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With the state of Virginia having a history so rooted in slavery, it is expected that it should have a representative stock of extant slave dwellings. My overnight stays in slave dwellings in Virginia have occurred at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar and Bacons Castle in Surry. I have also had the pleasure of participating in a field school at Montpelier, the historic home of our fourth President James Madison, that involved building a replica of a log slave cabin that is now standing on the footprint of the original.
This particular junket to Virginia would involve stays at Clover Hill and Ben Lomond, both in Manassas and the Lee-Fendall House in Alexandria.
Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC
My first task was addressing the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC. This would be done at the Ben Lomond Historic Site. According to its website:
“Originally part of an extensive Northern Virginia land grant, the site of Ben Lomond was one of numerous plantations that Robert “Councillor” Carter III owned in Colonial Virginia. After Carter died his large land-holdings were divided amongst his heirs. One, Benjamin Tasker Chinn, inherited the site of Ben Lomond in 1830 and within two years had built the two story main house along with the dairy, smokehouse, and slave quarter. Chinn leased the property out to the Pringle family prior to the Civil War. Both the Chinns and Pringles used their enslaved workforce to farm corn and wheat and to care for the nearly 500 Merino sheep that were part of the property.”
When I got to the site, my host informed that the school groups that we were expecting the next day had cancelled which was disappointing because we were anticipating about 800 kids over the course of that day. Also disappointing because the two schools were in walking distance to the site. Staff at Ben Lomond had a great day of living history planned for the students that included: A vignette about the Slave Dwelling Project; costumed interpretation of white slave owners/overseers; costumed interpretation of an officer in the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.); A vignette about the enslaved work space including the kitchen, dairy, and smokehouse; and a cooking demonstration.
After all of my successes of working with school groups in slave cabins, I can only speculate that someone in the chain of command at the school got wind of the agenda and felt that what we were offering was a bit too real for young minds; or maybe a parent thought that the reality of what happened on plantations should continue to be suppressed and/or sugar coated. What matters to me is that 800 school children were deprived of the opportunity to interact with living historians in an extant slave dwelling, a space that is often neglected in the interpretation of American history.
The turnout for the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC however was great. A great number from this group represented sites that have space that once housed enslaved people. As a result of the presentation, I got at least two solid invitations to come back to the area either to stay in an extant slave dwelling or to help sites in their attempts to tell more complete stories of spaces that once housed enslaved people.
Once my stay for Ben Lomond was booked, Bill Backus, my host set about the business of maximizing my time while in Manassas. To that end, my first night stay in a slave dwelling in Manassas would occur at Clover Hill. According to its historical marker:
“In 1770, Patrick Hamrick sold this land to Rutt Johnson who used the land for crops and fruit trees and later added livestock. This property became known as Clover Hill Farm prior to 1852. During the Civil War, the Johnson family left the area and when they returned, they found that their home and crops had been burned by retreating Union soldiers.
“The stone weaving house and the slave quarters survived. They rebuilt the house, replanted the orchards and purchased registered Jersey cows. The dairy eventually produced about 30,000 gallons of milk a year. In the late 20th century the surrounding area became developed.
“In 1987, the Johnsons who owned and operated the last farm in the city, donated eight acres of land to the church, including the family cemetery and slave quarters that are preserved in their original sites. They sold the remaining land to a developer.”
A plaque has been placed on the historic cabin/slave quarters, noting that the building was erected in the early 19th century as housing for slaves by the Johnson family. Some of those who lived in the building worked primarily in the main farmhouse and kitchen that were nearby.
Following the Civil War, the cabin continued to be inhabited and used for various purposes. It may be the oldest building still standing in the city.
Prinny Anderson, the descendant of President Thomas would be joining me for her seventh stay in a slave dwelling. During the rain that was predicted to last throughout the night, we both arrived at the site around 4:30 pm. The cabin was made of field stone with a fireplace on both ends which was rare because most duplexes I’ve come across to date have a fireplace in the middle that services both sides. The cabin was the only building on the site that gave an indication that a plantation once existed there. Major development including Grace United Methodist Church, my host for the night, now occupies the grounds of where the other plantation buildings once stood. We participated in an invitation only dinner before a public lecture was held inside the cabin.
