Making the ground talk
The backyard of Snowden, a pre–Civil War brick plantation home in Goochland County, Virginia, is the James River Valley. The yellow-brown fields, bare except for remnants of cornhusks and stalks, dip and rise into a stand of trees where a few cows nibble whatever cows nibble in late November. The landscape is beautiful but austere. I know it’ll look very different in the spring, reassuringly green, but still I marvel that men like my great-grandfather Mathew Palmer were able to coax pounds of tobacco and bushels of corn, wheat, and oats from this folding, sloping terrain. But I’m not a farmer, like Mat, his children, and my father, when he was a very young man.
It’s quiet, and I’m alone for the moment. My wife, Erin, explores the grounds, tended only by a flock of mildly curious sheep. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to imagine Mat and this place as it was in 1860. He would have been just shy of 20 years old, if the scant records kept of his life are accurate. I have a tough time visualizing. Scenes from the melodramatic 1970s miniseries Roots muddy my efforts.
Almost a year after first standing at my great-grandfather’s grave, I have gathered only a few fragments of his life. But they are telling, a promising beginning.
Finding a single photograph of Mat took months—plus luck, and the kindness and generosity of distant relatives. They assured me a portrait of Mathew hung on the wall of their church, directly across from the pastor’s office. I asked how I might go about getting permission to see it. Permission? Just come to church on Sunday, they said.
The photo itself appears to be a copy of a copy of a copy—it’s grainy and a mushy gray—circa 1910, which would put him in his late 60s. But I see the man. Long, gaunt face. High cheekbones. I read his expression as something between grim and determined. In him I see my grandfather Lewis, of whom there are several crystal clear photos. And I see my dad just before he died last year, when the fat of relative prosperity had disappeared from his face. All of these men were extraordinary ordinary people, men who faced discrimination and poverty stoically, at least in public, bore their burdens, and moved forward.
It’s easier to visualize what life might have been like for my great-grandfather’s likely owner, who lived at Snowden. The white, slave-owning gentry, of which Alexander Maben Hobson was a member, gathered their own stories and fashioned them into “history”; their comings, goings, and doings were deemed important enough to record.
Erin and I also happen to be staying at a marvelously appointed bed and breakfast, Clover Forest Plantation, the former home of Hobson’s in-laws, the Pembertons. The families were as close as their plantations, which are next door to each other. This morning, we breakfasted with the Pemberton family patriarch, Thomas, a Revolutionary War veteran. The captain surveys the green landscape from horseback in the portrait above the fireplace. If Pemberton, a planter with 55 enslaved people in 1810, could look down from his perch, he’d spy an interracial couple eating omelets and just-fried beignets on heirloom china in what used to be his bedroom.
Maben Hobson served during the Civil War with the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Company muster rolls, “regimental returns,” and a host of other documents I got from Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy show that he was absent from duty because of illness about as much as he was present. Whatever ailed him, killed him. “He lay ill for six weeks, and then died a struggling painful death without uttering one word to give us hope that he made peace with God!” his sister-in-law Annie wrote in her wartime diary.
“God grant that I may not stand again by such deathbed,” she wrote in December 1863, two months after Hobson passed. “He was raving in delirium all the time, his death throes were like a woman’s in travail, his deep sephulcral voice—articulation and modulation almost gone—sound in my ears now.”
Mat Palmer also served during the Civil War. This is where his trail begins. Somehow—I’m trying to determine this now—he traveled from Goochland to Richmond, where he enlisted in 1865 with the United States Colored Troops, the Union Army’s 180,000-strong African American arm. After the war, he married a woman from Gloucester County named Julia, about whom we know next to nothing, because black women mattered even less than black men to those compiling records.
They settled near the banks of the York River, not far from Williamsburg, carved a farm from the swampy land, and raised 12 children, including Lewis, my grandfather. Julia died in 1910, Mat in 1927, outliving Hobson by a good 64 years. They deeded their property to their children—and a decade and a half later, the government took it away.
Using eminent domain under the Second War Powers Act, the Navy condemned and seized my family’s property—and that of hundreds of other families, black and white—to expand a training base for “Seabees,” navy construction battalions, during World War II. Compensation was meager, and for blacks, many of whom lived at the subsistence level, not nearly enough to establish themselves elsewhere. My father, Eddie, recalled the eviction vividly. “They ordered some families in Magruder to leave their homes and they gave them 60 days or so to prepare to leave, abandon their property completely because it’s going to be bulldozed,” my dad told me. “The Seabees were marching in the back of our home, our homes, before we left, before they settled with my father. My father refused to leave until he was paid his money. When he saw a check, that’s when we moved,” my dad recalled. That was Lewis Palmer—tough, dogged, unafraid—whose settlement with the government, more than $1,700, was several times what many black families received.
If he had any innocence at age 14, and I suspect he did, much of it was stomped out of him after the dislocation and relocation. He died last year still embittered about the land seizure and how it decimated his—our—family’s fortunes.
Mat’s grave is in a cemetery within the confines of Camp Peary, a Defense Department and CIA facility. What happens on base is classified, so visitors must always be escorted. I needed permission from the base commander to visit, which was granted.
I visited his grave in early 2012. I was so overwhelmed that Erin had to do much of my thinking for me. She framed the enormity of the paradox: Mat Palmer had been property before winning the right to own property. Land was the measure of citizenship, even the circumscribed and dangerously provisional form lived by black folk.
Mat is a piece of a past I did not know I had, an unrecognized piece of me that I’m working to reclaim.