Monday, October 29, 2012

Pioneering efforts continue at Sweet Briar College


We are so very fortunate to have you on the front lines pioneering the cause to share the history of our ancestors at these sites, Joe.  We wish you continued blessings and health as you strive to make sure our heritage continues to be shared and preserved.  We also hope that those who should take part and open doors will soon do so.  We appreciate your dedication.  The accounts of the following participants will be published separately:
Crystal Rossen
Dave Griffith
Lynn Rainville
Mike Hayslett
Toni Battle

Stay tuned!
Robin Foster
About Our Freedom

Pioneering efforts continue at Sweet Briar College
By Joseph McGill, Jr. | Field Officer | Charleston Field Office
National Trust for Historic Preservation | William Aiken House l 456 King Street, 3rd Floor, Charleston, South Carolina 29403 |




Despite spending a night in 37 extant former slave dwellings in 12 states in 2 ½ years, bureaucracy has always been a challenge for the Slave Dwelling Project to overcome.  Private owners and not for profit organizations get it and are well represented among the 37 stays, however, state and nationally owned entities and institutions of higher learning had never given the project the green light.  That would all change with stay number 38, Sweet Briar College.

Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia was founded in 1901, the legacy of Indiana Fletcher Williams, who left her entire estate to found an institution in memory of her only daughter, Daisy, who died at the age of 16 in 1884. At the time of Mrs. Williams' death in 1900, her estate consisted of more than a million dollars, and over 8,000 acres of land, including the Sweet Briar Plantation.

On Saturday, October 6 I found myself transitioning from Bacon’s Castle, my first stay in Virginia, to Sweet Briar College which would be my second.  That transition required a 2 ½ hour westward drive at night.  Luckily for me, I was joined by Toni Battle who had traveled all the way from San Francisco, California to participate in both stays.  I knew that Toni had at least one person who was lynched in her family tree but I found out during the drive that there were at least two more people who were lynched in her ancestral past.  The details were not pleasant but what accounts of people being lynched are?  The details of the matter helped to keep me focused on the unfamiliar highway 60 westward drive through the winding foothills of Virginia. 

Arriving late into the night, the hospitality began immediately with the security guard escorting us to our quarters, which was located between the big house and the slave cabin.  Toni immediately speculated that this was once the quarters of the overseer.  The stay in the slave cabin would occur the following night.  The security guard then gave us a ride to the dining hall.  During the late night meal in the dining hall and upon our return to the quarters, Toni and I had ample time to recap our stay at Bacon’s Castle the previous night and anticipate the remaining time that we would spend at Sweet Briar College before we both turned in for the night.

The next morning while walking to breakfast, Toni and I had the opportunity to take in the full beauty of the Sweet Briar College campus.  While at breakfast I met my host Dr. Lynn Rainville.  Since I could not remember how Sweet Briar College became a stop for the Slave Dwelling Project, I asked Dr. Rainvlle to remind me.  She stated that she heard me on National Public Radio (NPR) when the project was in its infancy.  Being quite knowledgeable of Sweet Briar’s history she was quite forthcoming about the complete history of Sweet Briar when it existed as a plantation and started as a college.  I learned from her that Elijah Fletcher the founder of the plantation was a former abolitionist from Vermont.  I also learned that the college was founded in 1901 for the education of White women.  It would later take a court order to break the will to allow the college to be integrated.  After breakfast, Dr. Rainville accompanied us to see the cabin.  She verified that Toni was correct in assuming that the house that we stayed in the previous night was historically the house of the overseer.

Like the stay at Bacon’s Castle, I again had the opportunity to witness Toni experience the cabin for the first time only this time the same applied to me because this was also my first time in the cabin at Sweet Briar.   Inside it had hand hewn logs that were still virtually round with the only flat side coming in direct contact with the ceiling.   Above the ceiling was an attic that was converted into living space, like other cabins I’ve seen, access could be gained to the upper level by some steep stairs.  It was less than half the size of the cabin at Bacon’s Castle but larger than some of the other 37 of which I have stayed.   After the last inhabitant of the cabin moved out in the 1920s, the cabin had been used for many things to include a classroom and farm tool museum and had been modernized accordingly as evidenced by the electrical outlets along the wall.  A forge from its existence as a farm tool museum still occupied a corner.

Dr. Rainville had my remaining time at Sweet Briar College chalk full of activities.  My first official duty was to give a slave dwelling presentation in the Sweet Briar College Museum, an event that went exceedingly well.  After the presentation, I led the group on a tour of the slave cabin.  During the tour of the cabin, I met Dr. Jo Ellen Parker, the president of Sweet Briar College.  I took the time to thank her publicly for allowing the Slave Dwelling Project to come to Sweet Briar College.  Additionally, I requested and received her permission to leverage the stay at Sweet Briar to help convince other leaders of institutions of higher learning to follow this fine example. 

 The tour of the slave cabin was followed by a tour of the big house appropriately, where the college president now presides.  Dr. Rainville took charge and did not sugarcoat any of the history.  It reminded me of a similar tour I took at Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown County, SC that I also loved.  The senior White tour guide at Hopsewee was quite knowledgeable of the history of the plantation and was quite professional in telling the whole story.

