Remnantology

Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Category Archives: Virginia History

Fredericksburg’s Stone in Focus

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If all problems were all easy to solve, there would be no problems. This case is one that presents me with mixed feelings, mostly since I have been considering this for years. The centerpiece here is round block of sandstone at the corner of William and Charles Streets in Fredericksburg, Va. It stands in front of what used to be hotel, but is now a locally owned grocery and apartments. I have lived all over town in my long association with my home away from home, but I have never gotten to live in this building. It sits at the center of a great patch of Civil War era photography—in fact some of the town’s most famous pics were right there in a lot across Charles St. Sadly, no one took a photograph of this corner, and there is very little documentation about the stone as well.

But that does not mean it has no story. It has long been understood as having served as an auction block upon which enslaved Africans were stood so as to be presented to bidders. The warehouse down Charles St is also said to have served as storage area for enslaved Africans before sale. It is all plausible enough—there were enslaved people sold in town, and on this corner in fact. Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 12.56.18 AMAs NPS historian John Hennessy points out, there is not much else to lock in the story of the block. The local memory though is pretty strong, and needs to be given due weight—indeed, it has. There is a rival story that the block was a stepping stone for carriages and horses, but we can just push that aside since there is nothing about that role that would prevent the block from serving as an auction block as well at another time.

I am not going to take on the question of a thing being a thing. Let’s for the sake of argument say that it is. Or rather, even if it might not be, it certainly has been considered to be genuine long enough and widely enough to have entered the public discussion as what it purports to be (clear…?). What I am interested in though is the memorialization question. Long ago I began asking students, while standing at the stone, to give me reasons to keep it there or to move it. They were always creative and now I wish I had had them write the answers! The one thing that always bothered me though was a curatorial issue. Out in the open air, exposed to the elements, and with cars zipping by, I always felt that the stone was being treated with slight regard.

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Mountvernon.org

Take the LW stone at Mount Vernon (discussed in chapter six of the book I am writing now! plug plug). It maaaaay be a seventeenth-century survival, or it might not be. In either case, curators wisely moved it into storage and filled it place in the Mount Vernon cellar with a carefully matched and crafted  doppelganger. I have always sort of wanted the same thing done for the Auction Stone—if nothing else just to protect it from a drunk driver.

But now something else has emerged. A group of citizens is asking that the stone be removed from where it seems to have stood (probably stood) since the middle of the nineteenth-century. I first learned of this movement on Facebook and I had a lot of questions. Significantly, the leadership of the group is African American—specifically the contemporary community theoretically most honored by what the Fredericksburg.com editorial rightfully calls an “ugly artifact from an even uglier era in the city’s history.” In this view, the stone is a chastisement and a grim reminder of bad things in an “ugly” past.

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Fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com

Its presence is an act of atonement of sorts in stone through an ever-present reminder of past sins. But what the people asking for its removal are saying is that, rather, the stone is a needlessly painful reminder of a past that is not so distant from some residents’ contemporary experiences. The people who do not bear the lingering social, financial, and perhaps genetic effects of American Slavery I (1500—1865) and American Slavery II (1865–c1968) might need visible reminders of the past they have the good fortune to be able to otherwise forget. But others may be living more within other more immediate reminders, making some aspects of the past more present for them than for their neighbors. For those people, one stone more or less does not remove, forget, or erase the past. Instead, it might make the present less painful on a daily basis. The editorial suggests an answer—a recontextualization of the stone. The current plaque by the stone is by all measures insufficient. Thus, something richer and more informative is a categorical good. I use the stone each year to spark student conversation, and making the site a more useful teaching tool for everyone appeals to me. But at the same time, moving forward on this will require listening long and carefully to some of the concerns raised by voices within the African American community. It will require walking into those discussions without a “remainer” fait acompli in place. City officials might hear of very real pain which some citizens feel over this, and that that pain is not about a distant abstract past that needs to be remembered, but rather about how that past’s shadow is visited unevenly on people in the present. I have no idea what the memorializing outcome might be, but if that discussion was real and given time to mature, it would be a huge step forward in and of itself. It could be the stone upon which a new consensus could be built.

