The forecast promised clear skies on Friday the 14th, but it was hard to see how. We’d driven up to Richmond on a lark Thursday, only to discover that there’s a magic line somewhere between here and there — the snow hadn’t stuck for more than a few hours in Hampton, but Richmond was just peeking out from under a heavy wet blanket. Which is not to say the main roads weren’t clear and buses weren’t running — they were. But the Library of Virginia — the reason we’d come — was inexplicably closed. (Really, Richmond? Where’s your “rebel” spirit now? Stashed away in all those monuments, I suspect!) Happily, Lamplighter was not. We spent the afternoon huddled over our laptops in the chilly porchlike part of the café as dense gray clouds gathered. At one point, there was a flash of lightning (which I somehow missed) and a huge clap of thunder (which I did not), and snow blobs, not flakes, began falling soon after. It was already starting to accumulate as I headed for the car, and by the time I’d circled back around to pick Brian up, it was coming down thick and fast.
I’m not sure how long it took us to get to Williamsburg (a journey of about 50 miles), but somewhere along the way the snow stopped and the rain started and the road was miraculously clear. The next morning, when I cracked the blinds in our bedroom, the church steeple across the street was glowing pink through the bare branches — sun! We emerged blinking into the unfamiliar glare and headed back up the highway to Williamsburg, hearts aflutter. No, not because it was Valentine’s Day (Brian says, It was?), but because we were finally going to be allowed back on Camp Peary, a nearly impenetrable fortress, albeit one with a see-through fence. After much wrangling with the public affairs officer, Brian had been able to secure permission for us to visit again — for 30 minutes, with no cameras of any kind, and with a maximum of three other family members.
We had asked the three siblings pictured above — Lieutenant Palmer Jr., Ann Jones, and Dot Harrold — to join us, and we met at June’s house after lunch at Pierce’s Barbecue. Like Brian, they too are great-grandchildren of Mat and Julia Palmer; their grandfather was John Frank Palmer, Brian’s great-uncle. Both Ann and Dot were born in what used to be known as Palmertown, which was swallowed by the U.S. Navy in the early 1940s. John Frank lived there, and so did Big Daddy, Brian’s grandpa Lewis, along with other Palmer aunts and uncles. All were evicted when Camp Peary was built — collateral damage of the war effort and the defense of our great nation. The fading house you see in the picture below stood outside the perimeter of the new base and so narrowly escaped destruction, until a fire burnt
it down years later. A new, brick house was built in its place, where the youngest sister lives today.
Ann and Dot climbed into June’s pickup truck, and we followed along behind. The entrance to Camp Peary is only about 10 minutes from June’s house, just down Rochambeau Drive and across 64. I was more aware this time of the military trappings through the minivan window, and I couldn’t help but notice the scary-looking automatic weapon lying on a bright blue pad on the ground. The cemetery we’d come to visit is tucked away in a wooded clearing next to a firing range; “operations” had apparently been under way when we got to the gate. These were stopped, obviously, before we were allowed anywhere near the place.
All was quiet when we arrived. Our minders stood back as the five of us entered the burial ground, which has been fenced in since our last visit (February 2012 for me; the summer of that year for Brian). In the two years that have elapsed, I have come to regard the people buried there as “our people.” Mat Palmer has come to life in our minds (and before our eyes — there’s a picture of him on the wall of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist church, which he helped build). He died in 1927, before Dot and Ann were born, but their daddy knew him, and they know of him. His wife, Julia Fox, has remained more elusive. According to marriage records, she was born in Gloucester County, just across the York River from where Camp Peary stands today. She was most likely a “contraband,” one of the thousands of enslaved people who flocked to Union-held territory during the Civil War and in so doing emancipated themselves. Her parents and her two siblings appear in the 1865 Census of the Colored Population in York County, but she is nowhere to be found — she would have been about 10 years old at the time. Where was she?
I’m fairly certain now that she, too, is buried on Camp Peary, right beside her husband of nearly forty years. The gravestone is cruelly blank, which hadn’t struck me two years ago. I don’t think I even saw it. At that time, Mat and Julia had only just become real on paper — we had visited the York County Court House the day before and seen their marriage record, dated July 17, 1873 — and I didn’t yet realize the turn our lives had taken. This time, though, I felt a bond between us and would have liked to sit and stay awhile.
Instead, we climbed back into the van and were driven the short distance to the exit. Rather than heading back to the library, we asked Ann, Dot, and June to show us where Palmertown used to be. Ann had told us you could still see the shadow of the road that ran through it, and sure enough, there it was on the other side of the fence, clearly visible through the trees at this time of year. It’s called Samoa Road now (is that supposed to be a secret?). A little farther along, we came to their stomping grounds, to use Ann’s words. That’s Daddy’s truck, they said, laughing and pointing at an old white Ford half buried in brush. And down the old driveway is the wooden garage, ramshackle now, and the remnants of a small barn where the cow and pigs were kept and the mailbox discarded. Keep going down the hill and you’ll come to the swamp, where they played as children, swinging on vines across the water.