Dr. Rainville had arranged for 8 other people to share the sleepover in the slave cabin with me.  It was an interesting mix of people which included Crystal Rosson whose ancestor was the last to inhabit the cabin.   Knowing this made the night even more special for all involved.  The night was made even more special by Toni Battle’s smudging or blessing the space and the pouring of libation.  We created a powerful circle where ancestors were called, confessions were made and tears were shed.  After some storytelling and a sweet song which was sung by Barbara Payne, we all drifted off to sleep. 

When we all woke up the next morning in denial of snoring, Lynn then made an attempt to leave the cabin and at that moment we found ourselves mysteriously locked in.  Apparently, David Griffith got up early and left the cabin mistakenly engaging the outside latch.  Lynn informed us that David would be back and a professional photographer was on the way but I took the opportunity to speculate out loud about how we came to be locked inside the cabin.  David indeed got back before our thoughts got too outrageous, however he did deny locking the door.  The group’s time at the cabin was concluded by photographic documentation before most of us proceeded to the dining hall for breakfast.  It was at the breakfast table that I had the opportunity to talk candidly with Crystal whose ancestor was the last to stay in the cabin about her experience.  She mentioned that without the Slave Dwelling Project, she would never have interacted with that space in any similar manner.  I informed her that I wanted her to speak about her experience at a presentation that was planned during lunch.  Not only did I want her to speak but I wanted her to be the closer, she hesitatingly accepted.  I also asked Michael Hayslett to give an account of his slave cabin experience during the presentation.

After breakfast, Toni, Dr. Rainville and I had some down time which was used to go to the overseer’s cottage to shower, change clothes and check out.   After checking out, we drove to the slave cemetery which was located on a hill on the campus.  In her spare time, Dr. Rainville documents the often forgotten and neglected graves of African Americans.  She did a beautiful job of ensuring that the African American grave site on the Sweet Briar campus is properly marked and recognized.  Toni in her reassuring and special way ensured that we paid proper respect to the ancestors who were laid to rest in this sacred space.  In all fairness, we visited the grave site of the plantation and college founders which is located on a hill overlooking the college.

 I adjusted the lunch time presentation to address dwellings in all 12 states that I have stayed in to date.  Toni Battle, Michael Hayslett and Crystal  Rosson all participated in the presentation as I requested of them.  As promised, Dr. Jo Ella Parker, President of Sweet Briar, attended the lecture.  During the question and answer period, I was made aware by some community members of other slave dwellings in the area that need immediate attention.  One couple that resides in Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland made me aware of slave dwellings there.  It was then established that with the work that Dr. Rainville is doing to reinterpret the slave cabin at Sweet Briar College along with the support that she is getting from Dr. Parker, the network is now in place to start the process of saving the endangered properties mentioned in the question and answer period and other like properties in the area of Sweet Briar College.

The plan was then to address Dr. Rainville’s class after the lunch time presentation.  A local TV station changed that plan.  They interviewed me but appropriately they were more interested in the Crystal Rosson story, so much so, that they wanted to interview her inside the cabin.  Toni and I said our goodbyes to Dr. Rainville and proceeded to the cabin with the TV camera crew and Crystal.  And that’s how it ended, with Crystal being the closer.

Afterthoughts:

Patience is certainly necessary when trying to establish the legitimacy of oneself or a project.  Spending a night in 38 slave dwellings in 12 states over the past 2 ½ years are major steps in the direction of establishing legitimacy for the Slave Dwelling Project.  To that end, stay number 38, Sweet Briar College, has thrown out the gauntlet.  Before Sweet Briar, other institutions of higher learning, government and state owned entities that are stewards of extant slave dwellings have been approached to participate in this project, to no avail.
One major reason that slavery prospered was because it was an institution.  In an ironic twist, generally, institutions have not yet embraced this project.  I want the bureaucrats to know that I come in peace, not ghost hunting, not seeking reparations, and not looking for artifacts but to simply acknowledge you for doing the right thing by owning and restoring an element of the African American built environment.  Furthermore, I want to use your example to encourage others to do likewise.

Before I paint all bureaucrats with one brush, let me announce that the College of Charleston will be added to the 2013 schedule for the Slave Dwelling Project.  Additionally, I am in communications with the Superintendent of Kingsley Plantation about spending a night in a slave cabin at that location, in fact, I got the email requesting a phone call or face-to-face visit while I was at Sweet Briar College.

Thank you, Sweet Briar College, for taking a chance on the Slave Dwelling Project.

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From Whence We Come

Thank you so much, Toni, for sharing your insights with us. We appreciate you for all the great photos you uploaded on Facebook to help us share the experience.  We know the ancestors are proud that you helped to bring them to light through your experience on this Slave Dwelling Project stay.

