By David Bearinger
The stain that 246 years of enslavement left on the history of Virginia and the nation is indelible; it can’t be erased or painted over.
But a recent grant from Virginia Humanities, awarded to More Than a Fraction Foundation, supported the first public phase of a long-term project, begun several years ago, that is bringing together the descendants of two families—one whose ancestors were enslaved; the other whose forebears enslaved them.
The two families have committed themselves to an effort that offers hope but no guarantees. Our funds supported “The Merry Tree Event,” a series of public and private gatherings, mourning rituals, and celebrations on or near the campus of Virginia Tech, which was built on the site of the former Smithfield Plantation.
Smithfield is where the Fraction family was enslaved by the Prestons, one of the wealthiest, most influential families in Virginia’s history.
I attended the culminating event and spoke afterward with the project director, Kerri Mosely-Hobbs, the four-times great-granddaughter of Thomas Fraction who was enslaved at Smithfield. We talked about the journey ahead for these families and the commitment it requires.
We’re standing at the foot of a broken tree. It’s early March, 2022 and there’s a cold west wind driving snow squalls across the otherwise empty field. There’s music. People are dancing.
This is the place where the men, women, and children who were enslaved at Smithfield would gather, to worship and to do the things that bind any community together in the face of hardship—to laugh, sing, mourn, plan, console each other, recount familiar stories, fall in love; or just relax for a few precious hours in its shade.
The tree, known as the Merry Tree, was smaller then, but still a formidable presence. It was part alter, part touchstone, and part community gathering place in those days. Only the base of its giant trunk is left now, after a storm tore the rest of it apart three years ago.
Broken or not, even a visitor with no ancestral connection to this place can still feel the power of the Merry Tree.
Kerri is passionate about the work of reconciliation but admits she’s not sure what that means. She’s committed to addressing what she calls the “unfinished business of slavery” but also keenly aware of its contradictions. “The word finished has a finality to it,” she says, “and I don’t know if we’ll ever really finish this work.”
She told me she believes in forgiveness, but not when it implies forgetfulness and just “moving on.” And she’s also quick to add that there are no quick solutions.
As they’ve begun the intimate and sometimes difficult conversations at the heart of this journey they’ve embarked on together, the Fraction and Preston descendants have agreed that it’s a multi-generational task.
“We need to get our children involved,” Kerri says; “I can imagine we might still be here doing this work twenty years from now.”
The two families are also “not trying to build a friendship,” although friendships might emerge and grow, eventually. But they do share a sense of purpose and are in no rush to name what so far is unnamable. Kerri says, “We’re in a kind of fourth category. It’s not a family relationship, it’s not a business relationship, it’s not a friendship; it’s something else.”
I ask her about “success” and what that means in an undertaking like this. “We don’t know,” she says simply. “There is no set of boxes to check. It’s like we’ve launched on a voyage of discovery. Our task is to go find something interesting and bring it back.”
Which seems a little like setting the destination after it’s been reached, and she agrees.
I ask her: what are the most important messages you want other people who are not involved in this work, directly, to know? Her answer: that we are still in the transition out of slavery; it isn’t really in the past.
Slavery and the displacement of indigenous people: the consequences of both are still with us, no matter who we are. Whether our tradition says we’ve always been here in the place that’s now called Virginia; or if we just arrived.
Which is why she felt it was important, even necessary, to involve Native people in these programs and events. Chief Kenneth Branham of the Monacan Nation based in Amherst County welcomed participants on the first day. Representatives from Virginia Tech’s Indigenous Studies Program helped to organize the series and were present throughout.
It’s also why trauma counselors were involved and played a crucial role in these events, especially during tours of the former Smithfield Planation house.
Isn’t the scale of the challenge overwhelming? Kerri answers that “we can look at this as a stressful and impossible task, or we can look at it as a potentially world-changing adventure” between two families united in the history of enslavement that also divided them.
I ask Kerri what made her want to do this work in the first place? What started her down this path?
Growing up, she was close to her grandmother but at first, they rarely talked about the family’s history of enslavement. “That was the code of her generation, not to talk about it.” Eventually, the door began to open a little, and then more widely. Kerri’s research would trigger a memory; or a memory would spark new research.
Kerri remembers the first time she heard the last name “Fraction” and the name of her great-grandmother, Isabel, who was born enslaved.
By the time her grandmother passed in 2015, enough pieces of the puzzle were in place that she could carry the research forward on her own. She began reaching out to other family members. “Part of the grieving process [for her grandmother] was following the trail.”
What keeps her going? She pauses for a long time before answering.
“The people who came to these events were not just Black and white Virginians. There were Native people. Immigrants. People from other countries too.”
There was a man from Barcelona in attendance who was clearly moved by what he heard and saw. Spain was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade, after all. “We didn’t expect this,” Kerri says, “but it’s gratifying that our families’ story reaches all the way across the Atlantic, to Spain.”
Is she hopeful? “Yes, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We don’t know exactly where this is going or where it will end. What we do know is, it takes love to drive this work forward. It’s a labor of love….”
Even in its broken state, the power of the Merry Tree survives, and Virginia Humanities has been honored to be a supporter of the work this project has begun.