Preserve: (1) to keep alive or in existence; make lasting (2) to keep up maintain
My love of preservation was really tested in a recent stay in an extant slave cabin. I was very enthusiastic about my opportunity to work on a HistoriCorps restoration project especially when that project meant restoring an extant slave cabin. HistoriCorps is a national organization that works through partnerships to mobilize volunteers to save and sustain our nation’s special places while providing educational and outdoor experiences. HistoriCorps launched on a regional level in 2009 through an innovative public private partnership between a statewide historic preservation nonprofit, Colorado Preservation, Inc. (CPI) and the United States Forest Service (USFS).
The slave cabin is located on Clermont Farm in Berryville, Virginia. According to its website: “The Foundation funds and manages Clermont Farm, a 360-acre research and training site in history, historic preservation, and agriculture, owned by the Department of Historic Resources of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The farm and the foundation were a gift to the people of Virginia by Elizabeth Rust Williams in 2004.
As a study site, Clermont is open only by appointment to researchers, teachers and students. It is not open to the public except for specific scheduled events. Clermont has training relationships with universities in Virginia and Maryland, and a Community Agricultural Partnership with the Clarke County Public Schools and Farm Bureau.”
In addition to Terry James who accompanied me to the site, I was proud of the fact that others heeded my call to volunteer for this restoration project. Upon arrival, I immediately noticed that there was new siding being placed on the hand hewn logs. This was a shock because this was not the type of restoration that I was expecting. The project manager informed me that there was currently a cease and desist order while the National Park Service figured out the way forward. The choices were to remove the siding or proceed with the siding as planned. To my dismay, they chose the latter.
Despite that, the experience was great. Terry and I anticipated setting up a tent but that was not necessary because the cabin was in a condition that allowed us to sleep there. We even had the pleasure of finding the fingerprints of the enslaved who made the bricks that were contained in the fireplace of the big house.
In a strange turn of events, I discovered that the cabin was already on my short list of places to spend a night. When I saw the call for volunteers, I immediately applied and was accepted. One week prior to the trip, I got a call from Robert Stieg, Chief Operation Officer of the foundation that runs Clermont Farm, he congratulated me for being one of the volunteers and reminded me that we were negotiating an overnight stay in the cabin. It was then that I realized the two places were the same. We were considering a date in October but we never did confirm.
Terry and I spent the first night in the cabin without incident. The next morning, a crew was supposed to come and replace the roof but they were a no show. I spent the first day as part of a paint crew painting the siding that was at that time questionable about being placed on the cabin.
After dinner with the volunteer crew, Terry and I took a trip into Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and to Kennedy Farm where the John Brown cabin is located. Located in Sharpsburg, Maryland, John Brown planned his raid on Harpers Ferry there. Upon return, Terry and I managed to get in on the tail end of the tour of the big house. Our host Robert Steig was candid about the slavery that occurred on the plantation, the kind of interpretation that I love.
The second night stay in the slave cabin was not uneventful. We were abruptly awakened twice by an air compressor that went off in the next room. Terry and I were both convinced that an uninitiated person would have created their own exit to vacate the cabin had that occurred when they were in there.
The last day full day for Terry and me and still a no show for the roofers. More painting for me and the cleaning of the windows that had to be put back in the cabin. After lunch, the project director received the word that the National Park Service had relented and he could indeed proceed with the siding.
A lull in the work allowed us to take a tour of Josephine City which was founded shortly after the Civil War when the owner of Clermont Plantation sold adjacent land to African Americans. Bob our host had explained to us that until recently, there was a misconception that the owner donated the land, but the record has now been set straight that land had been bought by those who once toiled on that same land as the enslaved.
That evening, the public was invited to a presentation about the Slave Dwelling Project that was held in the big barn which was an unusual setting but not unique for I had presented in a barn at Sotterly Plantation in Hollywood, Maryland. One of the attendees was the last lady to stay in the cabin. This is rare and I seldom get to interact with those who lived in the places that are now consuming so much of my life.