Robin Foster
About Our Freedom



From Whence We Come
Written by: Toni Renee Battle

I met Joseph McGill, Jr. in March of 2012 and he told me about his work through The Slave Dwelling Project. I found within my spirit an immediate response to his work. My steps were being ordered to partake in this ancestral journey. We met at the Coming To the Table (CTTT) national gathering, which brought together descendants of the enslaved, slave owners and slave traders for the purposes of healing from the legacy of slavery, but also doing action work, creating safe spaces for difficult conversations and family history research in today’s times.

Devin Berry, who is also a member of CTTT, and I committed to attending a slave dwelling overnight with Joseph during the same weekend. Through community donations, he and I were able to embark on an incredible experience that will last a lifetime.

We arrived in VA and spent our first day in Surry, VA at school assemblies watching Joseph, dressed as a Black union soldier, provide a historical narrative to the youth, 1st through 12th grades, and also give some background to the previous slave dwellings he had visited in the past. We also had an opportunity to explore Bacon’s Castle plantation together with Joseph, prior to the other guests arriving for that evening’s overnight.

As we drove onto the plantation grounds, Devin and I turned to each other asking the same question, “Did you feel your breathing change and your chest tighten up?” It was as if, our ancestral spirits were responding to the history of the land we had just drove onto. We quickly got out of the car and began taking photos of the “BIG house” and of the incredibly long driveway leading onto the plantation grounds.

After parking, Joseph excitedly asked us if we were ready to visit the slave cabin we would be staying in for the evening. Devin and I immediately said at the same time, “YES!” The three of us walked behind the big house and saw a cabin sitting just beyond a tree. It was white-washed and rustic. The closer we got, the more emotion I felt. Here we were, three Black folks in 2012, descended from the enslaved, two of us Black men, one of us descended from the enslaved, slave master and slave trader, about to walk into our ancestral past; what a moment!

As Joseph opened the cabin doors, Devin and I looked at each other and entered sacred space. If the walls could talk there would be stories of pain, horror, joy and sadness. The wood seemed to scream at me as I ran my hands along its roughness. Immediately I begin singing, “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, there’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place!” You could feel the ancestors’ spirits within this dwelling. I immediately felt a sacredness in the space as the three of us took photos. To see Devin dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt and Joseph in a union uniform was as if the past and present were talking at the same time. As Black men standing there, with one foot in the past and one foot in the present, in a slave cabin was very powerful. The three of us experiencing it together was as if the ancestors were whispering over our shoulders as we looked out the window onto the slave quarters, “From whence we come!”

Later that evening we met the rest of the group that would be staying with us and proceeded over to the slave cabin. During the evening we blessed the cabin, conducted libation, celebrating the ancestors and those who were enslaved on the land and then we gathered together in the two rooms of the cabin. We shared sacred stories of our family histories and we were blessed to hear the Anderson sisters (two women from the Surry, VA area) share with us that their great-great grandmother had been enslaved at Bacon’s Castle Plantation and they were overnighting as a way of paying respects to her memory. I asked one of the sisters what it felt like for her to be in the cabin, on the land her ancestors had been enslaved on; she responded, “I thought I would feel anger, but I feel nothing but my grandmother’s love as if she’s right here with us. I can’t begin to tell you what an amazing experience this is for us! It’s very healing. I’ve drove past this plantation the last 30 years and wanted no parts of it. But The Slave Dwelling Project seemed different. It told OUR story.” We all listened in great appreciation and reflected on our own feelings.

I laid down with Prinny Anderson (another CTTT member) and Devin on purpose, because I wanted to have the experience of us sharing this sacred space together. During the night, Prinny and I heard a woman singing in the distance. We both later smiled, feeling our ancestors were letting us know they were in the space with us. Before dawn, we were awakened by Mr. Joe Jenkins, of Surry, VA. Before dawn he sung the Muslim morning call to prayer. He sung it in honor of the enslaved who were Muslim and forced to convert to Christianity as a means of stripping them of their identities. One of the first things that were done to the enslaved were before boarding the slave ships, they were baptized into Christianity and given “good, Christian” names. They were forbidden to practice anything representative of their previous culture, traditions, religions or language. As Mr. Jenkins’ deep voice travelled the slave cabin, my very soul answered. My body sat straight up and I rose and walked to the other side where he sat singing in the new day. I sat with others, as tears ran down my face in awe of the very reverence of the moment.

The day was filled with the community coming out to learn about the history of Bacon’s Castle, which for the first time included the enslaved narrative in a very authentic way. Many from the Black community in Surry, stated it was the first time many of them had been on the land in decades. They believed The Slave Dwelling Project had provided an opportunity to begin a new chapter of healing from the legacy of slavery. Family members descended from the enslaved of Bacon’s Castle shared oral stories of their ancestors, elders shared experiences of their families sharecropping post slavery and some shared their hopes that the day had birthed a starting point of a new relationship with the plantation’s past. There were tears, sacred storytelling, laughter, cooking of traditional Black and Native food dishes, and lots of hugging and listening to shared pains and joys. I found myself at a tree facing the slave cabin and being brought to tears as I looked around. Wasn’t this what the ancestors had just whispered over Devin, Joseph and my shoulders the previous day? “From whence WE come!”

