The new exhibit “Sentimental Attachments” at the Brownsburg (Va.) Museum aims to provide visitors with more understanding of the ambiguities of race relations in the small Rockbridge County community before and after the Civil War.
The exhibit is the work of Sascha Goluboff, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Washington and Lee University, and draws on her four years of ethnographic fieldwork and archival research. A poster in the museum describes the exhibit as exploring “the sentimental connections among white landowning families and their slaves, and later hired African-American laborers and domestics, in the Brownsburg area.”
“This exhibit is not just about African-American history,” said Goluboff. “We need to understand the history of African-American life through understanding the emotional relationships between blacks and whites and talk about them together. And it can be both uncomfortable as well as enlightening to try and understand the ambiguities of their everyday experiences.”
The exhibit shows that the 100- to 200-acre family farms in the Shenandoah Valley generally had small slave holdings. The average number of slaves per household was 5.97 compared to 10.9 in the South as a whole. According to New Providence Presbyterian Church records, there were 200 white families and 300 slaves in the Brownsburg region.
“As an anthropologist, I’m really interested in how people live their lives,” said Goluboff. “The examples in the exhibit give little vignettes into the details of how people made their way through their daily lives and how they reinforced racism, but also how their relationships challenged racism. So it’s the messiness of how everyday life was lived. Obviously, it was a system of oppression, but there were ambiguities, especially in the reliance that whites had on their slaves.”
One example, titled “Aunt Peggy: Queen of the Kitchen,” focuses on the main cook to the Rev. James Morrison, the pastor of the local white church who said he wouldn’t have had his status without Aunty Peggy’s cooking such wonderful breads and food. But when he tried to get her to attend family services in the house every Sunday she would refuse to come. “He was really reluctant to force her to attend, so there was this back and forth tension,” said Goluboff.
Another example highlights the underlying racism that existed among whites. One of the letters on display tells the story of a woman from Brownsburg who went to school in Ohio and saw a black nanny who made her nostalgic for home. “There were restrictions involved in these emotional attachments,” said Goluboff. “On the one hand she wrote that this nanny made her remember her home fondly, but when someone suggested she kiss her, that was like anathema to her.”
According to Goluboff, all the posters reveal different aspects of the attachments between blacks and whites. “One of the important things to remember about race relations before the Civil War is that slaves were seen as both family and property,” she said.
“The Museum has the diary of Captain Henry Boswell Jones, an entrepreneur who lived near Brownsburg, on display from Special Collections at W&L. An excerpt from the diary is on a poster. At the beginning of the New Year in 1854, he tabulated how many family members he had, both black and white, and that’s a common thing you see throughout the slave period. But on the other hand, slaves were property so they were worth money and he would hire out his slaves to family members or he would sell them.”
During her research, Goluboff discovered newspapers advertisements for slaves from Brownsburg. “Some of the ads talk about selling a slave just as property for sale,” she noted. “Some mention that the person who is selling the slave feels bad about it and wants the slave to remain in the area because he or she had family there. And some ads were reward notices about slaves who had run away.”
Goluboff said that one of the things she found fascinating was trying to trace what happened to slaves after the Civil War. “A significant number of slaves stayed and settled in the area after emancipation and worked for former owners or other white people they knew,” she explained. “One would imagine that the same sort of relationships that existed before emancipation still existed afterwards when the main work for African-Americans was to work for white people.
An interesting feature of the exhibit is a Maytag wringer-washer displayed beneath the poem Ode to a Washerwoman by Langston Hughes. “The poem talks about the work that black women did for whites, washing their laundry every day so they could send their kids to school and pay for food and other things,” said Goluboff. “So I thought it was important to talk about that. The machine was owned by the Porterfield family, African-Americans who are descendants of Agnes Craney who did the laundry for several white families in the area.”
The exhibit is on display until November 2012 and was funded in part by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Goluboff’s research was supported by a Sabbatical Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society, an Engaged Scholars Studying Congregations Fellowship and a Washington and Lee Lenfest Grant.
Goluboff received her B.A in sociology/anthropology and Russian studies from Colgate University. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Jewish Russians: Upheavals in a Moscow Synagogue (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).