purpose for a long time.
This dwelling, where four of us spent the night, had a powerfully emptiness to it. Empty rooms, an empty bed, and empty, damaged fireplaces. Empty records, no names, no written record of the people who lived in that dwelling. The building was peaceful, but I felt that there was no life left in it.
In the fall of 1864, soldiers of the rebel southern army occupied the Banks farm as they built and fortified earthworks to defend nearby Petersburg. For months, the land all around the farm house and the slave dwelling must have been teaming with people, in front of the house, down the drive, and in the work yard between house and slave dwelling. People in an army whose purpose was to maintain the institution of slavery, to keep the Banks farm enslaved people in bondage.
Then in April 1865, Grant’s army emptied the property of rebel soldiers, and that emptiness foreshadowed the end of the war and the liberation of the enslaved to come 10 days later, on April 12th.
However, as soon as the southern troops vacated, the United States army promptly occupied the Banks farm while they waited for Lee’s troops to make their next move. Once more, the property bustled, but now with soldiers whose army had a different purpose. Twenty-four hours later, Grant and his troops moved out. The yard was empty again, empty of soldiers, empty of slave owners, empty of the ugly sin of chattel slavery.
I don’t know what became of the two enslaved people still on the Banks farm in 1865. I hope that, at some point not too long after their emancipation, they were able to move fully into freedom, able to marry, reunite their family, buy their own land, and work for themselves. I hope that end-of-war emptiness led to all the rights and benefits they had been denied. I hope they were able to fill the old emptiness with new lives.