As forecasted, it rained all night with bouts of wind that made our decision to leave the door partially open almost regrettable. I got up at least twice throughout the night to close the door and secure an umbrella that was blown down by the wind. Prinny and I can attest to the fact that the building does not leak.
Prinny left early that morning for her four hour drive back to Durham, North Carolina to fulfill an obligation that she had to some future doctors graduating from Duke University. I had an invitation to the pastor’s house for a shower and breakfast.
Slave Dwelling Project – Clover Hill Slave Dwelling, Manassas, VA
The Stone-Built Dwelling
By Prinny Anderson
Clover Hill Farm was originally owned by the Johnson family of Manassas, VA, and functioned as a dairy farm for many years. Then the family patriarch, Bill Johnson, decided to retire from farming and sold the land. He donated 8 acres to Grace United Methodist Church, with the stipulation that the church preserve the Johnson family cemetery and the single, stone-built slave cabin that existed on that piece of land.
Grace United Methodist Church has taken its caretaker responsibilities seriously, going beyond merely preserving the cabin as a structure to placing a metal plaque on the outer wall and having an interpretive panel installed beside the path leading to the cabin. The interpretive information describes Clover Hill Farm, gives names of a number of the enslaved people who had lived there, and briefly explains the Methodist church’s position on slavery over the centuries.
The Slave Dwelling Project’s stay began in the church building, where we found shelter from the first heavy downpour of the evening. We gathered for a potluck supper, with members of the Johnson family, the pastor, church volunteers, and local historians around the table. Stories of the farm were freely shared. As we finished our supper, the rain let up, and we took our gear out to the cabin. Soon after, a larger group assembled for the Slave Dwelling Project presentation. Because of the dark and threatening clouds overhead, the group huddled in the small but very solid slave cabin for the talk. Although they did not spend the night, I hope the time bunched together in that small stone space provoked thoughts and images about the people who had passed their entire lives in that very enclosure.
One of the supper time stories was about an enslaved woman who was only 6 years old at the end of the Civil War. She stayed on at the Johnson farm for the rest of her very long life, and was buried in the land her family had worked when she died sometime in the 1950’s.
As I lay on the stone floor of the cabin, with a howling wind and torrents of rain pounding outside, I wondered about her. I hoped she would somehow give me insights into what it had been like to live in this space.
The first sense I had was of a solid shelter from the storms, a safe place in the dark. Then I thought about the materials themselves, pieces of bedrock. “Rock of Ages” came into my mind. But as I slipped closer to sleep, I thought about the men who had quarried out those rocks or pulled them from the fields, the men who had carried huge stones up the hill to the cabin site, the men who skillfully fitted together stones of all shapes and sizes into four well built walls. I began to sense the stone walls as an assemblage of great weights, burdens and trials for the enslaved workers. And I began to wonder whether this solidly built stone dwelling had felt like a very solid prison to the people who lived in it and could never really escape.
The stone built slave dwelling from Clover Hill Farm might have been an enduring reminder to the enslaved people of the intractability of the condition of slavery. It is certainly a reminder of the contradictions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for some built solidly on the life, enslavement, and deprivation of happiness for others. But fortunately, the commitment of the Johnson family and of Grace United Methodist Church has transformed that stone built structure into a positive statement of how African Americans built so much of America’s economic and domestic life and their central place in our country’s story.
Like Clover Hill, the cabin at the Ben Lomond Historic Site was made of field stone and had a chimney at both ends. This cabin was larger and had a partition in the middle which separated both sides. It had a wooden floor and was adorned with many replicated tools and a bed which may have been issued and/or used by the enslaved at the site. The most amazing thing about the cabin made of field stone, was that in 1979 it was moved from one side of the big house to the next to prevent it from being demolished due to development.
