Yesterday, two of my friends died in a plane crash, leaving their five children orphans. The husband in this couple was someone I had known since I was 14 years old and my family moved to his family’s plantation that would become my physical and heart-space home.
It was his home, too. His family had owned it since a hunting lodge was built on it in 1725. This was a place that his family had dug roots for almost three hundred years. He will never see that place again.
That man and I lived very different lives. His family employed mine, and the economic differences between our experiences sometimes created rifts so wide that I felt like he and I didn’t speak the same language. But still, we shared a space, a place we each treasured and knew deeply, if differently.
The places of enslavement are home to many people: the enslaved community who came to live there, to love there, to work there, to grow there against their own will, the enslaver’s family who chose the place – at least initially – and grew it and their own families alongside the people they enslaved, the free workers who came and went during the days of enslavement, and then those of us who have lived and loved and grown there in the centuries since.
Each place where people were enslaved speaks differently to these various groups. For me, Bremo is a place of peace, a place I used to see with two lenses – the one of home and the one of slavery – but that I now see as rich and broken and true in a single place. We would not have the gorgeous stone walls and the rolling fields of cleared hills without enslaved people, and they wouldn’t have been enslaved without the system of slavery that the owners subscribed to. Yet, it is beautiful – I know Primus and Minerva knew that as well as my father and I do.
So when my friend returned to his ancestral home, I can’t say I know all of what he saw because, sadly, I never asked him. (I will surely ask his brothers though.) But I suspect he saw lush trees and virgin timber, the shadows of his ancestors walking these hills, and I expect he saw the legacy that enslaved people left him in that land, a land he shared with them.
I never walk the land at Bremo without thinking of the people who were enslaved there – Ben and Lucy, Jack and Phillis, Jesse and Malvina, and all the other enslaved people I am honored to know – and I never walk it without the thought of the owner’s family that brought my family to that precious place when I was a jaded, grumpy 14-year-old.
Now, I will always think of Byron and Catherine and remember them walking the land, strides wide, centuries of history beneath their feet.
Rest in peace, my friends, all of you.