I usually publish a blog no less than two weeks after I spend a night in an extant slave dwelling. An ongoing situation in Botetourt County, Virginia dictates that I change my modus operandi. Prinny Anderson, Terry James and I visited this site on Friday, January 8th. This is a call to action!
I knew that at some point the Slave Dwelling Project had to be more than just sleeping in slave dwellings. Although that act has garnered much needed attention for these often neglected dwellings, that act alone cannot galvanize and motivate people to restore, interpret and maintain these historic structures. Direct advocacy is sometimes necessary because someone has to speak for these dwellings when they are being threatened.
Botetourt County is an interesting case. My specialty is sleeping in slave dwellings and administering a Slave Dwelling Project conference here and there. The situation in Botetourt is none that I have ever dealt with before.
The heat is on. When I received a call back in October of last year to come and speak on behalf of two extant slave dwellings that were destined to be dismantled, stored and reassembled at another site, it seemed already too late for an intervention. I am aware of many slave dwellings that have been dismantled with the intent of reassembling them at another site in the future. Many of them are in storage and turning to dust. The first thing I wanted to know was if the dwellings were capable of being slept in because that is what I do best. Further investigation by my host revealed that sleeping in the dwellings would not be possible because the trip was scheduled for January and the fireplaces were not functional. My biggest fear then became the possibility of snow in the mountains of Virginia in the month of January because I do not travel well in snow. Despite all of the unknowns, the trip was scheduled.
It got worse. The local preservationists who included descendants of those who were enslaved at the site started advocating for the buildings to remain where they now stand. The Botetourt County board of supervisors had fast tracked the action that would be taken on the dwellings. The current plan is now to move the buildings in tact but that move is scheduled for the end of January.
So there we were, me, Prinny Anderson and Terry James on an advocacy mission to persuade the Board of Supervisors of Botetourt County that they made the wrong decision. Our quest was to convince them that the best plan for these dwellings was to restore them in their current location. Their defense was that the decision to dismantle the buildings was made 20 years ago. Economics is now dictating that if the buildings are moved a shell building will be built there at no expense to the tax payers.
So we arrived and met in a parking lot. Despite getting stopped to affix a signature to a speeding ticket and sporadic rain, many of the players who are interested in restoring the cabins at their current location converged in that parking lot at the appointed time. With all of the formalities out of the way, it was time to visit the site.
The big house burned in 1959 but what’s left of the kitchen house and slave cabin are still there. As typical, when this was Greenfield Plantation, this hill was its highest point and the big house was oriented to a waterway. Just as the original builder had determined that this was the best place on the property to build, all of that history is now irrelevant because for the current decision makers, economics is now driving what will become of that hill. All of the embodied energy that the enslaved put into building those structures is now in danger of being shuffled to satisfy an immediate need of economic development. With those buildings moved and out of context we will lose our ability to effectively interpret the cutting down of the trees; the hand hewing of those logs and assembling those logs into what is now those buildings.
The front of the kitchen house was charred, this is evidence of how close it was to the big house that burned. Currently, with the right interpretive components, one can easily tell the stories of how this building and the slave cabin interacted with the big house. The script is now flipped because it is usually the big house that remains on the site with the slave dwelling(s) being long eradicated from the landscape.
The floor on one side of the slave cabin had already been stripped away. I visually examined the dirt looking for evidence of the people who were enslaved there. A coin, a toy or a button would have satisfied my curiosity but I found nothing. Terry James and I examined the bricks in the fireplace but found no fingerprints. I examined the nails and verified that they were made by a blacksmith. In my mind, the waterway that gave access to Greenfield Plantation presented the possibility that those nails could have been made at Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson.
Sadly, there was heavy equipment at the site that was being used to prepare the buildings for their move. Bricks that were once a part of the hearth that cooked the food that fed the enslaved and those who enslaved them were in a pile. Our examination of the bricks revealed no fingerprints.