Because of that experience, I now have to examine if it is more important that the extant slave cabins be preserved in accordance with the Secretary of Interior standards or should I be satisfied that the dwellings be allowed to exist in whatever the condition and use the stewards choose. For that, I choose the ladder. I am often reminded of the time in Lexington, Missouri when we as preservationists applied a little too much pressure to a private owner of a slave cabin and under the cover of darkness she tore it down. I am looking forward to the time(s) in the future when I can return to that structure and conduct educational programs and sleepovers and that is only possible because the structure exists and the steward is willing to interpret the people who lived there. For that, I am thankful.
There have been times when I have gotten to interact with the descendants of the enslaved on the properties where their Ancestors were enslaved. At Bacon’s Castle in Surry County, Virginia, two sisters who were the descendants of a person who was enslaved there spent the night with me and others in the slave cabin located there. Before the sleepover, the two sisters wanted no involvement with the site but now they have conducted a family reunion there. At Montpelier in Orange, Virginia the home of our fourth President, James Madison, I interacted with descendants of the enslaved who were there for the week on an archaeological dig, however I could not convince any of them to spend a night in a recreated slave cabin there with me. To their credit, they did spend a night in a modern house on the site.
There have been times in this journey when fate has taken over. My opportunity to spend a night at Monticello was one of those times. Prinny Anderson, a white descendants of Thomas Jefferson, has been spending nights with me and Terry James and others since 2012. She now has a total of 18 stays. It was always our goal to spend a night at Monticello. We both knew that the bureaucracy there had to be finessed. I continued with business as usual in proving to the stewards of these properties that I come in peace and mean them no harm. This is a project about preservation and interpretation and honoring those who were enslaved through those methods. That said, I still give Prinny the credit for making this stay happen.
Twelve of our former Presidents owned slaves, eight of whom owned slaves while they were in office. I had already spent nights at the Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson and Montpelier, home of President James Madison. Monticello had the potential to be the most compelling because descendants of those who were enslaved there would be joining me in the stay. Extra special because of the knowledge of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings.
Like the two other presidential sites, this is a major money making operation complete with a café, gift shop, and visitor’s center. The place was abuzz with people the entire time Terry James and I were there. Aurelia Crawford, Instructor for Education and Visitor Programs, Research Assistant for Getting Word African American Oral History Project, was our point person. Our first task was meeting with staff over lunch as they laid out the intricacies of the visit upon the mountain. A recap of all that it took to get us there was discussed. Unfortunately, steadfast Prinny Anderson could not attend this gathering because of unforeseen circumstances. Terry James and I did a fine job in ensuring the staff that we came in peace and meant them no harm. Terry’s method of sleeping in chains was even discussed as something that might be a little too harsh for what we all we trying to accomplish. On that point, we would follow the lead of staff on how they wanted us to proceed.
On top of the mountain, where Thomas Jefferson once resided, we were treated to a tour of Mulberry Row where the enslaved once lived. It was great to see the recreated slave cabins because they were the work of Craig Jacobs, owner of Salvewrights Ltd in Orange, Virginia. Terry James and I joined Craig and his crew at Montpelier in a field school that built from the ground up a replica of a cabin that now stands on its original footprint. I was thoroughly impressed with the tour. The tour guide, a senior white gentleman, did not sugarcoat anything about the slavery that existed there at Monticello. You know, that kind of tour that takes you out of your comfort zone, giving you real information, not some Gone With the Wind version of history of which were are so accustomed.
We were then treated to an archaeological tour of the continued work that is happening on Mulberry Row. It was this archaeological work that allowed the recreated cabins on Mulberry Row to now sit on the footprints of the originals.
The time for claiming our space for sleeping came next. The recreated cabins were already appropriately assigned to the descendants of the enslaved. I quickly passed on the smoke house because it had a dirt floor. Prinny, Terry and I chose the space where the cook would have slept. The descendants of the enslaved chose the places where research has revealed their Ancestors would have slept.
We were then treated to a tour of the Elizabeth Hemings homestesd, mother of Sally Hemings, site. There are no extant buildings there but, like many sites at Monticello, the archaeological study has been thorough. It appears that she was allowed to live out her latter years with all of the privileges that being enslaved would allow.
