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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