Over the years, I have done research on the enslaved communities at a number of plantations here in Central Virginia. Sometimes, I am hired by the people who own the plantation to do the research; sometimes, I do it on my own.
In every case, my hope is the same – that the owners of the plantations, who are almost always white because of historically-based inequities – will make the information I find available to the public so that the people descended from these communities can find their ancestors.
Sometimes, It’s Great; Sometimes, It’s Heart-Breaking
Most of the time, the owners are quite happy to oblige, eager to know the descendants, aware of the way these relationships to the community of African American people who built their homes come with responsibility. Often, the descendant communities become involved in the way their ancestors are remembered in that place. Often, they become as connected to that place as they want to be.
Often, but not always. Sometimes, the white owners become too focused on their own desires, on their own gains for being “the good white person” who does the ancestors and the descendants the favor of remembering them. Sometimes, white owners become overcome by their own shame or the fear that they will be asked for financial reparation that they shut down the access to the places that African American people created for them. Sometimes, white owners act as if these people – the ones who literally built the place, who lived on it for generations, who also view it as home, hard as that may be – have no right to the place. It breaks my heart.
My Strong but Kind Word for White Plantation Owners
You will only be enriched by connecting with the black people who built the places you love. You will find people who love these places, too – differently than you do but just as strongly. You will find stories about your home places that help you understand and appreciate them more. You will make friends. You will understand history. You will know – first-hand and real – the way history has been unfair and unkind to people of color, and you will be better people for that.
I’m not saying this is easy – not suggesting that at all. It will take a humility that has not yet been required of you in this life. It will require that you take ownership of the privilege you inhabit because of your skin color and because of this place you own. It will require that you acknowledge racism as real and systemic and meritocracy as a myth perpetuated by elite, white people. It will not be easy, but it will be so worth it.
A Few First Steps if You Own a Place where People Were Enslaved
So if you own a historic home where people were enslaved, do research about the people who were enslaved there. Here a few first steps:
- Contact your local historical society and see what they know about enslaved communities in your area.
- Visit sites like Our Black Ancestry to see if anyone is looking for the owners who enslaved their ancestors.
- Share anything you know about the history of your place and the people who owned it before 1865 as publicly as you can. (You are welcome to use this space for that work if you’d like)
- Invite the descendants of the enslaved community to your place and let them walk the land of their ancestors. You’ll find them – as I always have – to be gracious and respectful of your privacy.
Imagine what it would mean to ALL of us if we had these stories, these lineages, these places in common. Imagine if we weren’t afraid. Imagine we shared our history truthfully and fearlessly. Oh, imagine, friends, the road we could walk together.
If you’ve worked with plantations owners to learn more about your ancestors, what has your experience been like? Or if you are a white plantation owners, what are your experiences or fears or hesitations about connecting with the descendants of enslaved people?