The day of planned activities continued with a gathering at the Botetourt County Museum. It was a chance to eat some good food and hang out with a larger group of people who supported restoring the buildings where they now stand. Upon leaving the museum, I found some fingerprints of our enslaved Ancestors.
Our main purpose for being in Botetourt County was to participate in a public meeting to advocate for the two buildings to be restored where they now stand. Our host Richard King, was a little nervous about how many people would show up at the high school for the meeting. His concerns were put at ease when, despite the rainy weather, more than two hundred people showed.
For me, Prinny Anderson and Terry James, the presentation was business as usual. I invited Crystal Rosson on stage to speak about her experience when she and others slept with me in the slave cabin on the campus of Sweet Briar College in Virginia.
During the question and answer period, we learned that two members of the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors were in the audience. They both declined to answer any questions but that did not stop any criticism that was directed toward them. We heard all kinds of suggestions from going to the site and locking arms to signing a petition.
Not being able to sleep in the any of the buildings, Prinny, Terry and I opted to spend the night with our hosts, Patty and Richard King. They live in a beautiful home that they built themselves. The decision to stay with them proved to be a good one because they were great hosts and it was a great time for us to debrief and figure out where do we go from here.
Our last obligation was to meet with County Administrator, David Moorman. Prinny, Terry and I did this at a coffee shop on our way out of town. Neither of us were convinced that we persuaded him to see things our way. My sincere hope is that the two supervisors that attended the public meeting were swayed in our direction and would at the least cease and desist the current activities at the site that will result in the relocation of the structures.
So what if through all of this effort, the buildings are still relocated? Would I consider this advocacy trip a failure or success? I would have to go with success. Yes, this is an uphill struggle trying to save the dwellings of the enslaved Ancestors but it feels good doing it because this is a cause much bigger than Joseph McGill, Prinny Anderson, Terry James, Patty King, Richard King and all who are now advocating for those building to remain where they now stand. I would feel much worse if I did not put forth that effort to slave those buildings. The current pattern of eradicating former slave dwellings from the built environment dictates that there will be more fights like this in the future. If it’s me who has to don the armor and be the tip of the spear to take on these future battles then so be it. Bring it on because it’s all about honoring the Ancestors.
You can do your part by contacting the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors.
GREENFIELD PLANTATION –
By Prinny Anderson
Sometimes a Slave Dwelling Project overnight is not a sleepover in a slave dwelling. Wait! How can that be? It can be on occasions like our visit to Greenfield Plantation and Fincastle, VA, when the cabins are uninhabitable, at least in January, and the invitation to the site is a response to a community crisis.
Location and Structures: The National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places contains the following description of Greenfield, also known as the Colonel William Preston Plantation or Preston House, in Botetourt County, Virginia, as registered in 2010 (VLR) and 2011 (NRHP). http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/counties/botetourt/011-0026_greenfield_2010_nrhp_final.pdf
The NRHP gives this description of the site. The two bolded sentences capture the essence of the crisis.
Greenfield is the house site of a plantation established in the mid-18th century by Colonel William Preston. The .86-acre nominated parcel, measuring 325 by 120 feet, is now within Botetourt County’s Greenfield office/industrial park, which is zoned M1- Industrial and POP (Planned Office Park). Protective covenants restrict further development of historical areas within the park.
The Greenfield manor house, which burned to the ground in 1959, was described as a two-story, log and frame structure with a side-passage, single-pile-plan, built in sections dating to the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries.1 The subsurface integrity of the burned house site was irrevocably compromised in large part by the construction of a subsequent house, which has since been removed, but the setting has not changed drastically, and the potential for archaeological deposits may still exist in some peripheral areas.
The house site is therefore included in the nominated parcel, but is assigned non-contributing status. Of the numerous dependencies and agricultural buildings that once stood around the house, only a detached kitchen/dwelling and a separate slave dwelling, both constructed of logs, survive to the present. Both are significant buildings in their own right.
