A Journey Toward Healing in Yorktown, Virginia
A rough encampment for enslaved people was set up on July 23, 1863—150 years ago today—near Fort Yorktown, Virginia, a Union stronghold in Rebel territory. It took the generic name “slabtown.” That’s what many such camps were called because the shacks built by the self-emancipated women and men—otherwise known as fugitive slaves—were thrown up with any material at hand, including irregular, bark-covered tree slabs left over from timber milling. Residents later called it Uniontown for obvious reasons. They founded a church called Shiloh Baptist and built a town around it.
Last Sunday, Shiloh joined with the National Park Service to dedicate “waysides,” those hefty informational signs you find at national parks, to honor the community, which no longer exists. Given the rather difficult history of the Shiloh–NPS relationship, the event was an amazing example of hatchet burying and cooperation.
Uniontown survived the Civil War, endured Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and thrived into the 20th century. Then the National Park Service started eyeing the land, which happened to be part of the Yorktown National Battlefield. Lord Charles Cornwallis, commander of British forces, surrendered there to General George Washington, in 1781. The NPS wanted the area pristine for the bicentennial. The black folk were in the way.
“A community generally known as Slabtown still forms a wedge into the Yorktown Battlefield,” wrote Newton Drury, the park service’s director, in 1946. Just three years later, he referred to a “significant acquisition” in Uniontown. That was the beginning of the end for the community.
The NPS started offering to buy land from residents. “There was an agreement that nobody would move out without informing the others about what was on the plate—what the National Park Service offered,” a former resident named Sherman Hill told us. But “after all the years, you started distrusting one another.” He believes that the NPS used a divide-and-conquer strategy to break the community’s cohesion—and to get the land for bargain prices. It worked. They cleared everyone out by 1977, though one man who lived far from the battlefield (but still on land the NPS wanted) got life rights. When he dies, the park service gets his land.
But on Saturday, Shiloh’s Pastor, Barbara Lemon, shared a podium with Supervisory Park Ranger Diane K. Depew, and Dan Smith, Superintendent of the Colonial National Historical Park, at an eight-plus-hour symposium hosted by the church. Heavyweight scholars, an African American Civil War reenactor (and park service employee), and two Hampton University history majors held forth on the exodus of the enslaved and the genesis of Slabtown. On Sunday, all gathered at the Yorktown National Cemetery and Battlefield to unveil the waysides. It was a moving end to a remarkable weekend.
All injustices have not been remedied, and all wounds certainly have not healed. After nearly 40 years, the NPS has done nothing with much of the land acquired from Uniontowners. It is underbrush and patchy grass clearings in the woods. And yet, some kind of healing happened here. For that, we should be grateful—and ready for the next step.