Staff at Ben Lomond and my effort yielded no one to share the overnight experience in the slave cabin. This resulted in my opportunity to go back to the basics of sleeping alone in a slave dwelling because I would have to go back to November 2012 at Boone Hall Plantation in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina to find that last time.
The cabin’s close proximity to a highway made me feel secure. Although this site is encroached upon by major development, the slave cabin and the big house manage to coexist with its surroundings. My solitude within the cabin yielded no deep thoughts or fear however I did think about the project in its infancy when no one even considered joining me for a sleepover in a slave cabin. Now people stand in line for the experience. Terry James twenty five stays, Prinny Anderson eight stays, Toni Battle four stays, James Brown three stays, Tim Shipley two stays, Jerry Harper two stays, and many people who have stayed in a slave dwelling at least once have made this a rewarding journey thus far.
The next day I was tasked with addressing the visitors as they came to the site to learn more about the Slave Dwelling Project. Although the visitors were sparse, the conversations were rich and showed great potential for future visits to Manassas.
Information on its website reads as follows: “Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, hero of the American Revolution, ninth Governor of Virginia, and father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, purchased several lots on North Washington Street in Alexandria soon after the War for Independence. He later sold the lot at the corner of Oronoco Street to his cousin Philip Richard Fendall, who built this wood frame house in 1785. From 1785 until 1903, the house served as the home to thirty-seven members of the Lee family. This period of residency was interrupted during the Civil War when, in 1863, the Union Army seized the property for use as a hospital for its wounded soldiers.”
“History did not come to a halt upon the departure of the last member of the Lee family in 1903. Robert Downham, a prominent Alexandria haberdasher and liquor purveyor, resided with his family in this house for the next 31 years. In 1937, Downham conveyed the house to John L. Lewis. As the president of the United Mine Workers and the founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Lewis is considered one of the most powerful and controversial labor leaders in American history. He lived in this house during the height of his power, and until his death in 1969.”
Occasionally, when spending nights in extant slave dwellings, I come across one that belonged to someone famous. The Lee Fendall House fits that category. The northern Virginia trip planned by the Ben Lomond Historic Site and the resourcefulness of the Lee Fendall House staff provided the opportunity for the stay at the Lee Fendall House.
The site is tucked well within an urban setting. With over fifty stays in extant slave dwellings, for me this overnight stay would not be rare but for Prinny Anderson who would be sleeping in a slave dwelling for the eighth time, this urban setting would be her first.
Known as the shabby dwelling, it has been open to the public for one year. Although occupying a corner lot, the dwelling is oriented to the back of the big house and is currently attached. The upstairs portion of the dwelling is in a state of disrepair as very little was done to it since the last inhabitant moved out it in the 1960s. It’s condition factored into my decision to sleep downstairs in the area that currently serves as the gift shop.
As I laid on the floor of the gift shop, I could not help but wonder about the future of the Slave Dwelling Project. This was the second dwellings in two weeks that I stayed in that was in need of restoration. I knew four years ago, when I started this quest, that all of the dwellings that I would encounter in all extremes, from dilapidated and on the verge of being lost to demolition by neglect; to those that are well kept and could demand a handsome price on the open market; comfort would not be on my short list of choosing the extant slave dwelling of which to spend a night. It is still my desire that in the near future this project will be able to assist those individuals and entities that have the desire but not the means to restore, interpret, maintain and sustain extant slave dwellings.
In addition to sleeping in the Lee Fendall House my other obligation to this stay was to address an audience the staff assembled on the day following the sleepover. The subject of the presentation was of course the Slave Dwelling Project. Although the crowd was sparse, the question and answer period was quite engaging.