The stories started to burble up as they stood in the woods, remembering. The black snake coiled in the corner of the garage that spooked June as a boy. The thigh-high snow that came right before Dot was born. The aproned midwife, Mary Jones, whose house is still standing, over by where June lives now. These are the stories we hope to share before their outlines dim. —EHP
To be honest, I’d been secretly dreading seeing 12 Years a Slave, but I also knew I couldn’t not see it. The last gruesomely violent movie I saw was Gangs of New York, which a friend of mine persuaded me to go to when we were living in Amsterdam way back in ’02—I “watched” most of it with ears plugged and eyes narrowed to slits behind the shelter of my fingers. By the time we finally left the theater, I was clammy with sweat and cramped from having been bunched up in my seat for nearly three hours of torture. I’ve carefully avoided such films ever since, which is why I haven’t seen No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood or Django Unchained. If I’m going to sit through something harrowing, there needs to be a damn good reason, and Daniel Day Lewis, for all his brilliance, isn’t a good enough one for me!
Given the nature of what Brian and I are trying to do here in Virginia, I probably don’t need to explain why I had to see 12 Years a Slave. I suppose you could argue that I’ve read enough about slavery at this point to be familiar with the relentless brutality—physical, psychological, emotional—upon which the entire system was predicated and without which it could not have persisted. But I’m not sure the written word can fully capture slavery’s sickening violence, or the constant threat thereof. (I might make an exception for The Book of Night Women, by Jamaican writer Marlon James; a number of scenes from that novel have lodged in my brain and will not be ousted.) You cannot unsee the fear — and the life — in a person’s eyes as the noose tightens, or the raw, bloody flesh of a person’s back as she’s whipped while bound to a post, or the terror and disbelief of a person who wakes to find himself in chains, or the disgust and despair in the eyes of a person who is raped and will be raped again, and again. I insist on the word person, because that is what 12 Years a Slave makes most painfully clear. These were people upon whom unspeakable violence was inflicted by other people. You knew that, of course, but I think it’s possible not to really know until you see that violence (re)enacted before you.
I have yet to meet a white Southerner who openly romanticizes his or her “heritage,” though evidence of nostalgia for an imagined/invented past is everywhere down here—it’s as much a part of the landscape as magnolia trees and Golden Corrals. I wonder what neo-Confederates would make of 12 Years a Slave? I’ll admit to fantasizing about force-screenings, though I suspect that 150-plus years of denial would not be so easily overcome. And honestly, I’m less concerned about the Stonewall Jackson acolytes (who are likely beyond hope) than those who don’t give our history a second thought. If this film can reach them and shake loose some of the persistent Old South and “America the Beautiful” mythology, it might help open the road to understanding and, ultimately, acknowledgment of where we, the American people, come from.
Because, while indisputably beautiful, the landscape itself feels sinister, oppressive—the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the waterways snaking through dense, nearly impenetrable vegetation. The plantation houses, too, are stripped of their romance, despite their graceful balconies and sweeping staircases. Their picturesque presence in the Louisiana outback becomes ludicrous and obscene—and might even be laughable if not for the suffering and depravity that they both embody and engender. Their very existence—the “way of life” they represent—would not be possible were it not for the unending, backbreaking labor of the enslaved.
Which is another thing the film underscores (and not, I don’t think, just because I’m primed for it after steeping myself in related reading for the past couple of years): Enslaved people built everything in sight; they did all the work, and were used up in the process. That was their raison d’être, of course, at least in the eyes of most whites. What’s striking, once again, is that there is no acknowledgment of that work in the national narrative. And by acknowledgment, I don’t mean thank-you (that would probably be too much to ask, even in this “postracial” day and age). I mean a statement of fact that enslaved African Americans carved much of this country out of the wilderness. You see it in 12 Years a Slave, as one white master or another lolls on the wraparound porch or inspects his field hands, pharaoh-like, from the comfort of his coach. True, the planter class was a tiny elite, which means the great mass of whites had to get their hands dirty too, but they were vastly outnumbered by enslaved blacks in many parts of the South. African Americans were the fuel, the engines, of the economy.
This inconvenient truth has not only been neglected or “forgotten,” it has been vigorously denied. Just the other day, I came across this passage in Leon F. Litwack’s brilliant, distressing book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow: “‘This is our country,’ John Temple Graves, an Atlanta editor, told a University of Chicago audience [in 1903]. ‘We made it. We molded it. We control it, and we always will. We have done great things. We have mighty things yet to do. The negro is an accident—an unwilling, a blameless, but an unwholesome, unwelcome, helpless, unassimilable element in our civilization. He is not made for our times.’” Yes, the charming Mr. Graves made this speech 110 years ago, but the language of rugged individualism—the language of white men, primarily—is still very much with us today. Remember how Romney, Ryan & Co. trotted out that “We built it” slogan late in last year’s presidential campaign? Not only was that pat phrase born of phony indignation (whoever came up with it deliberately took President Obama’s words out of context), it sharply limited the “we” to exclude all but the entrepreneurs among us, as if business owners existed in a vacuum. It’s a “we” the rest of us have heard before—the “we” that takes all the credit for the toil of others.
