Ancestors of the Land: Enslaved People and Landscapes

Ancestors of the Land: Enslaved People and Landscapes

Photo by Dave Robinson on Unsplash

When I walk through this place I now call Home, I think of all the people who have gone before me. The schoolteacher, the professional baseball player, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. I think of the people those great-grandparents enslaved.  Of the young couple who sold us the house, making us only the third family to live in this house.  Of the Monacan people who came before all of us.

We have inherited this land sure as we inherit DNA and the quirks of our faces.  We are stewards of it, nothing more, nothing less.

In ways profound and rich, this land links me to all the people who have called it home before. The geography of genealogy. The genetics of rivers and hills.

To be linked by a place is a profound thing. It’s this thing that makes us ask, “Oh, where in Illinois?” or “Do you know that restaurant on Clement in San Francisco?”  The places of our lives make some of the deepest marks on us.

It’s for this reason that I believe part of the work of reparation, of justice for enslaved people and their descendants is access to the land on which enslaved people lived and worked.  Geographies shape us – from the way we understand safety in the tuck of a mountain to the hope we feel in a wide vista to the gentle calm that comes over us by that stream right there – and so the landscapes that enslaved people inhabited matter. They mattered to their daily lives as they worked and walked and loved on the land, and they matter to ancestors who find rootedness and understanding in seeing the fields their grandparents worked and the hills on which they prayed.

I will, for the rest of my life, advocate for descendants of enslaved people to have access to the land of their ancestors because it is, in every way, at least as much theirs as it was/is the land of the owners. I would argue it’s more.

 

On Friday morning, as part of the Slave Dwelling Project Conference and the UVa Symposium on Slavery, I will be presenting, with Lorenzo Dickerson and Margaret Wrinkle, a talk entitled “The Land, the Screen, the Page: Enslavement, Locations of Slavery, and Creative Arts.”  As part of this presentation, I will be sharing my personal experience of seeing people excluded from the places their ancestors’ called home. If you will be at the conference, I hope you will join us. 

Judah and her Child: The Whole Truth of Life on the Plantation

Judah and Her Child: Telling the Whole Story at Plantation Houses

Judah at Belle Grove: The Whole Truth of Life on the Plantation

Photo from Bellegrove.org

Judah’s five-week-old son died just after she did. . . the child of an enslaved woman didn’t have much of a chance on the plantation.

I learned this story a couple of weeks ago when Sharon Morgan and I visited Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, VA.  Our guide told us Judah’s tale as we sat in the kitchen where she cooked. He handed around a dutch oven so people could feel just how heavy the cast iron pot was. He talked about Judah’s life and her death, and he encouraged us to think complexly and richly about a woman who would, on most tours of this nature, be glossed over or simply disappear into statistics mumbled about slavery.  Belle Grove is doing the best interpretation of slavery and the lives of enslaved people as part of the plantation experience that I have ever seen.

It’s a hard thing to interpret slavery at a place that most people visit because of the big house. It’s a challenge in terms of storytelling and, let’s be honest, in terms of budget. Most people just don’t want to hear these stories. We’d rather pretend that this big house was built by people who were paid fair wages and who could go home to their own pieces of land at night. We don’t like to hold close the stories of people who built the houses we admire because they had to, because that was what was expected of them – that and a total obeisance despite their total lack of freedom.

The big historic sites here in Virginia are finally getting around to sharing the stories of the people and communities that literally built these places that people pay millions to see this year, and I’m glad of that. Very glad. Until the story of the vast majority of the people who lived on these lands – a small family of free, white people and dozens of families of enslaved, black people – we are not telling the true history of our land, and we are not doing any justice for the people from whose labor these places were constructed and on whose labor they grew the wealth of their white owners.

I’m grateful to know Judah. I want to know more.

Many thanks to Kristen Laise and Shannon Moeck for telling Judah’s story so well. 

 

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Friends, if you appreciate this site and what it shares, I’d be grateful if you’d consider a pledge of support on my Patreon page. Each donation means I have more time to research, document, and share stories of enslaved people.  Supporters get access to exclusive conversations about African American history and genealogy as well as sneak peeks at my works in progress. Thank you for considering a pledge – http://www.patreon.com/andilit. 

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Stepping Away

Friends,

Circumstances in my personal life mean that I need to build in some more space for the things I cannot control.  For that reason, I am stepping away from Our Folks’ Tales for a while.

I am so grateful for your witness here, for your words, for your work.

I’m not walking away from the work – just this face of it.  I’ll with you in the struggle.

Much love,

Andi

Preservation of African American Historical Sites

Historic Preservation of African American Historical Sites

Some of the damage that has been done at The Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville, VA.