 

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Fredericksburg’s Farmers’ Bank II

The Free Lance Star reported yesterday that on Monday the city issued a stop work order on the demolition of the 1950s drive-through bank additions behind the Farmers’ Bank on Princess Anne st. farmer's bankIt seems though that the order was almost literally a day late and a dollar short. Last year, developer Mike Adams purchased the property from PNC Financial Services and floated a few plans for the building and lot. The latest is to turn the bank building into a restaurant and offices and put seven town houses in the lot. The former seems like a reasonable low-impact use of a historical structure, the later through still threatens to overwhelm the lot and over shadow the old building. The project began with the removal of the drive-through, but at the last moment the city’s Architectural Review Board–frequently a site of preservation battles–has thrown cold water on Adams’s plans. He has replied with a suit, and the city returned fire on Monday by sending over the cops to enforce the ban. From what I saw though, there was not much left to cry over. IMG_4297.jpeg

Washington in Barbados (or a Long Post About a Short Trip)

George Washington was famously well-traveled. His careers as a surveyor and soldier of the King gave him a detailed familiarity the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Riding at the head of the Continental Army brought him to and through cities and communities all along the eastern seaboard, and once elected president he used travel as a way to see and be seen by the people of the new United States.

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Walter Kerr Cooper’s imagining of GW in Barbados.

But for all of this travel, he only left the continental US once in his life. For four months at the end of 1751 he accompanied his sickly brother Lawrence to the British Colony of Barbados. The trip was meant to address his older brother Lawrence’s weak lungs by bringing them from Virginia to the softer, breezier, less humid, supposedly more healthful air of the Caribbean. Lawrence’s problems had actually begun years earlier in the Caribbean, but the view that changing one’s air could change one’s health was one was tenet of one of the competing regimes of medical logic confronting an ailing eighteenth-century Briton looking for relief. The Washington brothers had already traveled up to the Appalachian foothills to seek out the warm springs and cool dry air of what is now Jefferson County West Virginia. But that had limited effect at best. The Barbados trip was another attempt clean out, air out, and dry out Lawrence’s failing lungs.

And so it was that the two took bunks on a Barbados-bound vessel. There is some disagreement about just what ship this was. Some advocate a trip from a Potomac port aboard the Success, while others have argued that the sailed from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock about the aptly named Fredericksburg. The George Washington Papers project at UVa and the Fred W. Smith Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon are in the later stages of creating a new and probably authoritative edition of the small, damaged, and fragmentary journal Washington kept during his trip.

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A little section of GW’s navigation note courtesy of The Washington Papers

Project Editor Alicia Anderson has made it her business to master enough trigonometry to be able to use Washington’s navigation notes to plot out the pace and path of the voyage. The chart she will create will go a long way towards settling the port of embarkation question. While we wait though, the most commonly read copy of the Barbados Journal is the one edited by J.M. Toner and published in 1892. It is full of oddities and errors, but it works. I have kept a copy of it on my phone so that I can refer to it on the fly while on the island. The George Washington Diaries also handled the Barbados Diary with a very good descriptive essay and a facsimile of the original which resides in the Library of Congress. The book I am now writing has a chapter on the Barbados trip and soon the new edition of the Diary will be out. Erin Holmes also will be pairing Washington’s homes and Barbadian homes in her University of South Carolina dissertation comparing plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados, so GW’s time on the island is really happening!

The Brothers W arrived at Bridgetown in late October (or so it seems—the first actual entry on the island is dated November 4th, but pages before it are missing). They had a fairly calm crossing in which they enjoyed the swells of the sea and ate dolphin—a Caribbean favorite which smart marketers have renamed Mahi Mahi so that no one thinks they are eating a porpoise. In arriving at Bridgetown, Washington landed in the most cosmopolitan British city he had ever seen. The two colonies were roughly the same age, shared a somewhat similar history, had long-standing and extensive trade connections, and bore a superficial resemblance in government and society. Before sugar took over the island’s acres, planters had made a short- lived stab at tobacco planting hoping to recreate Virginians’ early seventeenth-century success. Like Virginians, Barbadian Britons could talk of an assembly, a governor and his council, they lived on plantations, and relied on enslaved African labor to keep themselves fed and have their fortunes made.

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Henry Partleton’s 1880 photo of Bajan cane cutters. Partleton.co.uk.