The Slave Dwelling Project was an opportunity for me to not only pay homage to the ancestors and educate others about the need to preserve these dwellings as part of the historical narrative, but it was also a way for me to begin healing some of the generational grief and wounded history within my ancestral line. This was one of the most sacred experiences of my entire life!

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Sleeping Overnight at the Bacon’s Castle Slave Quarters

We appreciate Prinny Anderson's account of her stay at Bacon's Castle as well as her sharing the history of Bacon's Castle as well as her account of how representatives of Preservation Virginia, Coming to the Table,  Surry County African American Heritage Society, and others came together in support of The Slave Dwelling Project. What a great community effort!

Robin Foster
About Our Freedom

 Sleeping Overnight at the Bacon’s Castle Slave Quarters
 By Prinny Anderson


The one remaining slave quarter at Bacon’s Castle, Surry, VA, is a white clapboard, four-room cabin, two rooms upstairs, two rooms down, each room home to a family, used since it was built in the late 1820’s until the last sharecropper moved out in the 1950’s.  It saw 130 years of lives in bondage and servitude. 

The cabin is among the outbuildings on the grounds of Bacon’s Castle, built around 1665 by Arthur Allen, and one of the only three remaining Jacobean style mansions in the Western Hemisphere.  It took its name from Bacon’s Rebellion, which took place in 1676, when the house was occupied and the Allen family was temporarily driven away.  http://preservationvirginia.org/index.php/visit/historic-properties/bacons-castle
Bacon’s Rebellion was an uprising of the frontiersmen, indentured people, and enslaved people, African and European.  The alliance alarmed the ruling elite, and historians believe that the harsh response by the Virginia government and the racialization of slavery were among the results.
National Register of Historic Places listings ...
National Register of Historic Places listings in Surry County, Virginia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On October 5, 2012, about 20 people gathered in a front room of the Big House at Bacon’s Castle for introductions and conversation.  In the group were two sisters, Barbara and Judy, descendants of a woman who was enslaved at Bacon’s Castle, accompanied by the pastor of a large Surry County, VA, church. Jennifer came all the way from Texas on a trip researching her Virginia ancestors, and Allison came to report the experience for the Daily Press.  There were three college students, and Jennifer, Lou, Joe, and Ed from Preservation Virginia (PV) (http://preservationvirginia.org/ ), the Surry County African American Heritage Society (SCAAHS) (http://www.surryafricanheritage.com ), and the Surry County Historical Society (SCHS) (http://surrycounty.pastperfect-online.com/ ).  Our convener for the evening was Joe McGill, whose Slave-Dwelling Project (SDP) was critical to the event (http://www.lowcountryafricana.com/tag/slave-dwelling-project/ ) and three of his fellow members of the Coming to the Table community, Toni Battle and Devin Berry, who had flown in from California, and Prinny Anderson, who drove in from Durham, NC.  (http://www.comingtothetable.org/ ).  We owe many thanks to the PV staff and friends who had the vision to create this historic event, who worked to shore up the cabin’s chimneys and floors, who made all the arrangements to make the stay safe and comfortable, and who stayed late and woke early to bring us food.

Group members had many reasons for showing up that evening to do something most of us, other than Joe McGill, had never done before.  Repeated themes in our introductions were the desire to honor and acknowledge the lives and work of the enslaved people as important in American history and essential to its economic survival for 3 centuries. 

We were there because of family connections to enslaved families, as a result of our research into genealogy and family history, and in response to an invitation to be at a very special event.  Our thanks to Joe McGill and his Slave-Dwelling project for the ongoing work he does and for creating this special occasion for us.

After a tasty picnic meal of ham biscuits, peanut soup, vegetables, and apple fritters under the bright lights over the work yard behind the mansion, we moved to the slave cabin and set up our sleeping spaces.  Joe McGill and Jennifer Hurst (Preservation Virginia) wrestled with the technology in an effort to provide streaming video via YouTube and an online chat through Facebook – both challenging with 4G connection only and no wifi. 

As the evening darkened into night, we rededicated our sleeping quarters to the sacred memory of the enslaved ancestors who had lived there, and in an outdoor circle and we called to mind family members and ancestors who represented our connections to the place and to one another.

Something about dedicating the space and our actions along with the darkness, the mild breezes, and the dim lanterns seemed to encourage forth the questions and truths that were resting on our hearts and minds.  What kind of strength and courage allowed the former inhabitants of this cabin to endure? How could we, today, even begin to imagine their daily lives? What kind of belief system allowed the European landowners to own, trade and oppress the imported African people? Why did “black” become “bad”? What’s up with white people, such that individual and institutional racism persist? What prevents white people from seeing the harm and from dismantling the systems that perpetuate it? What will it take to get white people to change?

