Carved grave marker, Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, Lexington. ©Jennifer Law Young
Documenting Rockbridge Slave Dwellings
Historic Lexington Foundation has begun an effort to document slave dwellings in Rockbridge County as part of an effort to encourage their preservation.
On Oct. 30, 2019, representatives of HLF and the Brownsburg Museum, together with officials from Virginia Humanities, visited four slave dwellings in the Brownsburg area. The structures were photographed and measured as an initial effort at documentation. Participating on behalf of HLF were President Suzanne Rice and Executive Director Don Hasfurther.
Virginia Humanities has been documenting slave dwellings throughout Virginia but primarily in Tidewater and the Piedmont sections of the state. The organization was founded in 1974 with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Instrumental in its founding and serving as its first executive director was Washington and Lee University graduate Robert Crews Vaughan III. He was appointed by then University of Virginia President Edgar Shannon, also a W&L graduate and Lexington native.
Participating in the visit for Virginia Humanities were Justin Reid, director of African American Programs, and Peter Hedlund, director of Encyclopedia Virginia. Joining the Virginia Humanities officials was Jobie Hill, a preservation architect and founder of “Saving Slave Places,” a national program dedicated to the preservation of slave dwellings and the education of the public about the structures. Hill has assisted Virginia Humanities in documenting such structures.
The visit to the four structures in the Brownsburg area was arranged by Paul Hahn, Isabelle Chewning and others affiliated with the Brownsburg Museum. Their efforts were critical in contacting the property owners and obtaining permission to access their properties, noted Hasfurther. All owners were pleased to provide access and, indeed, were interested in learning more about the slave dwellings adjacent to their homes, he said.
The day began with a tour of the Brownsburg Museum followed by a visit to White Hall, the 19th century home of Henry Boswell Jones. Jones is best known for the diary he kept between 1842 and 1871. An entry for Aug. 17, 1856, noted that he was “digging a cellar for the Negro house.” This, together with his ledger, provides researchers with important information on his commercial, religious and personal activities.
The slave dwelling at White Hall is two stories with two rooms on each level. There is also a substantial basement that Hill theorized was also lived in, in part because the walls are plastered and whitewashed. She suggested that with some archaeological research one
might have a better idea of other uses of the cellar. While at White Hall, the structure was thoroughly measured and photographed.
It is quite likely that Reid and Hedlund will return to the site to further document the slave dwelling as part of Virginia Humanities “Mapping Virginia’s Slave Dwellings: Preserving Black History with Street View.” Using Google Street View technology, Virginia Humanities is able to film the slave structure and make the images and audio information available to the public, especially students in grades K through 12. This is important as most sites are not readily available for public visitation, noted Hasfurther.
The group next visited c. 1790, 1828 and 1840 Mulberry Grove. According to the National Register nomination, the property was acquired in the 1820s by Samuel Willson. Willson had constructed a large brick kitchen addition, which included a cooking fireplace and loft. As there is no entrance from the kitchen to the main house other then from the exterior, it is likely that it was occupied by enslaved people who did the cooking and house chores.
Not far from Mulberry Grove stands c. 1775 Sleepy Hollow. Like White Hall, the property has a two-over-two brick structure near the manor house. The two rooms on the first floor, like White Hall, have separate entrances indicating that it was probably occupied by two slave families. As with the earlier visits, the dwelling was measured. The Virginia Humanities officials also photographed the exterior, the interior having been altered and modernized for an
The last property to be visited was Castle Carberry, now known as Verdant Acres. As with White Hall and Sleepy Hollow, the property has a brick structure with separate doors for the two ground floor rooms, each room with a fireplace. There is a large attic
but no evidence that it was used for anything. Virginia Humanities took photographs and together with Jobie Hill took measurements.
Following the visit to the four properties, the HLF and Virginia Humanities representatives, together with Jobie Hill, met to discuss next steps to their cooperative efforts to document Rockbridge slave dwellings. Plans are to bring Hill, Reid and Hedlund back to Rockbridge County in the spring to meet with interested members of the community and to discuss their efforts. A longer-term goal will be documenting more slave dwellings and bringing them to the public’s attention on Encyclopedia Virginia.
To further this project, HLF needs the input of area residents who might have a slave dwelling on their property or know of slave dwellings in the county. As such, residents are urged to contact Hasfurther at firstname.lastname@example.org or 463- 6832 with any such information they might have.
While the major effort will involve extant structures, Hill is urging HLF also to include ruins of potential slave dwelling in its efforts. She notes that they will take much less time to document but could still be important to understanding slavery in Rockbridge.