 

On top of that, the mix of Britons and enslaved Africans was a bit like that found along Virginia’s rivers. But that was where the similarities ended. Bridgetown was nothing like any place in Virginia graced as it was with in-town homes of wealthy planters, an English-style church, well-built and fully manned military instillations, and large a Spanish and Portuguese descended Jewish community of merchants. An upcoming blog entry will deal a bit more with Washington and the Jews of Barbados. But even though Washington was something of a city kid by Virginia standards having lived most of his life at the doorstep of the small city of Fredericksburg, Bridgetown was something new.

The countryside was different as well. Sugar production led to a very different form of African enslavement and called into being very different cycles of labor. And Virginia was big: really quite big. That size—especially on its western edge—had already defined a significant part of the lives of the Brothers W and would soon offer even more. Even where Virginia settlement was dense it was never particularly crowded. By contrast, Barbados was a tiny island packed tight with actually fairly small sugar plantations and the distinctive stone windmills used to grind the valuable juice out of the cane. Washington noted that “scarcely any part” of the island “is deprived of a beautiful prospect both of sea & land.” (Toner, 58). He was correct, and his observation is of course still true today—but the many views only emphasize the tiny scale of the island.

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St Philip’s Church in the early 19c. The church I think is later than GW’s visit, but the landscape is more or less the same. I doubt GW got this far from Bridgetown though. Pentleton.co.uk

But the young Washington was thrilled at what he saw on this grand adventure. On his trips into the countryside he was “perfectly enraptured with the beautiful prospects” which presented themselves to he and Lawrence and he marveled at the “fields of cane, corn, fruit-trees &c. in a delightful green”(Toner, 42). Washington took note of landscape and vegetation on these country forays. He commented on soil quality, the scale of sugar production, and agricultural practices. This was more than a mere curiosity. Sugar was a far more lucrative crop than was Virginia’s tobacco—partly accounting for why comparatively small island holdings could yield profits enough to even allow some planters to live well back in England. By way of context, a large Barbados plantation would be about 400 acres–that was the size that Washington said were the largest plantations. Henry Drax though owned 705 acres at the end of the seventeenth-century. His was one of the largest holdings on the island and one that allowed him to live back in England. On the other hand, John Dottin’s Mount Edge was 166 acres in 1759—a far more typical holding for a nice plantation. Plots of 10 acres though were not uncommon though. Compare that with the close to 1000 acres Washington inherited when his father died (himself owning l close to 10,000) of the 18,000 acres Washington took control of when he married Martha. Washington was just then making his first money though land surveying—an enterprise that rested on the availability of ever more new lands. To a Virginian, Barbados’s planters and their agricultural system working a tiny patch of land in the middle of nowhere seemed to hold the key to a sort of magical alchemy for making a fortune. At the same time though, Washington seemed astounded that so many planters were in debt or even lived poorly–a foreshadowing of his own unease with debt.

Washington also brought some book learning to his descriptions. He referenced Griffith Hughes’s 1750 The Natural History of Barbados and matched his own descriptions of plants to those of Reverend Hughes. When and where Washington saw the book is unclear. A copy did not end up in his library, but there may have been one at the Fairfaxes’. It is also possible that he had a copy (or bought a copy) on the island itself. However he laid his hands on Hughes’s work, it is one of the earliest examples we have of Washington employing reading in this fashion.

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A folio of Hughes from the Barbados Museum. Washington was interested in nature enough to have even come home with a small bit of coral.

The brothers settled into a simple one-story rented house which sat on a rise of land a short distance east of Bridgetown. For the cost of 15 Pounds a month paid to an officer of the garrison, they had the run of the place—but they had to pay for their own liquor and laundry. The home was close to the stone coral fort at Needham’s point and close to the garrison’s parade ground. It also afforded a superb view of Carlisle Bay with its ships riding at anchor. This home is now restored to an eighteenth-century appearance and serves as a museum dedicated to the Washingtons’ time on the island. The home is larger than it was then and has had a second story added to it, but the feel is there. The area around it is completely changed as well. The commanding view is blocked by trees and a new building cut directly into the limestone hillside. The garrison has changed considerably too. What began as useful flat near Needham’s Point grew in the nineteenth-century into an expansive military complex ringing a large turf race course. Today it all is the home of schools, government buildings, the Barbados Historical Society and museum, and the Barbados Defense Forces who, by the way, have a legal monopoly on the wearing of camouflage on the island. Colonial Williamsburg conducted excavations at the home in 1999 and 2001. These mainly concentrated on the steep ravine to the east of the home—a logical place for centuries’ worth of trash to accumulate. Virginia students still return here to do some digging in the ravine to this day. The artifact assemblages though cover a large swath of time, and apart from some very familiar 1740s and 50s white salt glazed stoneware plate, nothing has emerged dating with any precision to the years of the Washington visit—nor is anything much likely to. Nevertheless, the lower parts of the house—and especially its cellar with its hewn stone and wooden beams—are good links to the eighteenth century.