We told about the family stories and the traditions of our faiths and our foremothers and forefathers that brought us to this place and these questions, the stories and traditions that sustain us through the sorrow and pain. We talked about managing the anger, finding ways to speak truth without alienating those who need to hear – learning to “catch more flies with honey,” as Joe put it.  We talked about living with the shame and sadness of recognizing today how many years of oppression, harm and destruction we and our kin had perpetrated.  And all through the conversations, wove personal stories, family stories, memories, and questions. By the time we fell asleep, Barbara and Judy had convinced us that the loving presence of Grandmother Camilla was smiling on us, and in the morning, we were awakened by the dawn call to prayer.

On the 6th, Preservation Virginia held “History Day” at Bacon’s Castle. Speaking to the visitors, Jennifer described the history of the slave quarters and Joe told stories of the Slave-Dwelling Project.  Toni, Devin and Prinny spoke about why they had spent the night and what it was like. The visitors shared their stories.  One woman pointed out where her family’s cabin had been and recounted the hard realities of the sharecroppers’ lives. A student who had heard Joe McGill speak the day before at his middle school told how he had insisted that his mother bring him to Bacon’s Castle for another dose of history.

CTTT’s Art Carter drove over from the Eastern Shore of Virginia to meet people from the African American Heritage Society.  CTTT’s involvement in this particular SDP sleepover began several months ago when PV and Joe McGill invited us to partner with them, not just for this occasion, but potentially on an ongoing basis.  In parallel with The Slave-Dwelling Project’s mission of bringing recognition to the lives and contributions of the enslaved Africans, PV wants to encourage SCAAHS and SCHS to take their interest in local history to another level of telling the meaning of the histories of the people, the land, the lives, and the events, and weaving local history into American history, making the stories of African Americans, Native Americans and European Americans of Tidewater Virginia into the stories of all Americans.

Three weeks before the SDP overnight, PV staff members Jennifer and Todd went with Prinny Anderson from CTTT to meet with the SCAAHS.  After Prinny’s talk about the work of CTTT, the chairman of SCAAHS asked if the time was right for their organization to begin talking openly about race, about the story of the races in Surry County, and its meaning for the country.  By the end of the meeting, the SCAAHS members were discussing Bacon’s Rebellion and the racialization of slavery in the U.S., events that happened in their back yards, a story directly linked to their stories, and a story worth bringing forward into the national consciousness.

CTTT hopes that through its participation in these events and whatever further activities are planned, it can support PV, the Heritage Society and the Historical Society in continuing the conversation about the issues raised during the night at Bacon’s Castle and in reaching the goals sketched out at the SCAAHS meeting three weeks before.

Links to the Daily Press stories about the October 5/6 overnight and a video made by Allison Williams, the reporter, about the Slave-Dwelling Project’s work.





Photos courtesy of
Preservation Virginia website
Low Country Africana website
Surry County Historical Society website
Toni Battle Coming to the Table Facebook posting

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Reflections from the slave dwelling

We appreciate the experience that Joesph W. Jenkins, current president of the Surry County African American Heritage Society, shares from Bacon's Castle. Thank you for lending your voice to the call for unison! Accounts submitted from participants of The Slave Dwelling Project will be published individually going forward so that we can take the opportunity to focus on their reflections on an individual basis.

Robin Foster
About Our Freedom

REFLECTIONS FROM THE SLAVE DWELLING
                                                  Joseph W. Jenkins
                                                   October 21, 2012

I am not a superstitious person but I come from a long line of people (farmers) who look for signs in nature to forecast events:  The weather, how well or poorly their crops may turn out and when a child might enter the world.

A couple of days before my stay in the slave dwelling at Bacon’s Castle, as I drove down Rocky Bottom Road, I noticed, at the side of the road ahead of me, an unusual sight.  As my car drew closer to the object, it took flight.  It turned out to be a good sized hawk which was unable to gain altitude because of what it was holding in its talons.  As I drew closer, I saw that the hawk was holding on to a large black bird – a raven.  The predator hawk was flapping its wings but the raven’s weight was keeping it from ascending.  I was concerned my car would hit the birds.  As my car drove even closer to them, the hawk released its prey.  The freed raven flapped its wings and quickly joined its flock that had been watching the drama unfold.  The unsuccessful predator, having freed its burden, soared above the trees and into the sky.

Bacon's Castle was occupied by Bacon's followe...
Bacon's Castle was occupied by Bacon's followers during the rebellion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The image of the drama stayed in my mind throughout that day and night as well.  It even entered my thoughts the Friday afternoon while on my way to Bacon’s Castle.  I kept trying to determine if what I witnessed was just something normal in nature, or was it some sort of sign?
I didn’t know what to expect from my stay in the slave dwelling.  As the current president of the Surry County African American Heritage Society, I felt a sense of obligation to take part in the project to represent our organization and in some way, help make certain the truth about how the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion set the stage for the type of bigotry and discrimination we still have today.  What is more, I felt that my stay in the slave cabin would provide a forum for me to express openly my strongly held belief that race is a lie and racism is a divisive, debilitating disease.  My emotions and feeling of wonder heightened as I got closer to the main house on the castle estate.