This week, I was thrilled to see that Preservation Virginia, the historic preservation organization for my home state, had listed several important African American historical sites on their list of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places.

Let me be clear – I’m not just thrilled that those places are on the list because I study African American history and think these sites are important to black people – although that is reason enough to preserve them. No, these sites are important to all people, regardless of racial designation.  The stories of these places matter to everyone because they are part of our collective history, and far too often, African American historic sites are overlooked on lists such as these because they are considered “niche” sites that are not valuable to everyone.  I’m glad to see Preservation Virginia disregarding that pattern AGAIN this year with their list.

I’m particularly excited that The Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville made the list because my friend Edwina St. Rose’s ancestors are buried there and, as is far too often true for African American cemeteries, it had fallen into great disrepair.  In fact, Preservation Virginia has taken the preservation of African American cemeteries and burial grounds as a key initiative for the coming years.  (If you’d like to have a great resource on African American cemeteries near at hand, be sure to pick up a copy of Lynn Rainville’s book, Hidden History.) 

Also, on the list are

  • The Howland Chapel School and Teacher’s cottage:

New York educator, reformer and philanthropist Emily Howland (1827 – 1929) funded the one-story frame building two years after the Civil War ended. She and members of the local African American  community supported and maintained the school until the Northumberland County school board took control of the property

  • The Oakhill Slave Dwelling:

In late 2014, the site was compromised by a team of treasure hunters from the Discovery Channel series “Rebel Gold.” Using dubious techniques, the team excavated a large depression northeast of the ruin and the slave quarters. While some items were given to the Pittsylvania Historical Society, the treasure hunters boasted of recovering coins, a gold ring and other artifacts, which they kept. Because of the publicity, local historians fear further looting at this site. Statewide, there is concern that shows like this will promote unsupervised excavations at other sites.

  • and communities threatened by utility developers, like Union Hill in Buckingham County:

Post-Emancipation African American settlements and burial sites, like those at Union Hill in Buckingham County, reveal the successes and struggles of generations of African Americans in Virginia.

My hope and prayer is that these kind of designations will help add the necessary public scrutiny to these places so that they will be preserved and be allowed to tell these important stories that shape us all.

To read the full list of places on Preservation Virginia’s most endangered list, please visit this link

 

A quick note – my book Steele Secrets, which tells the story of how a young girl, Mary, battles to save a slave cemetery near her home, is on sale for $1.99 (e-book edition). You can download a free chapter, watch the video trailer, and find links for purchases here – www.ourfolkstales.com/steele-secrets. Thanks.

Karen Branan Comes to God’s Whisper Farm

Karen Branan at God's Whisper Farm on April 23, 2016On Saturday, April 23rd, author Karen Branan will be at God’s Whisper Farm to read from her book, The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth.  

The provocative true account of the hanging of four black people by a white lynch mob in 1912—written by the great-granddaughter of the sheriff charged with protecting them.

Harris County, Georgia, 1912. A white man, the beloved nephew of the county sheriff, is shot dead on the porch of a black woman. Days later, the sheriff sanctions the lynching of a black woman and three black men, all of them innocent. For Karen Branan, the great-granddaughter of that sheriff, this isn’t just history, this is family history.

Branan spent nearly twenty years combing through diaries and letters, hunting for clues in libraries and archives throughout the United States, and interviewing community elders to piece together the events and motives that led a group of people to murder four of their fellow citizens in such a brutal public display. Her research revealed surprising new insights into the day-to-day reality of race relations in the Jim Crow–era South, but what she ultimately discovered was far more personal. As she dug into the past, Branan was forced to confront her own deep-rooted beliefs surrounding race and family, a process that came to a head when Branan learned a shocking truth: she is related not only to the sheriff, but also to one of the four who were murdered. Both identities—perpetrator and victim—are her inheritance to bear.

The reading will take place at God’s Whisper Farm in Radiant, Virginia (just north of Charlottesville and south of Culpeper, Virginia) at 7pm on April 23rd.  Guests are invited to a potluck supper at 5pm before the reading.

The event is FREE and open the public.

 

Welcome!

Welcome to Our Folks Tales

Patrick Fore via Unsplash

Thank you so much for stopping by the brand-spanking-new website, Our Folks Tales.  Here, I’ll be sharing stories about our ancestors, people who persevered through slavery, who triumphed during Jim Crow, and whose lives still inspired us today.

Here, I’ll be talking about genealogists and researchers who are doing great work to recover and tell these stories.  We’ll be reviewing books that focus on these subjects, and I’ll be sharing the findings of my own research about enslaved people and their descendants here in Central Virginia.

We’re just getting this site started, so stay tuned for more information.