As the Slave Dwelling Project continues to evolve, patterns and themes are beginning to develop. I have spent the night at four institutions of higher learning; Clemson University in Clemson, SC; the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC; Furman University in Greenville, SC and Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, VA. Scheduled for November of this year is Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. All of these institutions of higher learning in some way, shape or form benefitted from the chattel slavery that occurred in this nation.
Another pattern in the portfolio is that of Presidential sites. So far, I have spent nights at four Presidential sites. The Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of President of Andrew Jackson was my first. Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, the home of President James Monroe was my second. Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia the home of President Thomas Jefferson was my third. My most recent sleepover was at Poplar Forest in Forest, Virginia, also the home of President Jefferson. Scheduled for September of this year is the James K. Polk site in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
Another pattern that is beginning to develop is sleeping at National Trust for Historic Preservation sites. I have spent a night at Cliveden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have also spent a night Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, Virginia.
Planning is underway for spending a night at Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina.
Lori Kimball, the Director of Programing and Education at Oatlands in Leesburg, Virginia, proposed the idea of spending a night. When wooed to sleep in slave dwellings, I request that my hosts maximize my time. In other words, pack as much into the schedule as possible. Lori did just that; she made sure that this visit would be action packed and have an impact on the community.
Terry James and I started at Oatlands in the big house interpreting to a local school group of eight graders from Harmony Middle School. Our setting was the original kitchen located on the bottom level of the big house. The modernization of the space made the interpreting somewhat challenging which we overcame.
We discovered that the children were well versed in American and Virginia history. Painting all of the past Virginia Presidents as slave owners was a harsh reality.
The Court House Grounds
Approaching one hundred sites in slave dwelling sleepovers, one must always seize those opportunities to keep up the excitement by doing those things on the periphery that still honor the enslaved Ancestors. I have slept in Freedmen’s cottages because that is where the formerly enslaved slept. I slept in tents at places where slave cabins once stood. I slept on a replica of a boat that transported enslaved people.
I have also slept in jails because the enslaved slept there, their crime………taking back what was God-given, their freedom.
Lori Kendall and all who had their hands in planning this visit added a new twist. Sleep on the grounds of the Loudoun County Court House. This courthouse conducted the acts of defending the laws that kept chattel slavery legal until 1865, like many others that existed during the period of enslavement, Deeds, and mortgages on the enslaved made and kept in this courthouse. Enslaved people auctioned on the ground of this courthouse. With those qualifications, substituting the courthouse grounds for a slave dwelling was appropriate, so I brought my tent in anticipation of that sleepover.
After eating a scrumptious meal at the Jamaican restaurant Blue Mountain Café, we commenced walking to the courthouse a few blocks away. The town was bustling with people because our stay on the courthouse grounds coincided with an event called “First Friday.” This festive program extended the business hours of all of the participating merchants.
As we approached the site located at the busy intersection of East Market Street and S King Street, the situation began to take on the semblance of an open classroom. A local Boy Scout troop set up a tent large enough for the four of us who would sleep there. As soon as one enters the gate of the courthouse, the first thing seen is a monument of a Confederate soldier on a pedestal. People were all around the property admiring the exhibits inside and outside the courthouse.
Among the crowd was the Mayor of Leesburg, she apologized to me for having a Confederate monument on the site. I explained to her my reasoning for having the Confederate monuments stay where they are. The Mayor made provisions for us to have access to the restrooms in city hall, our other choice was a bathroom at a service station one block away.
When the crowd subsided, we immediately knew that we were in the city limits of Leesburg. Across the street from the courthouse is located a biker bar. They sang karaoke badly and loudly well beyond midnight. One of the inebriated patrons even made it over to our tent to inquire about what was happening. Despite all of the stimuli, Prinny, Terry, Larry and I managed to get a good night sleep on the Loudoun County Courthouse Grounds.
Settle Dean Cabin
ur first stop on Saturday morning was the Settle-Dean Cabin. This cabin is a perfect example of what an organized grassroots movement can accomplish to preserve an extant slave cabin.
Historic Settle-Dean Cabin is located at 25625 Loudoun County Parkway, Chantilly (South Riding), VA.
Those of us who ventured into the loft of the cabin found a resident snake. Up until that point, I had only seen shed skin of snakes in a few slave cabins of which I have spent a night, no big deal.