While the purpose of the trip was largely medical, the Washingtons did a considerable amount of socializing with the local gentry. Their main contact on the island was Gedney Clarke, a player in the local commerce and governance as well as being Lawrence’s wife Anne’s stepmother’s brother (head spinning as that connection seems to us, eighteenth-century English families were pretty used to these extended networks of kin by blood or marriage).

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Agostino Brunias’s “The Barbadoes Mulato Girl’ circa 1765. This depiction of Barbadian women captures very much the sort of enslaved people Washington would have seen.

Clarke had a thriving trade with William Fairfax and sent not only sugar and rum to the Potomac, but also procured enslaved people and goods for the Fairfaxes and other members of their extended commercial family—including both Lawrence and George. Clarke opened society’s doors, and with his aid Washington toured fortifications, dined with several prominent families (sometimes with their daughters deliberately placed front and center), attended the theatre, went to church, and rode into the countryside when he could. It is not clear just how far northward Washington actually ventured. His descriptions best match the rising hills of the south, and nowhere did he mentioning the rather astounding natural features of the north. He did nevertheless refer to people who at least had land there even if Washington never made it that far above the Bridgetown area.

Washington clearly was matching what he saw on the island against what he knew at home. “The ladys generally are very agreeable” he wrote, but also felt that they were prone to “affect the Negro style” perhaps in speech and manner—something the young Virginian saw as a liability compared to the women he knew back home. (Toner, 61). This racially inflected haughtiness was no doubt one of the reasons that he did not return home with a Barbadian bride or a prospect in mind. He noted the level of militia service and how men were apportioned in some detail, and he also discussed the island’s defenses noting that “they have large Intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an enemy to land.” (Toner, 62). I find it very interesting that Washington paired concerns about race and fortifications in his journal—something that I will be discussing in the upcoming book’s Barbados chapter.

Clarke—or rather, someone in the Clarke household—was responsible for the most enduring outcome of the Barbados trip—George’s bout with small pox. The Washingtons knew that someone either at the Clarke plantation house or the in-town house had the disease, but they risked a dinner visit nonetheless. Once the illness had passed Washington could record in the diary that on November 17th, he “was strongly attacked with the small pox.” (Toner, 53). As these things went, it was on the mild side and obviously could have gone far worse. But that would have meant nothing to a young man sweating out a renowned deadly fever far from home and attended by caring, though ultimately unfamiliar people.

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Sugar cane was generally ground to produce cane juice which could be boiled to make sugar. English Barbadian planters used either wind, oxen, or horses to move the grinders. The windmill was so common a sight little images of them adorn over a century of maps. Today only one wind mill still functions–Morgan Lewis on the north eastern side of the island. Image from the George Grantham Bain collection.

He spent most of November in bed—the diary is understandably silent. By December 12th he was recovered enough to visit the Clarkes in Bridgetown and thank them for their care and visits during his illness. The consequences of Washington’s smallpox are difficult to pin down. There are those who like to say that that fevered island month inoculated George against the disease, and thus ensured that he would not die of it before, or even during the Revolution. That line of reasoning’s implications are clear: a small amount well-timed body fluid contact preserved Our Washington and in so doing secured the fate of the Republic. There are a lot of “ifs” in that charming premise, but one can understand how such a view could take root. The other often-cited consequence was that the fever rendered Washington incapable fathering children. This outcome is the opposite of the former outcome. In the former, Washington is saved to be the Father of the Country, whereas in the later he is denied the ability to be a father. And of course there is a relationship between the two outcomes. The challenge here is the uncertain relationship between small pox and male sterility. The simplest version of this relationship is that there is none—small pox does not cause sterility. The fever itself though can do permanent damage and other opportunistic illnesses can do their horrid work while a body’s defenses are down. The answer though is that we cannot say with any real certainty that the lack of direct line little Washingtons was because of that poorly timed dinner at the Clarkes’s.