This was followed by a session at the visitors center where some of the descendants of the enslaved had gathered, some of whom would be spending the night. Jobie Hill, architectural historian, gave a rousing presentation about the process for replicating the slave cabins that are on Mulberry Row. Prinny Anderson, Terry James and I got our opportunity to address the group about the Slave Dwelling Project. When I cautioned the group that many had gotten to this stage in the past but still backed out of the overnight stay, they adamantly assured me that none of them would be backing out to of the deal.
Back up the mountain, we all confirmed our places where we would spend the night. But how could we sleep before we gathered around a camp fire for a conversation. We all had an opportunity to reveal why we all were on the mountain at that time. There were some very powerful testimonials but for me the most powerful one was a lady who expressed her disdain for all that Monticello historically and currently represents, a common refrain that I hear from several African Americans. I went to sleep and woke up thinking about her testimonial.
The next morning was a great time to walk the grounds and take advantage of a beautiful sunrise. Friend and Monticello employee, Carol Richardson, took me to the back of the big house to show me the mother load of fingerprints that were left by the enslaved Ancestors who made those bricks. Terry and I met Carol at Montpelier when she participated in the field school that built a log cabin there. Carolyn also joined me and others for a sleepover in that recreated cabin.
We then proceeded back to the visitor’s center for breakfast and an open discussion about the previous night. The comments revealed that Monticello has started something of which it cannot retreat. While there will continue to be those who think that Monticello is still benefiting from slavery and its legacy, I think that the organization should stay the course. Until Monticello, I had never participated in a sleepover that had this much descendants of the enslaved involved.
My take away for this experience was a great opportunity to examine President Thomas Jefferson as I had examined President James Madison when I interacted at Montpelier, his home. Both of these founding fathers were instrumental in creating documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that were so vital to creating this great nation. Yet both of these men lived private lives that were the exact opposite of what those documents espouse.
Sleeping in My Ancestors’ Home
By Prinny Anderson
Since I was about 10 years old, I have known that my many-branched Virginia family included as many African Americans as European Americans, given the realities of slaveholding and plantation life. At age 10, I also had a dream of bringing all of my family together. But I knew these insights and dreams would horrify my Randolph grandmother, so they stayed hidden for many years.
round 2000, 2001, my family had a disgraceful and very public dispute over who the members of the all-white graveyard association would deign to include in the Jefferson family. The Hemings were declared, against all evidence, to not be descendants of Thomas Jefferson.
However, in opposition to both our immediate family members and our extended group of relatives, a handful of the European American Randolph-Jefferson descendants took steps to align themselves with their kin, the African American Hemings-Woodson-Jeffersons. Initially, we joined them at the family reunions they invited us to attend. After getting better acquainted, we formed a multi-family committee and created the Monticello Community Gathering, held on the mountaintop outside Charlottesville. It was attended by 200 African American descendants and 50 European Americans.
The president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the owners and stewards of Monticello, supported us fully. On the second night of the gathering, when we walked into the garden of Monticello for our family dinner, he greeted all of us with “welcome home, please be welcome home.” It was an uplifting time that gave me a strong sense of connection to the family and the home place of all our ancestors. For a while I rested on the joy of that weekend.
Then in 2012, I met Joe McGill, and his story about sleeping in slave dwellings galvanized me. I remember the feeling of an electric shock that ran through me. His mission was so simple and so right, and somehow, for me, connected to the idea of home places. I vowed to join the SDP any time there was an overnight stay within driving distance of my home in Durham, NC.
After one or two stays in 2012, a new idea for how to honor my family and our linked ancestry started taking shape. I began to consider how an SDP overnight might be held at Monticello, our home place, a focal point for our extended family connection. I thought of an SDP overnight as a step closer to walking in the footsteps of the ancestors.
