By Samantha Willis
Throughout 2019, Virginia has reflected on the year 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to its shores 400 years ago. This event was at the vanguard of a brutal, uniquely American system of race-based slavery that kept Black Virginians captive for nearly 250 years. Helping plantations tell their histories more honestly—in a way that confronts false perceptions of “idyllic” Southern plantations, and elevates the lives of the African Americans whose toil sustained their white enslavers—is among the most critical and timely work Virginia Humanities has undertaken.
Virginia Humanities is working to “introduce new models and new ways of engaging the descendant communities at Virginia plantations,” says Justin Reid, Virginia Humanities’ director of African American Programs. “We try to promote this knowledge through our programs like Encyclopedia Virginia, and some of our recent projects like [working with] Google Street View to map slave dwellings across the state.” With multi-year support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Encyclopedia Virginia has documented existing historic sites once inhabited by enslaved people—some at former plantations. Google Earth Outreach premiered a short film about the project this June in honor of the historic African American cultural holiday Juneteenth.
Reid also points to Virginia Humanities’ longstanding support of Virginia plantations through grants designed not only to preserve the tangible history in these spaces but also to widen the scope of the narratives they present. Over the years, Virginia Humanities has awarded grants for this kind of work to plantations including James Monroe’s Highland, James Madison’s Montpelier, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, and Monticello.
“Getting to know the descendants, hearing their stories and their families’ stories, has been the most impactful part of this process for me.” – Niya Bates
Virginia Humanities has played a particularly important role in helping Monticello reframe its history, says Niya Bates. Bates has been a public historian of African American life at Monticello for the past three years and heads its Getting Word oral history project. Monticello was the first plantation in the state to conduct such a project, which began in 1993, says Bates, thanks in part to a 1992 grant from Virginia Humanities.
“Getting to know the descendants, hearing their stories and their families’ stories, has been the most impactful part of this process for me,” says Bates of Getting Word. More than 200 people, most of them descended from the enslaved families at Monticello, have contributed their time and family knowledge to the project. From its conception, Getting Word’s purpose has been to “locate the descendants of Monticello’s African American families and to record and preserve their stories and histories,” reads the original grant application the organization submitted to Virginia Humanities. These Black stories and histories had been excluded, obscured, or downplayed by traditional areas of research and focus at Monticello and other plantations, says Bates.
“Enslaved people were not bystanders in American history,” Bates says pointedly. Rather, Black people, including those enslaved at Virginia plantations like Monticello, were participants and provocateurs, pushing the nation forward economically, socially and culturally—even as it held them captive.
Virginia Humanities has expanded its work of illuminating the stories of Virginia’s enslaved by partnering with the Citizen’s Advisory Council on Furnishing and Interpreting the Executive Mansion. Located in Richmond, the Executive Mansion was completed in 1813 to house Virginia’s governors and their enslaved workers. “We are in the very early stages of assisting in the reinterpretation of the mansion’s kitchen,” says Reid. The 200-square-foot space is original to the building and was restored in 2017 under the auspices of former Governor Terry McAuliffe and his wife, former First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe. Reid says that in the future, Virginia Humanities hopes to facilitate a 360-degree virtual tour of the kitchen quarter in the manner of its Google Street View mapping project. “I have been advocating for a descendant-led model [of reinterpretation],” adds Reid, a method that will lend dignity and authenticity to the legacy of those enslaved at the mansion.
Bates says descendants of the enslaved must be included and empowered in the telling of their ancestors’ stories at plantations.
“The only way to equitably involve the descendant community is to make them part of the leadership with these types of projects,” says Bates. When descendants advised Monticello to rethink how it presented the life of Sally Hemings, an enslaved Black woman who mothered at least six of Jefferson’s children, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation listened, says Bates. A new exhibition about Hemings—which presents a comprehensive, nuanced view of Hemings as a whole human, instead of as an object of mystery and scandal—was produced by Monticello last year, with direct input from Hemings’s descendants.
Bates’s and Virginia Humanities’ hope is that more plantations will include descendants as living experts in the reframing of their narratives and those of their ancestors.
“It’s their history,” says Bates. “We need to help them tell their own stories.”