As this rather long entry shows, I have quite a bit to say about Washington and Barbados—here I just spun out a few of the themes I am working with. And I have not even touched yet on Washington memory on the island long after the famed visit. A few important take aways though are the value of the Barbados Diary as an early and quite revealing Washington foray into the world of words. Another is the chance to see the Virginian mind (some may say gaze) examining a place similar enough to grant purchase, but alien enough to captivate. Still another is what we see of the island itself. The Barbados trip is usually a quick moment in most Washington literature. I am glad I am giving it a bit more page space than is usual.

Fredericksburg’s Farmers’ Bank: History vs the Tarmac Desert.

In the summer of 1862 President Lincoln visited the city of Fredericksburg. Soldiers of the United States had recently captured this hub of rail, road, and river virtually without incident and the President was in town to meet with his theatre commanders and to see the prize. Halfway between Washington and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Fredericksburg’s capture was one of the last moments when rational people could imagine that the war would be short and relatively painless.

Lincoln held meetings and visited local sites—including George Washington’s childhood home. In town, he met with General Marsena Patrick in the two-story neo-classically inflected Federal style Farmers’ Bank. The bank sat on the corner of Princess Anne and George Streets right across from St George’s Episcopal Church on its front and the town’s Presbyterian Church on its eastern side.

This section of the much-discussed 1888 St George Church panorama of Fredericksburg shows the roof and chimneys of the Farmers' Bank on the left foreground. Note the use of the lots that are now mostly tarmac deserts. This section of the panorama came from Fredericksburg Remembered. http://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3c00000/3c00000/3c00600/3c00623v.jpg

This section of the much-discussed 1888 St George Church panorama of Fredericksburg shows the roof and chimneys of the Farmers’ Bank on the left foreground. Note the use of the lots that are now mostly tarmac deserts. This section of the panorama came from Fredericksburg Remembered. http://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3c00000/3c00000/3c00600/3c00623v.jpg

Though lacking the adornments of ecclesiastical architecture, the Farmers’ Bank’s facade, style, and placement was nevertheless itself a statement of faith, solidity, and the American way. General Patrick’s selection of the bank as his own office—and a nerve center of the city’s occupation—enlisted the existing architecture of trust, power, and commerce for the for the cause of the Union.

The Farmers’ Bank has survived to today.

The Farmers’ Bank as it looks today. Image from Mysteries and Conundrums https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/slaves-at-fall-hill-abraham-and-hester-tuckson/

It has been a bank and office suites most of this time and is now one of Fredericksburg’s best historical buildings. Indeed, Fredericksburg NPS Battlefield Park Historian John Hennessy recently highlighted this fact for his blog readers reminding all that the bank is the only existing building we are certain Lincoln entered, walking over the bank’s worn Aquia sandstone steps and entering through the elaborate alcove entrance. The bank’s northeastern corner is especially notable for the large amount of Civil War graffiti resulting from bored soldiers carving their names and regiments into the brick (Other Civil War graffiti). In the 1930s, Historic American Building Survey architects studied the bank (then called the National Bank) and added it the list of the town’s charms. A 1990s drive through window and cash machine addition south of the bank are the only externally visible changes to the building which otherwise has maintained its historical feel capped off by a wooden Civil War era style sign.

But changes in the larger lot have left the Farmers’ Bank an isolated historical Island in a tarmac desert. Beginning at least as early as the 1950s, Fredericksburgers transformed open in-town spaces into parking lots.

Seen in order on the right, the 1990s drive through bank addition, the south wall of the Farmers' Bank, and the steeple of St George Episcopal Church.

Seen in order on the right, the 1990s drive through bank addition, the south wall of the Farmers’ Bank, and the steeple of St George Episcopal Church.

In the nineteenth century, open lots were needed as work yards, kitchen gardens, and animal residences. But in the automobile era—and particularly after the 1960s when I-95 passed just west of town—the storage of temporarily dis-used cars became a primary concern. Property owners paved open lots and, as older buildings came down, their empty lots also joined the ranks of parking lots often in the shadow of roughly constructed side walls of remaining buildings meant to be seen only from the front. The result of this was to leave town feeling cold and gap toothed and filled with unplanned areas of undesirable, mostly unused, open spaces.

