Wednesday, January 06, 2016

One Pill Makes You Small

Last night I watched the PBS show Finding Your Roots. This first episode of the season involved "the unsolved mysteries behind the family stories of political organizer Donna Brazile, actor Ty Burrell and artist Kara Walker as they learn how the legacy of slavery has shaped their identities."

While I was not familiar with any of these people, their search for their heritage led them back to pre-Civil War era slavery. Donna Brazile and Kara Walker are both black; Ty Burrell (Modern Family) is a white actor whose 4th great-grandfather raped his girl-child slave at 13 - producing a child whose children ultimately produced the actor.

Documents produced during this documentary included sales slips, wills showing the value of slaves, photos, and other paperwork that showed not only the intermingling of race but also the indignity of slavery and the horror of people being considered property.

I felt very small as I watched this, knowing that locally we are having similar discussions about old slave quarters over at the Greenfield site. That's an industrial park purchased 20 years ago that has never paid off and has evolved into more of a recreational area than I think the county administration ever intended.

Botetourt has a lot of history. We do not have a large black population here, but some are descendants of the slaves owned by the Preston family. The Prestons were big-deal folk back in their day and they had a number of slaves.

The slave quarters at Greenfield, being prepped for moving. Photo taken December 30, 2015.

The slave quarters at Greenfield. Photo taken December 30, 2015.

My husband's family, going back to pre-Civil War days, also owned slaves on property next door to the Preston land. My husband's family did not know the ancestor patriarch was a slave holder, apparently, until I ran across a will where the landowner gave his slave property to his wife and children. I imagine some people still living in this county are descendants from those slaves as well - they may not even know it. Unfortunately, much of that history was destroyed in the late 1960s-early 1970s when the farm became a subdivision. By that time the property was out of family hands, and I wasn't part of the family anyway. But I still feel small when I think about it, and what was probably lost. No doubt developers simply bulldozed away valuable historic artifacts.

The impact upon the individuals in the PBS show was significant. The actor was ashamed of his slave-owning grandfather who raped a child. The other women were upset to learn for certain that they had slaves in their background, some of which were sold at young ages. It was heart breaking to watch as they discovered their heritage. They were saddened and angry, as they should have been, at this intolerable treatment of human beings.

This whole affair here locally, wherein slave quarters are being moved to a new location in order to construct a shell building with no tenant in sight, has not been handled well. The county administration, including the supervisors who as the ultimate authority unfortunately end up with all the blame, neglected to inform the public of their plans until the final hour. They have been defensive and disingenuous in their arguments, saying that the public has known for 20 years that the structures would be moved. They need to own their missteps.
Items from the slave quarters. Photo taken December 30, 2015.

Shirley Johnson-Lewis, who said her ancestors were slaves at Greenfield,
 discussed the issue with concerned citizens.
The slave quarters are in the background. Photo taken December 30, 2016.

That 20-year-old plan lay in a dusty folder somewhere and had long been forgotten. Many people who live here now and enjoy the recreational opportunities at Greenfield didn't know such a document existed. The lack of transparency by the administration over this shell building project and the secrecy with which it has been executed has caused the problem. People feel betrayed. The supervisors feel like they are receiving undeserved criticism. There is right and wrong on both sides, as there always is. I understand what is going on but it is a complicated mess. I am not sure the general public actually realizes all that is involved.

Today there is a meeting at the Fincastle library at 1:00 p.m. It is a citizens' group, trying to organize to combat what they see as injustice. While I applaud their efforts, I feel this cause has been lost. The structures are already in the process of being prepped for moving. At least they are not simply tearing them down; they are relocating the structures, hopefully in their entirety if they don't fall apart. So there is some effort to preserve this history, just not in situ, which historians prefer.

View from the slave quarters.
This knoll will be leveled for the shell building. Photo taken December 30, 2015.

View from the slave quarters. Photo taken December 30, 2015.

I don't know what the answer is. I don't believe in tearing down monuments to the Civil War. I don't think the Confederate flag should be waved about - it belongs in a museum as the history it is. I don't think ignoring the past and hoping it will go away is the answer. Many people deny that the problems we have today go back 150 years to slavery, but of course they do. They go back even further than that, to the time of the feudal systems and other forms of control that have always existed. There has always been people at the top and people at the bottom. The fact that I know (knew?) a "middle class" was just the luck of the time I was born in. In the annals of history, the middle class is just a blip.

The world is a very big place. The implications of small actions can have big impacts. Good intentions can turn bad with the twist of a knife. It is a small world we live in, but with very large costs.


  1. The entire Greenfield property has been such a gem to many of us. In time it will be unrecognizable. I would much rather have the slave building and old kitchen building there than the monument just down the roadway, OR a shell building. Just another building that will not be occupied. Stupidity reigns in Botetourt.

  2. Wonderful article and very thought provoking, Anita. We are the keepers of the past - it's up to us, to each generation, to fight for the memorials of our descendants whether they be good or bad. All together, they make up what is America, and ALL of it needs to be shared and preserved so that we can remember not just the glories of our past, but the mistakes as well so that hopefully we don't make them again. Imagine what would happen if they did away with the concentration camps in Europe? We would most likely forget over time the suffering of the Jews and Christians in that generation. To a lesser degree, we need to remember the pain of enslavement that Americans inflicted on a race who had no choice - and for financial gain. Great job!!

  3. I love "Finding Your Roots" and found last night's episode particularly moving. Here in California most of us natives are far removed from the history of slavery. Both sides of my family came from relatives who immigrated in the early 20th century, but who knows what sort of nefarious roots were planted in Ireland, Scotland and Germany before they arrived here. I am always moved by the descendants of slaves who realize where they came from ... and how far they have come.

  4. Great article. Just what happens when the digging and earth removal starts, and human remains are found, is going to be anther story. I don't see how they will not encounter such remains, moving earth around so old structure, as they are. This is especially true around a structure used to house slaves, who many times received the simplest of burials.

  5. Good article -- I like your last two paragraphs. One of the things I loved about wandering around Paris is how much they revere old architecture. Here, if something is more than 50 yrs old, we want to tear it down and replace it with a new but not necessarily better structure. If something should survive a hundred or more years in tact, it's a downright miracle.

  6. The past should be preserved, but sadly many do not see it that way or are unwilling to assist in any way, whether through voluntarism or monetary contributions. We joined the local historical society here and plan to become involved in some way this year.


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