During 2014 and much of 2015, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation was going through an intensive period of updating infrastructure, restoring and interpreting the upper floors of the mansion, and reconstructing and interpreting the structures along Mulberry Row, the location of many slave dwellings and workshops. In and around the construction schedule and the already planned public events, the Foundation and the SDP looked for a date when 20 or so people could come to Mulberry Row to spend the night.
The date was 21 August 2015, and that Friday evening, 16 or so descendants of Monticello’s enslaved population, members of the Getting Word oral history project, arrived at the Visitor Center. Some descendants came for the evening program, and would be back in the morning, but weren’t planning to sleep over. Twelve people, aged 14 to 78, were planning to stay the night. They made up the largest group of descendants of an enslaved community that have so far participated in an SDP overnight, and they were committed not to lose courage and sneak away as the evening wore on. “We got this, Joe,” they declared over supper.
The evening program began with Jobie Hill taking us on a virtual tour of Mulberry Row, connecting the overnighters with the specific places their ancestors had inhabited and worked in. After Joe gave his talk about SDP, it was time to go up to Mulberry Row. As the dark settled in, we settled ourselves around a bonfire and did what people have always done around the fire. People shared family stories, linking themselves with their ancestors, reminding us all of the web of family relationships among the Herns, Gillettes, Fossetts, Hemings and Hughes. Strong emotions and strong words, of anger, frustration, and hurt were expressed, in regard to the treatment of the enslaved people at Monticello and slavery in general. One theme was the lack of identity for individuals and recognition given to the talents, hard work, and contributions of the enslaved community – no one knew their names, their stories, and all they had done to make Jefferson and Monticello what they were. One of the elders in the circle said she was pleased that at least this overnight was a beginning.
Finally, we went off to our sleeping quarters in the Kitchen, the Cook’s Room, the Hemings cabin and other spots. Except for the yipping of a fox or a faraway dog, the night was quiet. I slept in the Cook’s Room, which had been occupied by several different women over the years, along with their husbands and children. It seemed fairly full with just three of us on the floor; I could imagine the same space with five, six or more. No ancestors spoke to me in that room unless you count the whispery flutterings of a little bat in the ceiling.
Morning came, with a blue and gold sunrise at 6:34 AM. Wispy clouds streamed away from the sun, looking like pale pink and yellow koi. The depth of quiet and the glory of the light filled me with a sense of benediction. I felt deep within myself the sense that my ancestors, people whom I had opposed when I chose to stand with my Hemings-Woodson kin, were blessing me, drawing me back in, letting go of their alienation. I felt that the enslaved ancestors were pleased to see their children back in their homes. It was well with my heart, it was well with my soul; I had indeed come home.
Aurelia A. Crawford, employee, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. (Instructor for Education and Visitor Programs, Research Assistant for Getting Word African American Oral History Project)
With gratitude to Joe McGill and his vision, something special happened in the minds and hearts of everyone who participated in this historical moment at Monticello. It was a personal history moment for 14 descendants whose family members were linked to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and surrounding farms. As an African American I’m still processing -but this moment gave me permission to connect with my ancestors – whose sweat, tears, blood and bones are in the ground somewhere on another mountain or in another field.
My name is Bill Webb, a descendant of Brown Colbert, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson. I attended the Slave Dwelling Project August 21-22. The presentations in Woodlawn Pavilion were very informative.
Going up to the Mountaintop for the campfire & Mulberry Row was HEAVY. Anger, humor, sharing and the mention of the “Getting Word” project. None of this could have happened without Cinder Stanton, whose name came up several times. We were in the area where we as descendants had helped plant trees in honor & memory of the enslaved ancestors in May 2015. I elected NOT to sleep over but came the next morning to hear stories from those who had spent the night. What an awesome experience.
Wishing you continued success.
I am a 9th generation Virginian. Some of my ancestors, who preceded me in this country came in the belly of slave ships from where and when, I do not know. They came to Monticello as the property of Martha and Thomas Jefferson from the wills of their fathers John Wayles and Peter Jefferson.
On August 21, 2015, some of the descendants of both sides of this coin called slavery came together for a different reason, to spend the night in a slave dwelling at Monticello at the invitation of Monticello and the Slave Dwelling Project led by Historian Joe McGill.