The site of the big house and the two extant outbuildings is on a ridge that commands a wide view over the countryside and down to the river. This location is integral to an understanding of the historical periods of the plantation’s existence, the plantation’s people, and their daily lives. That commanding view made the site more defensible from Indian attacks during the period of the French and Indian wars. It gave the owner and the enslaved workers a view of who was approaching on the local road, allowing them to prepare for visitors. Similarly, they could see guests and shipments arriving on the river at the foot of the ridge. Hilltop breezes would have cooled the interiors of all the buildings; the slave dwelling is designed with windows opposite the doors, and the kitchen house has windows on facing sides.
History and Heritage: Greenfield was established by Colonel William Preston and eventually became a plantation of over 2,000 acres. The Preston family is described as “southwestern Virginia’s most prominent and powerful family from the mid-18th century until the period following the Civil War, one of the first families to settle in the area.” (NRHP description). During the colonies’ westward expansion, Colonel Preston helped survey the area in the 1750’s, and subsequently served as an officer in the Revolutionary War. In 1774, he moved his residence to Blacksburg while continuing to farm Greenfield, and at the time of his death in 1783, was the wealthiest man in the area, with 7,000 acres of land.
Several generations of Preston descendants continued to occupy Greenfield and adjoining properties, and farmed varying expanses of land (600 – 800 acres) with the labor of approximately 30 – 40 enslaved Africans over the years. They owned the plantation until at least shortly after the big house fire, in 1959.
The 1870 census shows nine households of black and mulatto people on the property, several of whom were literate, and one of whom had $100 in personal property. These tenant farm workers were paid a wage, lived in plantation buildings, including the extant slave dwelling, and were charged by the landowner for the food he sold them. This life persisted, possibly for decades thereafter. African American families in Botetourt County and in Roanoke trace their ancestry to the farm families of Greenfield.
County Government and Business Development: These remnants of Greenfield Plantation sit on less than one acre within a 679-acre county-owned tract. That property has been the subject of a business development plan for at least the last 20 years, and no one disputes the need for development to create jobs, keep younger people in the area, and bring in tax money. However, for much of those 2 decades, there has been limited action on the plan, and not all of the development that did take place has proven sustainable.
Recently, a new county Board of Supervisors was elected. Four of the five members are relative newcomers to the area. They do not have roots in its deep past, they do not see their ancestors and their heritage in the green acres and weathered buildings.
This new Board gave the business development initiative a new burst of energy. In what county citizens experienced as an accelerated and opaque decision-making process, the Board announced a plan to move the Greenfield plantation buildings – the slave dwelling and the kitchen house – to a site across the road, raze the hilltop they were on, and allow an investment company to build a large manufacturing shell structure on speculation. Between the community meeting in December and the day of our visit in early January, building stabilization and moving teams had already gone to work on the slave dwelling and the kitchen house, preparing for the move, and heavy equipment had already churned up the surrounding ground. To county residents, there seemed to have been insufficient time for collective discussion and decision-making.
Business AND People, Community, Heritage: The crisis seems to come out of a difference of perspectives, a difference of hopes and vision for the future, and a breakdown in communications between the Board of Supervisors and a large group of county citizens. To be balanced with the need for business development are people and community as well as the unique value of historical, architectural, and archaeological remains.
People, Community, Roots: The plantation site has great meaning and value to the African American community and to the white community as spearheaded by the Botetourt County Historical Society. These people do have roots in the land of Greenfield; for some of them, their ancestors occupied its acres and got their livelihood from its soil; for others, the historical associations are part of their identity; and for yet others, preserving unique artifacts of the past is a profound avocation.
This plantation site was home to Botetourt county people, important, wealthy and powerful people and humble, hard-working people, people who are ancestors of people currently living in the area, a site of cultural, social and community heritage. This plantation site also represents important periods in the history of the county, expressions of how the county and its inhabitants participated in all eras of the story of the United States: westward growth in the colonial period, the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, connections between the Prestons and the explorers Lewis and Clark, antebellum slavery and plantation life, the Civil War and emancipation, and land-owning and tenant farming through the Jim Crow era.
