Many years ago, in a ghost hunting workshop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I was told that there is more history disseminated about African American history on a ghost tour than on a regular history tour. I had a problem with that then and I have a problem with that now because it appears that not much has changed.
Since the Slave Dwelling Project started in 2010, I have spent three nights in the Old Charleston Jail in Charleston, South Carolina. Historically, men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry were held captive there after the July 18, 1863 Assault on Battery Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina. This battle was portrayed in the 1989 award winning movie Glory starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick. My reason for staying there was that the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry fought to end the institution of slavery. Before the stay in the Old Charleston Jail, I was often reminded that it was the most haunted place in Charleston. Well, sorry to disappoint, three nights of sleeping in that jail, I saw or detected nothing that could be defined as ghost encounters. Honoring the men who were held captive there was my intent and that was certainly accomplished. Since the inception of the Slave Dwelling Project, it has never been my intent to chase ghosts.
Fast forward to the present and on the nights of May 7 and 8, 2016 members of the Slave Dwelling Project slept in the Brentsville Jail in Brentsville, Virginia. This event was rescheduled from the previous year because of a pending Hurricane. According to its website: “The Jail was built in 1822. The Jail would serve Prince William County for the next 71 years. When the County seat was moved to Manassas in 1893 the building served in many capacities. These included a dormitory for a girls’ school, a private home and an office space.”
In the antebellum era, the jail was used to hold both slaves and free black men in an attempt to return them to their masters. 1835 William Hyden, a freed black, was falsely arrested as a runaway slave, after attempts to sell him into slavery were unsuccessful, he escaped in 1836. In 1839 a slave held in the jail tried setting it on fire. He was hanged for the offense. Six years later a slave named Katy was convicted and executed at the jail for the murder of her master, Gerald Mason. In 1859, five slaves were convicted of the brutal slaying of their master with axes, shovels and sticks. The three adults were hanged, but two young twins were sparred. It is the aforementioned stories and others like these that tend to appeal to ghost hunters.
When Terry James and I arrived at the site, we immediately started to look for fingerprints in the bricks of the buildings. We regard those fingerprints as the signatures of our enslaved Ancestors. We were not disappointed because many bricks on the courthouse were touched by the enslaved and they left many fingerprints. In this courthouse, many enslaved people were convicted and condemned to death or some other fate that would separate them form their families. The fingerprints were evidence enough for me that the enslaved existed. I did not need some unexplainable ghostly encounter to prove that.
The jail is currently being restored and the interior was filled with construction material so the space had to be navigated cautiously. The plan is to interpret the documented history of the jail in the space. The heating system was functional which would be necessary for the night’s sleep over. Exposed electrical wires made me question our safety. A ladder allowed us access to the top floor where we saw the evidence of where the jail was set on fire by the enslaved person who was later hanged. The hand hewn timber was additional evidence that the enslaved helped to build the jail.
Terry and I would be joined that night by Lynda Davis for her fourth stay; Ann McWirth for her second stay; and Sharon Williams for her first stay. Both Lynda and Ann had joined me at Gunston Hall in Lorton, VA for their very first overnight stay.
For the ghost hunters, again I am sorry to disappoint. We experienced nothing weird on any of the two nights that we slept there that could be interpreted as ghost related and we slept in the room where an individual was shot. Our sleepover was business as usual as we took advantage of the opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation about the institution of slavery and the legacy that it has left on this nation.
When the first gentleman to enter the jail on Saturday morning, was told about our previous night experience of sleeping in the jail, he immediately inquired about ghosts. Our negative response was not the answer that he sought. Our day continued to be peppered with inquiries about ghosts. One visitor was extreme because she had invested in equipment that is supposed to detect ghosts.
The first day of the event was titled: Brentsville Court & Trades. It was a cornucopia of living history events. White men dressed in Civil War uniform participated. White women dressed in antebellum attire also participated. One gentleman and his companion dressed in modern attire demonstrated the job of a wheelwright. I would find out later that hearth cooking had also been demonstrated. Terry James and I donned our Civil War uniforms so we fitted right in. We managed to engage the limited number of people who showed up for the event with information about the Slave Dwelling Project.
This overnight stay was an eye opener for me. I applaud our host Prince William County Parks and Recreation for the invitation. This was my second encounter with them and there is great potential for more.
On a more general note, it still irks me that some people are more comfortable dealing with the history of the enslaved through ghost stories. Is it that the facts of that horrible institution are too much to bare? Or is that we want to continue to think of the enslavers as people who were humane? Maybe we want to continue to think that this great nation did not commit any atrocities in its past.
While Prince William County Parks and Recreation is doing a beautiful job in restoring the jail to interpret the history based on documented facts, they are in a position to stifle the anxiety of the ghost hunters. I got all indications that they will do just that. The Slave Dwelling Project is looking forward to continuing to work with Prince William County in the future.
I slept overnight on May 6 and 7th, 2016 with the Slave Dwelling project. It was an interesting experience sleeping in a Jail that once held enslaved people. I did not experience the same conditions they would have experienced. I had a sleeping bag and a pad which I purchased at Target for the second night. The wood floor was hard on my back. Bill, the curator of the site told us that the Jail was so exposed to the elements that the Jailer actually asked for shutters on the building. He was afraid that the incarcerated people would freeze to death. Brentsville jail was a holding jail where people awaited their court dates. Those found guilty on Court days would not serve out their sentences there but be sent to Richmond.