A Tarmac Desert on Sophia Street.

A Tarmac Desert on Sophia Street.

Once a lot is paved, the city or the owner are now committed to a never-ending maintenance regime as cracks have to be filled and holes patched. Paved lots also force collected rainwater to funnel into streets thus stressing removal systems, increasing flooding, and accelerating the erosion of older cobbles. The answer to this is of course more paving, so that over time, more and more of the cityscape became a tarmac desert. Whereas earthen lots absorb rainwater and produce greenery even when left alone and require no maintenance other than occasional mowing (or goat keeping), tarmac deserts produce nothing other than that distinctive smell in the heat and make corners for the collection of wind-borne trash. On top of that, the in and out flow of cars provide visible markers of when people are in a building and when they are not. The absence of cars signals a building’s emptiness to burglars while a dark lake of tar is itself an inviting terrain for all sorts of mischief. Nothing feels emptier than an vacant parking lot—and in Fredericksburg, most parking lots are empty most of the time and, being paved, can do nothing other than wait for the next car to park there. Paving a cityscape makes it an uninviting alienating tarmac desert that seems dark and dangerous most of the time.

The Farmers’ Bank sits now at the corner of just such an in-town desert. That makes the bank feel isolated and even irrelevant. This is just one of many ways whereby reliance on automobiles and that dependency has remade the landscape in ways that challenge preservation and a place’s historical feel.

The west wall of the Farmers' Bank with the drive through on the right. Note the sale sign.

The west wall of the Farmers’ Bank with the drive through on the right. Note the sale sign.

But now the bank faces a new threat—one worse perhaps than the shells and pocket knives it endured during the Civil War. When the economy bottomed out in 2008 most of Fredericksburg’s development project ground to a halt New condos near the rail tracks which once boasted signs claiming “Starting at $400,000!” soon boasted starting prices of $150,000 before being cut up into apartments. Subdivisions simply stopped with streets half fleshed out and stripped fields were left alone to regrow what grasses they could. Businesses failed and storefronts replaced displays with For Rent signs and papered-over windows. But all of that is over, and the development economy is once again booming. In a very short period of time the city saw a massive new courthouse constructed, a new downtown hotel right across the street, and many new homes fitting in between older ones. In just this last year new in-town projects have piled high-end housing into town and added eateries and even a glittering south-western styled brew pub.

Postmodern newly built townhouse filling in open spaces on the left and the stunningly out of place brew pub sitting on the corner of William and Winchester streets.

Postmodern newly built townhouse filling in open spaces on the left and the stunningly out of place brew pub sitting on the corner of William and Winchester streets.

The good news (perhaps) is that much of this new development is taking place in lots that were previously tarred over. That addresses some of the aesthetical problems posed by tarmac deserts, but none of the environmental or historical preservation ones. The bad news is that all of this is happening so quickly that thorough archaeological is very challenging—and it seems in many cases that significant finds would not be enough to slow down the pace of building or even redirect it. Speed also leaves preservation–of buildings as well as less tangible but nevertheless important things like view sheds and historical feel– left in the dust and crushed by the bulldozer’s treads. Right now the future of the Farmers’ Bank is in question. A developer had bought the lot and received initial approval to fill the desert with condos. But the plan bogged down in levels of city government and all is on hold for now.

New construction on William Street right next to 19th century rows

New construction on William Street right next to 19th century rows

At this year’s Council for North Eastern Historical Archeology conference in Fredericksburg, there was discussion about how the city, still lacking a protective archaeological ordinance, may be turning a blind eye to the destruction of the town’s material patrimony–a patrimony daily stewarded by Fredericksburg, but in reality owned by the nation. Again, the good news is that the city is on the way to hiring a preservation specialist to monitor work. Again, the bad news is that no one knows just how influential that person will be once hired and how much we may lose in the meantime.

Meanwhile though, decades’ old bad car-driven choices are still felt in a town walking the line between protecting its past and building for its future.