Arcola Slave Quarters
For the past two years, the Arcola Slave Quarters appeared on my radar. The video I saw of its interior was not appealing for conducting a sleepover.
This trip to Loudoun County gave me that opportunity to see the Arcola Slave Quarters. Just as the video indicated, there was no chance that a sleepover could occur in the cabin. The good news is that the building is stabilized and the funding is in place for its restoration.
As if all that had already happened on this trip to Loudoun County, Virginia was not enough, Oatlands Plantation would be the main event. Our lantern tour of the enslaved community at Oatlands started at the visitor’s center and was led by Lori Kimball. Lori did a beautiful job talking about the details of those enslaved there. When she turned the diverse group of about sixty people that consisted of descendants of those enslaved at the site, they were primed to hear about the Slave Dwelling Project.
Lori ended the program with a question and answer period in the gardens at which time the names of some enslaved at Oatlands were read aloud. How great that they have names, a testament to Lori’s zest for research.
From there we were to proceed to a campfire to continue the conversation, but some wires got crossed, and the fire got extinguished too soon. The time in the visitor’s center loaned itself to an environment that afforded those who stuck around to have some meaningful conversation. With the absence of slave cabins, the visitor’s center was an option for some to spend the night. The two other choices, the greenhouse or big house, were both highly likely to have housed enslaved people.
Lori invited the descendants of the enslaved to spend the night with us at the site. About seven descendants took Lori up on her invitation. I recall that Lori had to reel me in the day before at the courthouse because I promised someone there an opportunity to join us in the sleepover, a habit of which I will have to quit because who knows who the next ax murderer could be? Having strangers impose on the intimate setting that Lori had so meticulously planned for the descendants would have been a disaster.
Our conversation over breakfast was the most powerful on this trip because it focused on DNA. The descendants of the enslaved can trace their plantation of enslavement through genealogical research or DNA tests.
The program culminated on Sunday morning with an outdoor worship service by Pastor Michelle Thomas. I must admit that I had some skepticism about conducting a period worship service because my other experience with a period worship at an antebellum historic site was not a good one. This Sunday morning service ended the weekend’s activities on a positive note.
As I reflect back over the Slave Dwelling Project weekend in Loudoun County (June 2-4), three words keep coming to mind: partnership, education, and honoring. By forming a partnership with several organizations (Slave Dwelling Project; Oatlands; Friends of the Slave Quarters; Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library; Loudoun Freedom Center; Loudoun County Parks, Recreation and Community Services; and the Clerk of the Circuit Court), we were able to reach more people in Loudoun County than we would have individually. It was an example of what can be accomplished when we pool our resources and work together. By doing so, we were able to educate more people about slavery in Loudoun County and in certain cases, specific enslaved people in our county. We talked to over 200 people at Leesburg First Friday. Members of the nearby South Riding community came out for the Settle-Dean Cabin open house on Saturday morning. Approximately 75 people — most who had never been to Oatland before — attended the Enslaved Community Tour at Oatlands on Saturday night. Each program was an opportunity to educate. It was very powerful to have Joe and Terry teach the school children about the realities of slavery. Perhaps the most important remembrance of the weekend is honoring the enslaved. I think we each did that in our own way and have our own unique feelings. I’m still moved when I think of Ellen and her mother (descendants of the Murrays and Days) read the names of the enslaved who have been documented thus far at Oatlands. I clearly remember the feeling of sitting in the quiet outside of the Greenhouse with Larry, late in the evening under a bright moon. We were sitting in a spot where countless enslaved men, women and children once walked to care for the plants in the greenhouse, start the fire in the fireplace, and pick fruits and vegetables for the Carters. The building’s original bricks were made by the enslaved. What would the men, women and children have thought on a pleasant, bright night like we had?
Sleepovers in History
I had a great experience this weekend at two sleepovers with 3 members (Joe, Terry and Prinny) of the Slave Dwelling Project. They visited Loudoun County Virginia and several of our sites that are significant to slavery. I really did not know what to expect but I like camping and I am always open to new adventures. Friday night we camped on the Court House lawn in downtown Leesburg because it was a site of slave auctions. Saturday night we camped out in the greenhouse at Oatlands Plantation one of the buildings where slaves could have slept to get out of the elements. We also visited the Settle-Dean Cabin in South Riding and the Arcola Slave Quarters of which I am a member of its Friends organization.