Anyway, to get back to 12 Years a Slave, what has stuck with me, even more than the scenes of sadistic violence and forced intimacy (when, for instance, a raving Master Epps rests his arms on the shoulders of an enslaved woman who’s hanging laundry on the line and leans his head against hers—the absolute power he wields over others’ lives is clear in this gesture), is the endless unspooling of days of drudgery and hard labor. It’s also the isolation in which that labor was performed, and in which most, if not all, of life was lived. That plantation in the back of beyond was your universe—cruel, stifling, (nearly) inescapable. Even if you did manage by some miracle to escape and make it all the way to “free” soil, you still weren’t safe. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ordered “all good citizens”—white people, obviously—to send African Americans back into bondage, no matter how far they might have fled or what horrors awaited them upon their return. This effectively made all of America a prison, not just the South, not just a particular plantation. And even free blacks were free only if they had the papers to prove it. The fragility of that freedom is heartbreakingly clear in the film. Solomon Northup’s story makes the heartbreak somewhat easier to bear because we know from the start how it will end. But what of the people Solomon leaves behind when he’s rescued from Epps? Those are the people who haunt me.
—Erin Hollaway Palmer
Ever since I came across the Great Dismal Swamp in the Rand McNally road atlas, I’ve wanted to see the place for myself. I’ll confess that this whole region—in fact, pretty much all of Virginia—was indistinct in my mind. (And I’m someone who loves maps and geography, thanks to my proud shunpiker parents, who pored over the atlas before every car trip in search of the roughest, remotest roads they could find.) It only began to take shape on our third voyage south, when we turned Brian’s lost passport into an impromptu honeymoon down the Eastern Shore, over to Hampton, on to Petersburg, and up through the Shenandoah Valley. That’s when I started to study the map.
It’s also when I started to study American history, my knowledge of which was patchy at best. I’d never been all that interested in pilgrims and pioneers, Rough Riders and robber barons, Confederates and carpetbaggers. But as Brian and I delve deeper into the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the dark decades that followed, the southern landscape has begun to take on new meaning for both of us.
Somewhere in the piles of articles and books and pamphlets we’ve accumulated, I had read that enslaved people sought refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp on their long journey to precarious freedom in the north. The twisting, infinite waterways and thickets of underbrush provided cover from slave hunters and their snarling bloodhounds, but it was a forbidding shelter, infested with mosquitoes and other beasties, snakes, and bears. Even so, for many it was preferable to bondage, becoming more than just a stop on the Underground Railroad, a permanent hiding place and home.
Colonies of maroons established themselves in the swamp, perhaps as early as the late 17th century, according to J. Brent Morris’s recent New York Times post, raiding neighboring plantations, then retreating to the thorny, bug-ridden bog to elude any pursuers. The whole piece is fascinating, but this bit is worth quoting at length:
The considerable numbers of maroons who used the swamp as a base for these attacks, as well as those who settled in the innermost communities of the deep swamp, were constant thorns in the side of plantation society, both militarily and ideologically. Through trade, appropriation and their own ingenuity, maroons obtained or made weapons and developed remarkable skills as guerrilla fighters. Just as important, however, was their symbolic variance from the ideological foundations of American slavery: the notion that African-Americans could not survive without benevolent white supervision, that they did not truly desire their freedom and that they were pathetically inferior to the ‘master race” in every way. Rather, they challenged white authority and stood for centuries, unsubdued, as a powerful rebuke to the Slave Power.
It was this article, in fact, that spurred us to action on Sunday. (Oddly enough, a few days before, during a marathon session at the University of Chicago’s marvelous Special Collections Research Center, I’d come across a number of references to the Dismal Swamp Land Company—founded by none other than George Washington—in the musty 200-year-old papers of a certain Fielding Lewis, proprietor of Weyanoke plantation on the James River. More on that later.) From Hampton, Brian and I drove down to Suffolk, on the south side of the James, and parked alongside three other cars at the Washington Ditch entrance to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
The perfect fall weather—cool, still, with a bluebird sky—went a long way toward masking the treacherous nature of the swamp, which at one point covered over a million acres in this corner of Virginia and North Carolina. Still, as we strolled along the double track to Lake Drummond, a nine-mile hike in and out, we tried to invoke the ancestors: How would they have read the landscape, the channels and pools, the hummocks and scrims of scum, the large piles of seed-laden dung? On less benevolent days, how did they stay warm and dry? How did they eat? As the sun dropped in the sky and the woods around us became an impenetrable tangle of shadows, we quickened our step, arriving gratefully at the car, where we cranked up the heat as soon as we got in. Yes, it was in the 50s. Goes without saying that the ancestors were a hell of a lot tougher than we.
—Erin Hollaway Palmer, October 22, 2013