More photos:  http://www.surryafricanheritage.com/simpleviewer/simpleviewer_203/web/index.html
When I entered the main house at Bacon’s Castle, the people who were to participate in the dwelling stay were already assembled and sitting in a circle.  Introductions were made and we were given an opportunity to talk about our expectations relative to our participation.  I was very impressed with the individuals who had come to participate.  It was one thing to have Joseph McGill from South Carolina who was the project’s catalyst but it was quite another thing to be with individuals (descendants of Africans and Europeans) who had traveled from Texas, California, and North Carolina to be part of the  project – together  with Virginians whose family members were slaves on the very land we were occupying.  So why did they come?  To connect with their family history?  To atone for someone’s past ills?  To find release from guilt or just to acknowledge and better understand our country’s history?  I guess we all had our known and perhaps suppressed reasons.  Whatever the case, I noticed that as we talked the veil of unfamiliarity began to lower.  Something unique was starting to unfold.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things occurred that Friday evening during and following the libation ceremony conducted by Ms. Toni Battle, who had come from San Francisco to take part in the project.  Each of us was given an opportunity to remember and acknowledge our family members and ancestors.  According to family lore, my paternal great grandmother (Cordelia), who was born of a free black woman, had at some point in her life worked at Bacon’s Castle.  So, for me, there was a vague connection with the site.  However, my maternal great grandfather, Peter Clarke, Sr., had been enslaved.  Reportedly, he had been sold twice and was somewhat proud of a scar that was on his light complexioned face. We can only speculate as to how his facial wound came about and why it was a source of pride for him.  Given that bit of family history, I decided to dedicate my stay in the slave dwelling to the memory of my great grandfather, Peter Clarke, Sr., and all the people who endured the pain, suffering and humiliation of slavery in this country.

After the ceremony, we all remained standing in front of the slave dwelling and began to talk about all manner of things related to the dwelling, the plantation, the institution of slavery – and its impact on society; the pain and humiliation people endured; the stupidity of discrimination based on skin color; race as a social construct; the system of economic divide and conquer, and so on.  As the content of our discussion became deeper, our inhibitions lowered even more.  I felt that “we the people” were at long last being open and honest with each other about our anger, our fears, our pain and even our hopes.  Truth was being spoken and something more honest was about to happen.  And then it was time to lay down our heads on the slave cabin floor.

The cabin is rather small and it’s hard to believe that, at one time, it housed four families:  Two on the first floor and two on the second.  Fortunately, the cabin had a wooden floor.  (Some slave cabins had dirt floors.)  I anticipated gross discomfort being on the floor in my sleeping bag but to my surprise, I didn’t have any aches or pains.

As I lay there on the room with six other people in our section of the building, I guess I was waiting for something unusual to happen – -I had no idea what.  Two of the people chatted about their families and ancestors.  Two eighteen year old college students kidded with each other and my thoughts drifted everywhere and nowhere.

I tried to picture myself as a person enslaved.  What would I do?  How would I handle it?  Could I survive the ordeal?  Macho man notions entered my mind.  Of course, I would invoke warrior powers and fight and prevail against all odds and reclaim my freedom and ride off into the sunset – to go where in a place I didn’t know?  What would I do?  And then I recalled hearing Billie Holiday’s song about southern trees bearing strange fruit.  That was disconcerting.

As I lay there on the wooden floor, nothing mystical happened.  I don’t think I expected anything to happen but it occurred to me that we folks of African ancestry are, in many ways, a unique and blessed people.  We have survived trials in this land by the strength of our faith, the power of our hope and our capacity to find light in the darkness of despair.  While I did not consciously expect anything in particular to happen while in the cabin, I was glad to be there at that time for whatever it mattered and for whatever difference it might make.

Out of the window that faced southeast, I saw a distant star that held my attention.  I searched for meaning in it.  It said nothing in particular.  It just stared back from a distance.  In the meantime, the students to my left were still restless and perhaps somewhat disengaged from the experience.  So, at about 4:00AM, it occurred to me that perhaps this old man might be able to say or do something that they may recall favorably when, years from now, they think about their experience at Bacon’s Castle.  So, I told them that our African ancestors who were brought here were not a homogeneous people.  They came from different cultures, spoke different languages and had different religious beliefs.  Some were animists.  Some were Christians and some practiced Islam.  I told them that it must have been extremely challenging for those diverse groups of people to be thrown together and to become one people in the harshest of circumstances.  I told them about Bilal ibn Rabah, a black African who was born into slavery in Arabia.  Bilal was treated inhumanly by his master and he was persecuted severely when he became one of the earliest followers of the Prophet Muhammad.  However, despite the abuse Bilal ibn Rabah had to endure, he attained an honored status among the followers of his faith.  He was the first person to call the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) at the Kabah in Mecca.  His call to prayer is made five times a day and is heard around the world.  And for the students, I called the Adhan.  
                                                                                                                  
.I wanted the two students to know that despite their hardships; despite their setbacks; and despite their disappointments, they can make a difference in the world like Bilal ibn Rabah and so many other people throughout history.