“Ask A Slave” and Unintended Meanings

http://www.gofundme.com/AskASlave

http://www.gofundme.com/AskASlave

These videos have been making the rounds and I wanted to comment on this all. Yes, they are clever — even very clever. Yes, Dungey is talented and this is an imaginative way to promote herself as an actress and hit some social consciousness bells along the way. I respect her and her project and look forward to seeing how students react. But at the same time, it made me squirm on so many levels and raised some red flags.

The Stupid-Visitor-Question-Story genre is a staple of museum culture– and as Handler and Gable amongst others have pointed out, that is not always a good thing for either visitors or museum staff. Interpreter-visitor encounters are usually imagined as being a charming educational moment. But often these are in realty tense tug-o-wars with smugness on both sides and a high degree of trying to embarrass as well. At least visitors have the option to ask intentionally stupid questions to make their friends laugh–I suspect that that is in fact what is behind many if not most of these stories–visitors intentionally screwing around with staff. In that way, visitors get a double bang: make friends laugh in the moment and have the more incredulous repeat the feat over and over. Hey presto, a manner of immortality.

On the other hand, for interpreters, encounters are full of risk. Staff may suspect that they are being screwed with, but face employer retaliation if they get too snarky. Interpreters have to treat every question as real and have to be engaging in responding – their continued employment depends on it. Thus, the Stupid-Visitor-Question-Story genre becomes a sort of spiritual haven for people who are paid poorly, work their asses off in often harsh conditions (being in a blacksmith shop or a recreated eighteenth-century kitchen all day sucks now as it did then) and also will never be granted much intellectual respect or credibility from academe. These folks often see themselves (rightly or wrongly) as permanent second-class citizens in historyland. Most lack the kinds of schooling and publishing records academe cherishes, but do have often very detailed fine- grained knowledge of their fields. On top of that, they often have an intuitive knowledge that comes from experience—-something that is immensely valuable to museums and visitors, but always just a bit suspect to “book learning” historians. Buy an experienced interpreter a drink and they will tell you how irritating visitors are. But buy them a second drink and they will tell you what arrogant exclusive jerks historians can be.

What worries me about these film clips is the stupid visitor story being too public a performance. I see it as only encouraging visitors to play at this even more. But worse still, I worry for how museums (read employers) will see this. They are famous for retaliation and are always deeply concerned about public image. I don’t imagine that Mount Vernon is at all happy about this sort of “unmasking” and I wonder what HR policies may ensue not just there, but elsewhere as well. It is fun to laugh—and Dungey is good at making us do that. But, museums are workplaces and interpreters are staff, often very vulnerable staff at that. These clips viewed that way are so very full of issues of domination and resistance. The very title “Ask a Slave” is far more meaningful than most gleeful watchers might know.

Nat Turner’s Long Silence

Several years ago I began visiting the sites of the Nat Turner slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. My interest began after teaching an early American slavery class and spending some time with the work the revolt, particularly Steven Oates’s The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion and Kenneth

southampton

Greenburg’s Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory.[1] I was particularly spurred on by Irving Tragle’s older but still quite useful source book The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material, Including the Full Text of The Confessions of Nat Turner.[2] My goal was to locate what I could find of what survived of the old landscape and see what there was to see.

I brought a team of archaeology students there for the first time in 2003 (as memory serves) and we drove around guided by Tragle’s 1960s photos of then-still-surviving homes as well as some of his hand-drawn maps. I matched those up as best as possible with a county map and off we set to see what we could see. My reasoning was simple. If a building was still standing in the 1960s, there was at least a chance that it was still standing in 2003. We whirled up and down the region’s dusty roads stopping here and there and looking over the land.  We even knocked on doors to see what local people knew. It was fascinating to hear how they spoke of the events and their landscape. This was particularly valuable to me as I had made a conscious choice to avoid the official arbiters of the landscape and its stories—a strategy I always employ and highly recommend. Learn a place first using your own resources and then only later turn to the “officials.”

After much valuable trial and error I was able to locate four buildings still on their sites—including the ruined Whitehead, Porter, and Edwards houses.

The Peter Edwards House in 2006. Now gone having been dismantled the following year by salvagers for its framing members sold to developers in northern Virginia.

The Peter Edwards House in 2006. Now gone having been dismantled the following year by salvagers for its framing members sold to developers in northern Virginia.