Preservation, research and restoration are not dry, academic pursuits in the county. For the citizens of Botetourt, they are the means to maintaining the material links to who they are and who their ancestors were, to what happened in the county and what it means in the present, to what people did and how they lived.
Heritage and Preservation – Construction and Architecture: The extant buildings of Greenfield Plantation are considered by the NRHP to be important well beyond the borders of Botetourt County. (Bolding is mine.)
The two-story kitchen’s chief characteristic is its cantilevered front overhang of the upper story, extending more than three feet beyond the lower wall plane. While likely not unique at the time of its construction, it is an unusual feature― quite possibly the only example in southwestern Virginia today.
The slave dwelling, which stands 200 feet west of (behind) the house site, was built during the late antebellum period as a multi-family house. It is constructed of two one-story log pens sharing a central chimney, an arrangement often referred to as a saddlebag house plan. The pens were constructed as a pair, with common dimensions and in identical fashion, of hand-hewn, V-notched, hardwood logs. Although in only fair condition, their historic integrity is remarkable. As such, they are both assigned contributing building status.
Recent work has stabilized both buildings and will prevent further deterioration for several years. Immediate subsurface areas around the two extant buildings have produced historic period artifacts, some possibly dating to the early settlement period, and intact stratigraphy has been revealed in shovel testing. Thus the nominated parcel, as a whole, is considered to be a contributing site with potential to produce valuable information regarding the early settlement period through Civil War period, and regarding the lives of African-American slaves.
Furthermore, the construction and craftsmanship of the buildings is considered important and unique. If these buildings are lost, damaged and out of context, structures like them will not be found elsewhere in the state, much less in the county. (Bolding is mine.)
… As noted previously, the two extant log structures at Greenfield are rare, well-preserved specimens with excellent integrity. The kitchen building is all the more rare for its cantilevered front overhang, but both buildings represent a simple, but historically important form of construction, a product of once-common knowledge, now long obsolete. In Virginia and elsewhere, a number of the least-altered examples of log construction are lost annually. Virginia Department of Historic Resources survey data provides ample evidence that log structures from the 18th and 19th centuries are being lost at an alarming rate. Examples of well-constructed log houses in terminal or near terminal condition are common sights in southwestern Virginia.
Where neglect and deterioration have not destroyed them, there are other foes include, ironically, restoration—often better described as adaptive re-use, in which little regard is given to historical accuracy. Because of the difficulty of replacing damaged logs, attempts to restore log buildings very often involve disassembly and reassembly of the entire structure. Once log buildings are “restored” in this way, their value as historic cultural objects is inevitably compromised. …
Heritage and Preservation – Archaeological Value: Finally, the archaeological value of Greenfield remains to be explored, with all that digging might reveal about early 18th century life on the frontier and the material culture of the enslaved community for well over 100 years. No other site in the county holds this potential – Greenfield is unique. If the buildings are further disturbed, and especially if they are moved, this potential and its human and historical value, are willfully destroyed. (Bolding is mine.)
As the only extant, documented, slavery-related site in Botetourt County, high potential exists for further investigations to produce valuable information about the lives of slaves. Current research in the area of slavery in Virginia includes a focus on how slave enclaves were compartmentalized according to activities and divided by barriers such as fences and walls. Another current focus is the existence or non-existence of sub-floor pits dug beneath slave dwellings―a question that remains yet unanswered at Greenfield, where the earth beneath the slave dwelling appears to be generally undisturbed since slave occupation. Further research at Greenfield should shed some light on subjects such as these, as well as on human life in general during the early settlement period and the antebellum plantation period
Vision and Next Steps
I hope that this crisis in Botetourt County opens ears, minds and hearts. I hope it leads county citizens and the members of their governing board to re-connect and listen to one another. I hope it incites creativity and shared problem-solving. The potential is enormous, the value without price. Botetourt County has an opportunity to be a shining example of how the heritage of the past, the pressures of the present and the human and economic options for the future can be resolved in harmony and balance.