This trip to northern Virginia was a lesson to me that there is still a lot of work to do in preserving, interpreting, maintaining and sustaining extant slave dwellings. While there is no immediate threat that the slave dwellings at Clover Hill, Ben Lomond or the Lee Fendall House will be demolished, their potential for interpretation have not been fully reached. Two of the three sites, Ben Lomond and the Lee Fendall House are currently available to the public for visitation. These sites have the capacity to accommodate and can benefit from increased visitation. You can do your part by visiting these sites the next time you are in the northern Virginia area. As a representative of the Slave Dwelling Project, I am willing to continually do my part in helping these sites develop their audiences and help prevent the “Second Bull Run on America.”
Slave Dwelling Project – Lee-Fendall House, Alexandria, VA
Doors to Nowhere
By Prinny Anderson
The Lee-Fendall House is a gracious urban dwelling surrounded by the busy streets, shops, businesses and residences of Old Town Alexandria, VA. The staff who preserve the house museum are well informed about the lives and duties of the enslaved people in and around the house – they regularly conduct a Slaves and Servants tour that focuses only on the “downstairs” parts of the building.
The house dates from the late 18th century, and in its earlier period, there were a number of outbuildings in what is now a lovely garden. One or more of those buildings were probably slave dwellings. In addition, attached to the kitchen is a structure known as the Shabby Dwelling. It was housing for enslaved people, although there is no record of who they were – perhaps the coachman and his family, or the cook and the butler. Above the kitchen, reached by its own back stairway, are small rooms also formerly occupied by enslaved people. Based on what is known about the domestic practices of other large households of the 18th and 19th century, it is likely that some enslaved people slept in the Big House itself, under stairways, in closets, or in the hallways, outside the bedroom doors.
For our overnight stay, we bedded down in the first floor level of the Shabby Dwelling, now the Lee-Fendall House Museum Gift Shop. The floor space without gift shop furnishings could possibly accommodate 4 adults – it is small. But the walls are solid, the floor is wood and in good repair. As slave dwellings go, it is pretty comfortable.
But two features of that cabin caught my attention and put that comfort into question. The first feature is the open door between the Shabby Dwelling and the kitchen, on whose wall is a range of service bells. It hit me that the people living in this warmer, more comfortable little dwelling were always in range of summons from their owners. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they could be called upon to perform services for the Lees, the Fendalls, and their guests. They could never get away or take a break from their masters and mistresses. And nothing about their lives could be truly private either, since the white families were always on the other side of the door and the walls. Their sleep, their prayers, their quarrels and their love-making were protected only by a thin wall of wood and plaster, and could be interrupted by shouts or bells at any time. The Shabby Dwelling space began to feel oppressive, another layer of enslavement beyond the simple deprivation of liberty.
The other feature that prompted deeper thought was the door to the outside forecourt where the family’s and guests’ carriages would have pulled up. At first I thought about the door as a means by which the Lee-Fendall enslaved people could get out of the house and join the bustle of Alexandria. I imagined this as an alternative form of temporary escape, an alternative way of having time and space for oneself. But then I tried on a different perspective. I realized that when a Lee-Fendall enslaved woman stepped out into Oronoco Street, she could immediately be distinguished from the majority of the free population by the color of her skin. Everyone who interacted with her on the street, in the shops and market, or at other townhouses would assume she was enslaved and would treat her accordingly. She would always be seen, and perhaps see herself, as a non-person, a non-citizen, perhaps as an object, perhaps as something equivalent to a domestic animal. She might also have been required to carry a pass or wear a badge to reinforce her identity as property. She couldn’t be “herself,” she would always be somebody’s slave, somebody’s economic asset.
I’m sure that there were times when stepping through the door into the Big House or onto the street was positive, with benefits, maybe even pleasures. But my perspective from the floor of the Shabby Dwelling was that being a house slave might have been more constrained, more oppressive than being a slave living in one of those buildings out in the garden area, with some opportunities to rest, reflect, have private moments, and get away for a little while from the master. From my perspective on the floor, the door to the kitchen and the door to the forecourt were not doors to opportunity but doors to oppression, doors to nowhere.