Although it was unintentional, the call to prayer woke up Joe McGill (who slept next to me) and Toni Battle and Prinny Anderson, who slept on the other side of the cabin.  
Toni and Prinny came and sat with me and Joe McGill, and we all talked at length about all manner of things related to our country’s history and the general plight of our people.  We agreed that the need for broad discussion among people of goodwill within our nation is a catalyst for healing, reconciliation and progress.  We talked about the depth of the challenge we face in bringing people together and helping to end animus and the stupidity of discrimination based on skin color.  We agreed there is a need for initiatives like “Coming ToThe Table” and the Slave Dwelling Project to raise awareness of the festering sore on the face of our nation.  I pledged anew to myself to join the struggle.


During our early morning exchange, the image of the hawk and the raven I encountered a couple of days earlier came to my mind.  I asked my colleagues what they might infer from my encounter:  Had I just witnessed a natural phenomenon or could it have been a sign related to our experience at Bacon’s Castle.  I’m not sure that we reached a consensus about the matter but I felt better knowing the raven went free to live out the day.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

McGill engages with youth and community at Bacon's Castle


What a great experience it was must have been for Joe go the extra mile and dress in his Civil War uniform for the children in the Surry County School system who attended his lecture.  I am sure he brought history alive for them.  Thank you for what you do, Joe!  Next, we will bring you the accounts of some of the participants from The Slave Swelling Project stay at Bacon's Castle.  So, stay tuned!

Robin Foster
About Our Freedom


McGill engages with youth and community at Bacon's Castle

By Joseph McGill, Jr. | Field Officer | Charleston Field Office
National Trust for Historic Preservation | William Aiken House l 456 King Street, 3rd Floor, Charleston, South Carolina 29403 |



After a 3 month hiatus, the Slave Dwelling Project came back strong with two stays in Virginia.  The first of the stays was Bacon’s Castle which occurred on Friday, October 5, 2012.  Constructed in 1665 in Surry County on the south side of the James River, Bacon Castle is the oldest brick structure in North America.  Best known for its connection to the Bacon’s Rebellion, it was home to Arthur Allen, his heirs, and other planters and their families from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.

Map of Virginia highlighting Surry County
Map of Virginia highlighting Surry County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When the Slave Dwelling project was in its infancy, I got a visit in my Charleston office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from staff members of Preservation Virginia.  They thought that the project would go over well at Bacon’s Castle.  I remember being impressed that even at that early stage the project had gained enough relevancy to garner the attention of this statewide organization.  I vaguely remember telling Jennifer Hurst, Associate Director for Museum Operations and Education, that my time spent with them should be maximized.  That part of the conversation came across to her loud and clear because maximizing my time is exactly what she did.  As a result of Jennifer’s planning, the project directly interacted with more people than any other stay to date.  Let me explain.

Community interaction

With the date chosen, it would still be about a year before the stay would occur.  That time was utilized quite effectively with Jennifer planning and promoting the project on her end and me on mine.  Social media played a big role in the buildup to the stay most notably yielding at least one guest that would share the stay at Bacon’s Castle.  About two weeks prior to the trip, I had an interview from a Surry County, Virginia newspaper reporter which resulted in a newspaper article.  An additional notice of the stay was printed in the local paper on the day the stay occurred.  My ongoing involvement with the group, Coming to the Table (CTTT), would also play a big role in this stay.

English: Preservation Virginia Logo
English: Preservation Virginia Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My first direct action with the Bacon’s Castle stay would occur in Richmond, VA.  Jennifer arranged for me to spend my first night at historic Linden Row Inn.   I was the honored dinner guest of members of the board of directors of Preservation Virginia.  I had the pleasure of giving them a synopsis of the Slave Dwelling Project.  I praised them for making Virginia state number twelve for the Slave Dwelling Project.

In planning the events associated with the sleepover at Bacon’s Castle, Jennifer insisted that I bring my Civil War uniform.  After explaining to Jennifer that when I fly to the sleepovers I lighten my carryon luggage by not bringing my Civil War uniform but she continued to insist with her reason being that I was going to address children in the Surry County school system.  Address the children I did, senior high, middle school and 3rd and 4th graders!  It was an overall great experience as I adjusted the message to accommodate the age of the children that I addressed at the time.  The students, some of whom had visited Bacon’s Castle the day before, responded accordingly with highly intelligent and engaging questions in the end. 

While presenting to the first school group, Toni Battle of San Francisco and Devin Berry of Oakland, California showed up.  I was expecting them.  I met both of them in March of this year at the national gathering of Coming to the Table.  Devin was my roommate while in Richmond and vowed that he would join me in a future stay.  Being a man of his word, Bacon’s Castle would be that stay.  Toni made it clear in Richmond that the ancestors are with me on this project even if I am in denial.  Both Toni and Devin and one other Coming to the Table member, Prinny Anderson would spend the night in the slave cabin at Bacon’s Castle. 