My takeaway from this weekend of historical immersion is that these places are really important because of the stories they tell. What makes the Slave Dwelling Project special is that they cause these stories that are unique to the African American experience get some light in the overall American experience. What I continue to find amazing is the emotional ties that some people have with the stories that are told. I am only three generations from my ancestors who were slaves and yet this history seems old, distant and disconnected from who I am.
The horror and ugliness of slavery has for the most part been erased from the traditional historical record of America. In other words, when the average person visits a plantation they only hear stories of how the owner was instrumental in generating the wealth that made America great. Why would someone want to get married at a plantation? I was asked that question by one of the reporters in attendance at our sleepover as we overlooked the grand tent that would host a wedding with 250 guests. The answer is simple I said, It is because the realities of slavery and their stories have been removed from this site and the consciousness of the guests and those getting married. I guess in many ways my lack of emotional response to the stories surrounding these sites signifies my conscious state concerning the truths about slavery and my relationship to it. I guess one could say that these sleepovers I attended this weekend were more like an awakening. It was an experience that all Americans should have.
What Was Lost and What Was Saved: Oatlands Plantation, Loudoun County, Virginia
The grandson of “King” Carter, a member of one of Virginia’s most elite families and largest land and slave owners, Robert Carter, had a spiritual awakening and series of religious conversions in the middle of the 18th century. He came to believe that he could not simultaneously follow the word of God and hold his fellow human beings in slavery. In 1791, he began the long, complicated process of manumitting and providing for the future security of the more than 500 enslaved people he owned.
Robert Carter also tried to raise his son George in accordance with his new and controversial beliefs. Robert sent George out of state, intentionally away from the Virginia culture of slavery. George went to college in Rhode Island, at what is now Brown College, and began to study law at the University of Pennsylvania. But at age 21, George returned to Virginia, took possession of Oatlands, and seven years later, in 1805, filed suit to try to stop the remaining emancipations of his father’s enslaved people. The courts ruled against him. But Robert Carter’s vision of an American future without enslaved labor was nonetheless lost.
George Carter turned his back on the opportunity his father had created, the opportunity for landowners of European heritage to reconstruct American society and the American economy, to build their new world without oppression and the use of enslaved labor. In spite of an education in Enlightenment principles and an introduction to law and justice, in spite of the powerful example of his father’s actions, George Carter lacked whatever it took to live up to his country’s newly documented principle that all men were created equal.
Instead, George Carter had a grist mill operating with enslaved laborers at Oatlands by 1801; by 1804, he started enslaved workers on the construction of a mansion. He began his enterprise with 17 enslaved people, and by the 1840’s, he held 85 people in bondage. After his death, his widow, Elizabeth Grayson Carter, continued to operate the plantation with enslaved labor, through the Civil War. For a while, it appeared that what was a lost opportunity for America meant that George Carter’s portion of the family fortune and lands would be safe.
However, post-emancipation, without enslaved workers, the plantation failed and Carter’s children were impoverished and unable to carry on farming. In 1865, the Carter family lost its wealth, lost its position as slaveholders, and by the 1890’s, lost its land. What George Carter thought he had saved was in fact lost in less than a century.
But not everything was lost. Our visit to Loudoun County is also about what has been saved.
During the Slave Dwelling Project visit to Loudoun County – to the Arcola Slave Quarters, the Settle-Dean cabin, and Oatlands Plantation, we also experienced what had been saved. Families and their histories were saved. Communities and connections were sustained. Structures continue to be preserved.
At each stage of our visit, we met and heard about descendants of people enslaved in Loudoun County who had cherished their family histories through the years and who have committed to preserving buildings where their ancestors lived and worked. Freedom may have been delayed for the ancestors; George Carter may have lost his way; but community and connection among the people held in slavery was never lost. History was kept in the memories and hearts of generations and passed along to the children. Stories of the ancestors, what they said and what they did and how they were related to one another were saved. Historic buildings are now being saved and interpreted, as physical containers of a people’s past. Granted, the people who hosted us and the people who participated in the visits to each site are passionate about history, but in contrast to some other groups we’ve met at other weekend visits, these Loudoun county people have an impressive level of knowledge of the people, the personal and political events of the past, and the landscape and buildings.
Saving history, sharing it with all who will listen, preserving structures and telling their stories, expanding the narrative of the American story and the Virginia story to encompass everyone – these are the actions that build a victory to replace setbacks in the past, that are the salvation of what was lost.