Five years into the Slave Dwelling Project and I am still trying to find extant slave dwellings throughout the United States, but sometimes the stewards of these sites find me. This was definitely the case for Effingham Manor in Aden, Virginia. So I get this call from Reverend Michael D. Gutzler. He stated that he saw an article about me when I stayed overnight at two sites in Manassas, Virginia. He further stated that he was renting Effingham Manor which had an extant slave cabin and I would be more than welcome to spend the night there when I visit the area. I get offers like this often but they usually come with an offer to cover the expenses so I so no need to act upon this information immediately. This was information that I would not have to file away for very long.
I would have the need to take him up on his offer sooner rather than later because it just so happened that I was looking for a place in that area to spend the night in a slave cabin. Here is how it all fell into place. At the time of Mike’s call, I was communicating with Chris Lese to find a space in northern Virginia where he and his history students and chaperones could spend the night.
I met Chris two years ago at a conference that was held at Gettysburg College. The conference was about African Americans commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. Chris is a history teacher at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For the past few years, Chris has been bringing students on field trips to physically explore the Civil War and slavery. Last year Chris brought a group to South Carolina and we spent nights at Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown County and Magnolia Plantation and the Old Charleston Jail both in Charleston.
A portion of this year’s trip took the group to Gettysburg Battlefield. I and Terry James would meet the group in northern Virginia. That is why the call from Mike, offering the opportunity to spend the night at the slave cabin at Effingham Manor, was timely because in addition to tagging along with the group, it was my responsibility to find extant slave dwellings where we could conduct sleep overs.
The main house at Effingham Manor dates back to 1767 and was built by Captain John Alexander, founder of Alexandria, Virginia. The initial property was 43 square miles. Today, in addition to the main house, the property contains a blacksmith shop, smoke house, well house and slave cabin. The only thing that felt out of place on the property was an inactive below ground pool and its supporting infrastructure. The property was also encroached upon by a development containing $600,000 plus houses.
Terry James and I arrived at the property first and began to take our photographs. We got to explore the slave cabin and concluded that it had been modernized quite extensively (electricity, vinyl siding, the works). This was not a problem for us as we have seen many extremes of extant slave cabins and I am a strong advocate of letting the slave cabins be whatever the current owners want them to be. I only request access, preservation and interpretation. There was an active wasp nest above the door that had to be handled. With the need for a good sweeping, we saw nothing in the cabin that would prevent us from sleeping there.
We were then joined by Chris Lese, the high school students and chaperones. I recognized some of the students from last year’s trip. I learned a little bit about their current trip to date because by now they had been on the road for one week. I got to tell them about the Slave Dwelling Project before our host Mike, his wife, very young daughter and dog arrived.
Mike gave us a brief history of the site before we all went to the slave cabin for its cleaning. We began to explore the other buildings on the site. The smoke house still smelled like some of the meats that would have been smoked there. Salt residue was abundant. The craftsmanship of the building made me speculate about the slave labor involved in its building and if the enslaved people had access to any of the meat that was smoked there.
The blacksmith shop was made of field stone which was common in northern Virginia. The building looked like the two slave cabins that I slept in the year before in Manassas, Virginia. Inside looked like someone had just laid down their tools and walked away. It was right beside the historic road so we all speculated that in addition to serving the plantation it was a shop that catered to anyone travelling that road who could pay for the services that a blacksmith would provide.
Our dinner of hot dogs and hamburgers would be provided by our host. While he was out shopping for same, the chaperones decided to give the cabin a more thorough cleaning, at which time, a snake’s skin was discovered inside. Like the time Terry James and I had a similar experience at Hopsewee Plantation in South Carolina, we all convinced ourselves that because the snake skin was dry, that snake was nowhere near the cabin anymore.
Before dinner, we explored the family graveyard. It was located on a hill and the fear of poison ivy permeated everyone’s mind. The unmarked graves of the enslaved was on one side and the marked graves of the slave owners was on the other. I found this rare because I am accustomed to the grave yard of the enslaved and slave owners being far apart. The dinner was followed by a tour of the house and grounds. We saw in one of the bricks in the chimney what looked like fingerprints but they were too high for us to verify.