Day of the stay

Arriving at Bacon’s Castle on the day of the stay was not the first time for me but it was for Toni and Devin.  The three of us arriving together proved invaluable because the photographic documentation began instantly, an important element that had been missing in this project to date.  Although I had been in the slave cabin before, having the pleasure of witnessing Toni and Devin experience the space for the first time was quite moving.  Containing four rooms on two levels, the structure is the only one of eighteen slave cabins left on the property and is situated among several other out buildings.  Jennifer’s planning ensured that in a matter of hours seventeen people would occupy the two lower levels.  Jennifer had already apprised me of the guest list and the one of which I was most skeptical was that of the media representative for I have been burned by that promise many times before.

In an attempt to strengthen the relationship between Bacon’s Castle and the African American community, early in the planning of this event, Jennifer and I decided others should be given the opportunity to share the slave dwelling experience with me.  In addition to the local people scheduled to stay that night, people from North Carolina, Texas and California were also scheduled to stay.  Early in the evening, as we gathered in the big house, the people started to show: Barbara and Judy Anderson, two sisters whose great-great grandmother was once enslaved at Bacon’s Castle; Michael Ray Vines, Jr. a student at Virginia State University, Reverend Daniel Baltimore, the Pastor of Mt. Nebo Baptist Church in Surry; Allison T. Williams a reporter for the Daily Press and a host of others.  

External building at Bacon's Castle
External building at Bacon's Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ghost stories seemed to permeate the conversation but it became obvious that the local African American community rarely interacted with Bacon’s Castle.  Hearing the testimonials of why they all chose to spend the night in the slave cabin at Bacon’s Castle was verification to me of why the Slave Dwelling Project was necessary.  Of all those testimonies, none meant more to me than the fact that I was sharing the experience with the Anderson sister whose great-great grandmother was enslaved at Bacon’s Castle.

After moving the group to the cabin, we all claimed our spot on the floor where we would place our sleeping bags to bed down for the night.  On the porch of the cabin, a live video streaming and live chat were attempted.  The chat was successful the video streaming failed.  Time was then allowed for Toni Battle to conduct smudging which is blessing the space inside the cabin before we all moved outside again to form a circle for the pouring of libation as we were all reminded that this occasion was about honoring the ancestors.
  
Cotton field talk

The following day was full of activities as demonstrations and presentations were planned throughout.  Early that morning, before the audience began to arrive, one totally unplanned event happened.  Devon Berry, Toni Battle, Prinny Anderson and me, all members of Coming to the Table,  found ourselves at the cotton field bordering Bacon’s Castle.  Although cotton was not the crop of which the enslaved at Bacon’s Castle labored, it was comforting that me and Devon, the descendants of slaves; Toni Battle, the descendant of slaves and whose ancestors were the subjects of lynching; and Prinny Anderson a descendant of Thomas Jefferson could all gather in a cotton field on a plantation to talk about the subject of slavery and the healing process.  

It was even more comforting that on our way back from that visit to the cotton field, we encountered one of the Anderson sisters whose ancestor was once enslaved at Bacon’s Castle.  We learned from Mrs. Anderson that because of her opportunity to spend a night in the cabin, more opportunities for interacting with Bacon’s Castle now exist, more specifically, her becoming a volunteer tour guide and discussing with the rest of the family the possibility of having a family reunion on the property.  Personally that alone would be mission accomplished for the Slave Dwelling Project but there was more to come.

Period cooking

The most noted presenter of the day was Harold Caldwell an employee of Colonial Williamsburg who demonstrated period cooking.  It was a pleasure to observe him as he interacted with his audience.  His method of engaging them at every opportunity was inspiring to me.  Sampling his creations was an added bonus.  When I told him about my one experience of cooking beef stew in a slave cabin and the critique I got about slaves not having access to beef, he made me aware that it really depended on the plantation owner and that there are accounts of some masters issuing their slave beef or other meat products.  The overall experience with Mr. Caldwell has certainly opened my mind to similar programs at other slave dwellings in the future.

The hat

It was a pleasure for me to interact with the people who came out to partake in the activities planned for the day.  I had three occasions to address the visitors about the Slave Dwelling Project.  I used the occasion to yield some time to some of the other people who shared the experience the prior night and to Jennifer to speak specifically about the history of the cabin and slavery at Bacon’s Castle.  During the question and answer period after the second presentation.  I got the question, “Can you tell my mom about the hat?”  

Initially the question was confusing to me because I was not wearing a hat at the time but then Jennifer immediately came to the rescue.  Earlier that morning, I asked Jennifer if it was necessary that I wear the Civil War uniform, she replied that it was totally up to me, I chose not to.  After hearing the question, Jennifer reminded me that the young student asking the question was a part of the school presentation the previous day and he remembered the hat that I wore with the Civil War uniform.  His question was great on many fronts: methods of living history work, i.e. wearing period uniforms; the young man was successful in convincing his mother to bring him to the event; and Jennifer Hurst was right in insisting that I bring the Civil War uniform.

Bacon's Castle was occupied by Bacon's followe...
Bacon's Castle was occupied by Bacon's followers during the rebellion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Bacon’s Castle experience alone would put Virginia in the category of most exciting and engaging state for the Slave Dwelling Project thus far but before I left Virginia there was one more stay to be done.  Next blog: Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, Virginia.


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