Brentsville Jail was built in 1820 before the courthouse which was built in 1822. I wonder where legal proceedings took place in those 2 years. Court Days at Brentsville Jail were days where you would have seen a lot of hustle and bustle given that the Courthouse next to the Jail was the county courthouse for Prince William County. It would have been a noisy, busy day I imagine as one of the historical markers indicated. Enslaved people would have been “sold” on those days. Also, people were hung from the Gallows in the back pasture. There are only 13 documented cases of Hangings at Brentsville Courthouse and Jail. It should be noted that 12 out of the 13 cases of hangings were of African Americans. Agness and Katy were two African American women who killed their white enslavers. Agness was executed for killing her master, Gerard Mason, a descendant of George Mason. How can they be judged as murderers and killed when they were deemed to be property in the 19th Century? They probably endured much physical and emotional suffering to be driven to murder. The gallows were not permanent because they were taken down after and then erected when there was an execution.
Lots of people asked us if we saw ghosts in the jail or heard things in the night. We did not see or hear ghosts. That is not why we were there. I don’t believe in ghosts. I believe though that slavery is the unfinished business of this country. By bringing up ghosts, you are not focusing on the living stories of the people who lived their lives there. The slave dwelling project is about honoring the living not the dead. This is my humble opinion. I want the dead to rest in peace. Besides, that is a distraction from dealing with the realities of slavery and the realities faced by the enslaved people who found themselves at Brentsville. Many of them were resisting a system they did not create. Joe McGill said in one of our conversations you can learn a lot about African American History on a Ghost Tour. I find that sad. What does that say about public history if the stories of the enslaved are always treated as a side show and not a main event? Also the focus on ghosts feels unconsciously racist to me in my opinion. When I think of ghost I think of the Klu Klux Klan.
I spent some time walking around the Brentsville Historic site – which contains the courthouse, a church, the foundations of a tavern or ordinary overgrown with grass and trees, a middle class cabin in the back which contained a hearth. The Fingerprints in the bricks of the courthouse and the jail made me think about the women and children who made those bricks.
When I think about American History, the stories we the people are told really are 3/5 of story because so much of it is denied, whited out, ignored and told as flat out lies with no basis in either written documentation or oral history. Enslaved Africans and their descendants might have been measured as 3/5 of a person but, we the people as either descendants of the enslaved or the enslavers have been hurt by the legacy of slavery because these places contain valuable information about resistance to slavery that should not be forgotten because these stories unfortunately are still being played out.
On May 6 and May 7, 2016, I stayed overnight in the Brentsville Jail. I had not been arrested. I was staying overnight as part of the Slave Dwelling Project. I was staying overnight to honor and remember the lives of people such as:
• William Hyden, a free black person who was falsely arrested as a runaway slave in 1835; was able to avoid being sold into slavery; and was able to escape from Brentsville in 1836 (1&2).
• Agness, an enslaved person who was executed for killing her master, Gerard Mason, a descendant of George Mason (1&2).
• Mr. Crawford, an abolitionist who was jailed on August 27, 1857 for declaring that he was an Abolitionist and saying that “persons have not the right of property in slaves under the law” (1).
People often inquire why I as a European American participate in the overnight stays with the Slave Dwelling Project. Some people say we should just get over it. Some people say it’s too painful.
I participate because I believe in the mission of the Slave Dwelling Project (4) and I believe it fits with the mission, vision, values, and practices of Coming to the Table (5), a group of which I am a member. The four practices of Coming to the Table are:
1. Uncovering History: researching, acknowledging, and sharing personal, family and community histories of race with openness and honesty.
2. Making Connections: connecting to others within and across racial lines in order to develop and deepen relationships.
3. Working Toward Healing: exploring how we can heal together through dialogue, reunion, ritual, ceremony, the arts, apology and other methods.
4. Taking Action: actively seeking to heal the wounds of racial inequality and injustice and to support racial reconciliation between individuals, within families, and in communities.
For me participating in the Slave Dwelling Project and remembering the lives of the enslaved, the free black people, and the abolitionists such as Agness, William Hyden, and Mr. Crawford is an excellent way of uncovering our history, increasing our connectedness, working toward healing, and propelling us into taking action to dismantle systemic racism.
1. Prince William County Government Public Works Department. “Brentsville-Link to the Underground Railroad.” http://www.pwcgov.org/government/dept/publicworks/hp/Pages/Brentsville-Link-to-the-Underground-Railroad.aspx.
2. Prince William County Government Public Works Department. “Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre.” http://www.pwcgov.org/government/dept/publicworks/hp/Pages/Brentsville-Courthouse-Historic-Centre.aspx.
3. Powell, Erin. “Brentsville Courthouse and Jail Offer Lessons in History.” Bristow Beat. February 11, 2012 http://bristowbeat.com/community/brentsville-courthouse-and-jail/.
4. The Slave Dwelling Project. http://slavedwellingproject.org/about-the-slave-dwelling-project/.
5. Coming to the Table. http://comingtothetable.org/about-us/vision-mission-values/.