Everyone has heard of the third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence. Few have heard of the other people, who lived and worked on the “mountain top”. This night was a chance for us, the descendants to walk in their shoes, to call the names of our ancestors and honor them. They were our founding fathers and mothers.
It was very emotional for me, but I was grateful for the opportunity. I thanked them for the many sacrifices and the legacy they left our families. Thank you to the Slave Dwelling Project and to the staff at Monticello for this opportunity.
Monticello Aug 21, 2015
As a descendant of the Gillette family, who were enslaved on this “little mountain”, my mom and I were asked to spend the night in a slave dwelling. We were asked to participate in a monumental event. On this former plantation, the home of our 3rd President, author of the Declaration of Independence, but more importantly the owner of my ancestors for 4 generations. We were asked to sleep in a dwelling that one of my ancestors might have slept in, overnight with a man, who travels around the country doing this regularly. His purpose preservation. Growing up in Albemarle County, I have lived in the shadow of Monticello my whole life. I heard stories of those slaves, who lived there, happily, enjoying a life of comfort and shelter. Protected by their “father”. But also tales of disobedient slaves, who deserved to be punished and sold “down south”. Slavery happened, but it was a very long time ago. Until, we began our journey to trace our family tree, we had no knowledge of any connection to those people, who lived here. We wanted to know, who they were, how they lived, because the research we found suggested a different story than the history books. So we took up the challenge. I had few expectations. I would not dream what they might have dreamed, or feel what they might have felt, because I
knew that I would get up in the morning to return to my cozy bed. I did believe that I would be aggravated from lying awake in a dark room unable to sleep on the cold muddy floor. I suspected that I might wake up the next morning very angry and want to hit my white boyfriend. I did not expect to connect with my ancestors and those, who shared my experience on a personal level. Most of all, I knew there would be no laughter. But laughter came. It came with tears. It came with like stories shared during a bonfire. It came with the aching bones of the women, who shared my dwelling. Strangers connected by a common ancestry that of our kinship formed on this mountain. Women, who believed we would never be able to rise from the damp cold cement floor, but we received the strength of our ancestors, who rose each morning to begin a new day of work. Some with wounds from yesterday’s beating. Some with feet still swollen from shackles. As the night progressed their strength consumed me. How could they survive this? How could they endure a second night? As the sun rose, we, the dwellers shared in its beauty and realized we had taken a small journey with them. This was the end of our part. It would end quickly while theirs would continue for a lifetime. A lifetime that would end in the small graveyard down the hill with no marker to honor them. To fight this new sadness, I absorbed as much of the sun for them, as I could and a new sense of pride consumed me. Pride in the knowledge that by this hour they would have done more work than most have done in a full day. Pride in this beautiful place that they built with their bare hands, bare backs and bare feet. Pride in their skill as chefs and craftsmen and weavers and joiners. Pride that through it all they worked. Through it
all they lived. I live because they lived. They are Gillettes. Their names must never be forgotten.
Lisa M Goodloe
(Hern Family Descendant)
I participated in the overnight stay at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. I had no idea when I agreed to participate in this project that it would have such a profound effect on me afterward. Every child in this area has visited Monticello and I am no exception; however I previously had never felt anything beyond what any normal tourist would feel. However this time was very different. We were all excited to be given the opportunity to sleep overnight. However the next morning, we woke up to see the sunrise and as I walked around the grounds alone to take in the beauty and the serenity of the morning, I started to imagine what my ancestors had to endure on a daily basis to build and maintain this home. The emotion of the experience would hit later when I tried to verbalize how I felt about the experience. I had never felt so humbled. My ancestors lived, endured and died on that property. Their sacrifices were made so that my generation can enjoy the freedoms we have today. That was powerful.
If I have an opportunity to walk around the grounds of Monticello in the future, I will have a sense of pride that I never thought possible, my ancestors along with other hardworking people are the reason in large part this great home still stands.
Thank you and bless you for the work that you do. I am forever grateful!