Since then, subsequent annual trips have allowed me to see the loss of the Edward’s house and watch the ongoing decay of the Whitehead house. One benefit has been getting to know one local farmer and his wife. The family owns much of the land and some of the most important sites, but, as is so often the case, is not on good terms with the local official history folks. But, my farmer friend has been more than willing to grant me access to the site, share his collection of found objects and his and his family’s own life stories. He showed me the site where the former owner disposed of the old Whitehead family grave stones to gain more plowing space and is even willing to allow me to excavate some day perhaps. He invited Colonial Williamsburg architectural historian Matt Webster and I to do a sustained “crawl through” of the Whitehead House ruins–a considerable risk since the ruin could collapse at any moment. I also located the cellar hole of the Francis House, and a trip into the woods on the advice of another aged neighbor showed me the plywood-covered remains of the home which had been moved in the 1980s. Two other buildings survive, one restored and occupied by a Norfolk lawyer and the other, the Rebecca Vaughn House, was long ago moved to a park in Courtland and all but abandoned.

Over the years I have brought a few dozen students around the land, toured friends and professional colleagues, and even drove the Smithsonian’s Museum of African

The decaying remains of the Whitehead House. Hidden away far from the modern road system and on private land.

The decaying remains of the Whitehead House. Hidden away far from the modern road system and on private land.

American history’s director Lonnie Bunch over hill and dale to see what might fit the museum’s needs (as far as I know, nothing much came of that adventure) But, I have not written about it. Why have I not done that? Like the nation, I have helped Turner continue his long imposed silence.

That question bugs me. The easy reason is that Ferry Farm and George Washington have kept me pretty busy. Another problem is that this might need to be a first person essay and that is a tricky thing. Mostly though it has been hard to see the hook, but I am getting close though, and this entry is part of getting those ducks in a row. Here is what I learned in preliminary form. For one thing, I am pretty sure that the ruins of the Porter House and the now lost Edwards House probably post-dated the revolt even though local stories set events there. For another thing, there is no real possibility of doing any meaningful historical preservation on this landscape. It is in fact virtually forgotten and entirely un-commemorated. Race and divisive local politics play a huge role in this fact, but there is as many have noted, a larger national lack of willingness to come to terms with Turner. Local memory is a carefully guarded commodity making treacherous political shoals. What it comes down to is that no one really wants to talk about Turner, and thus no one does, or at least when they do it all within a carefully constructed framework.

Nevertheless, what matters about this landscape still is its emotional power. I have seen people’s reactions and there are something. There is something amazing about standing by the ruins of the Whitehead House. Although it underwent some changes, study of its collapsing subfloor framing showed that at least that part dated to the late eighteenth century—this was indeed the house that Turner and his men visited. With some work and careful crawling I have made my way to the spot where Turner’s ally Hark cut off Katherine Whitehead’s head at her doorstep. We have seen what is said to be the chimney corner where Margaret Whitehead hid before Turner caught her and killed her a short ways away (this was the relationship William Styron’s novel made so problematic). If we believe the Thomas Gray account (which we currently do) then this is the only killing by the most famous slave rebel in American history. I have brought students to a very good guess about where that place is based on old road cuts and fence lines.

The front door of the Whitehead house. If a few good suppositions line up, this was a killing spot--perhaps the only one of which we can be sure.

The front door of the Whitehead house. If a few good suppositions line up, this was a killing spot–perhaps the only one we can be sure of.

There is a rise just before the old house and it was on this hump that locals laid out the bloody remains of the Whitehead family after the revolt so that arriving militia men from other counties could get fired up before going off to exact revenge on what survived of the enslaved and free black population. A meaningful place, and people can still feel something there.

This sort of connection is the essence of historical landscapes. Feeling the past is what motivates most people to visit sites all over the nation. But not all sites are the same. Some are too troublesome (to borrow the word) to warrant attention. A century of neglect has done a good job in erasing what survived of an event most wanted to forget. For a while the Navy considered moving its airfields away from Norfolk to the more in-land Southampton. The move would have enclosed much of the Turner lands and made them unapproachable to the public. The plan was sidelined, for now. Gradually though, the last vestiges of this event are fading away.

Turner spoke so loudly that permanent silencing was his punishment.

[1] Steven Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990); Kenneth Greenburg, ed., Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] Irving Tragle, ed.,The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material, Including the Full Text of The Confessions of Nat Turner (New York: Vintage Books 1973).

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