Before turning in for the night, Chris required that the group have a discussion about the day’s activities. This discussion was interspersed with the issues concerning Effingham Manor. Those issues being encroachment by development and a current owner who does not care about the preservation of this historic property. A well contained fire and a full moon made the conversation more powerful. With twenty plus people sleeping in the cabin, the space was limited.
I am often asked the question: “If the Civil War did not occur, how long would slavery have lasted?” No one knows the answer to that question. I often wonder what was the thought process of Jefferson Davis and all of the politicians of the Confederacy?
From Effingham Manor, we travelled to the Casemate Museum (Fort Monroe). As this was my first visit to this museum, I had as much fun learning about it as the kids did.
Our tour guide did a beautiful job interpreting the site. The entire group was most interested in seeing the casemate that was used to hold Jefferson Davis as a prisoner after the Civil War. This was interesting to me because I had already visited the Confederate white houses in Montgomery, Alabama and Richmond, Virginia.
Hardly anyone is immune to the story of Nat Turner. In studying this nation’s history, his story like John Brown’s is often a part of any lesson plan. Unfortunate for me, growing up in South Carolina, my history lessons cast both of these individuals as criminals and terrorists and left no room for discussion.
Hypothetical situation: If you were enslaved during the period that this nation allowed the practice of slavery, would you acquiesce? If no, whose of the three methods would you have followed to obtain your freedom; Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas or Harriet Tubman? Prior to this trip, I would have easily answered Frederick Douglas.
Chris arranged for us to take a tour of the Nat Turner Trail which was given by H. Khalif Khalifah. Until then, I knew generally about the Nat Turner rebellion. Mr. Khalifah’s tour gave me a lot of the specifics of which I was not aware.
During the night discussion about the day’s activities, I expressed to the participants that given the circumstances of Nat Turner, I would have joined his camp had I lived during that period. That opinion did not go over well with everyone but that is the power of having these profound discussions in the place that once housed the enslaved.
Bacon’s Castle is the oldest brick building on this side of the Mississippi. I had a very productive overnight stay there in 2012. When Chris Lese expressed to me that he was looking for places in Virginia for the group to stay, Bacon’s Castle immediately came to mind. When I contacted our host Jennifer Hurst Wender about the overnight stay, I got an immediate and emphatic yes.
It was unfortunate that the Nat Turner tour caused us to get to the site two hours later than expected. Two reporters were waiting for us when we got there and Jennifer improvised by going to pick up pizzas that got there about the time that we all arrived.
After the meal, Jennifer gave us a tour of the slave cabin and a tour of the main house. I expressed to Jennifer that her tour was one of the best that I had ever heard on a plantation because she does not shy away from telling the whole story. I can only wish that she trained the rest of the staff well. After the tour, we all claimed our spots in the cabin. In claiming those spots, we knew that the space was going to be tight because we would not be using the two upper rooms. I considered sleeping on the porch but rain eliminated that thought. We then engaged in the routine conversation which was mostly about Nat Turner.
It was Jennifer’s intention to sleep outside in a tent but rain would dictate that she sleep in her truck because there was no more space in the two lower rooms of the cabin the students and chaperones occupied.
I learned from Jennifer that the two African American sisters whose Ancestor was enslaved at the site and who had spent the night with me and others in the cabin in 2012 had organized a family reunion at Bacon’s Castle. This was great news because the sisters had expressed to me that until my presence at Bacon’s Castle, they had refused to set foot on the property.
The next morning, I was up bright and early seeking finger imprints in the bricks of the oldest brick building on this side of the Mississippi. I found them and was very proud to show Jennifer and the others my discovery. Later, Terry James found some more finger imprints. Jennifer now has those fingerprints to add to her already powerful arsenal of interpretation.
By bringing the students to the places, Chris’s method of teaching takes the history off of the pages of books and makes it real. Additionally, Chris chooses the places he visits wisely, some of the places, like extant slave dwellings, are obscure and have been relegated to footnote status in history. This is why the Slave Dwelling Project will continue to work with Chris as we coordinate with stewards of extant slave dwellings to use these places as classrooms.