when the dust clears

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Archive for the ‘Slavery’ Category

Virginia Wrap, Feb. 5, 2013

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I’ve spent the last two-plus weeks in Virginia researching and interviewing for Make the Ground Talk, the documentary I’m making with Erin. We did the Richmond-Petersburg leg of the trip together, and she was here for a chunk of the current phase, Hampton-Williamsburg.

We’ve been hosted by my cousins Leon and Lois, and Joyce and Lankford Blair at the Magnolia House Inn. We have two homes away from home in Hampton.

Fortress Monroe, Hampton, Virginia, January 27, 2013

Fortress Monroe, Hampton, Virginia, January 27, 2013

Petersburg National Battlefield (Eastern Front), Virginia, January 19, 2013

Petersburg National Battlefield (Eastern Front), Virginia, January 19, 2013

We spent one Saturday at an oral history collection seminar at the College of William & Mary for the Lemon Project, an initiative undertaken by the school to unearth its unacknowledged roots in slavery. Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, spearheaded by former university president Ruth Simmons, provided a model for Lemon. (For history heads, the Committee’s final report is here.)

We must have done something right, because we’ve been invited to present our work at a Lemon Project symposium next month.

We’ve broadened—and deepened—the scope of the doc to include other African American towns, villages, and settlements that were uprooted in Virginia’s Tidewater, not just my great-grandfather and the vanished community of Magruder, where he lived. Turns out that many African American communities were wiped off the map to make way for a variety of installations and activities, and there are plenty of people interested in talking about them, including former residents and their descendants.

We’ve gathered a lot of material on this trip—documents, photos, audio and video interviews, broll—and plan to weave it into a new trailer during the coming weeks. We’ll shout when we have something to show.

BP

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A Tree Grows in Hampton

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Emancipation Oak, Hampton University campus, January 1, 2013

Emancipation Oak, Hampton University campus, January 1, 2013, Erin Hollaway Palmer photo

We spent much of our last day in Virginia under the Emancipation Oak on the Hampton University campus. The weather was borderline miserable—wet, cold, gray—but it was the right place to be. It was also the right time to be there: 150 years from the day the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

People gathered beneath this tree in January 1863 to hear the Proclamation read for the first time in the South. Among the listeners were men and women who had escaped from bondage and sought freedom behind Union Army lines, in places like Hampton’s Ft. Monroe, a Union stronghold in secessionist Virginia. By the end of the Civil War, tens of thousands of African Americans had fled to the safety of the fort and its environs.

Ft. Monroe map by E. Sachse & Co., 1862

Ft. Monroe map by E. Sachse & Co., 1862

Long before the Proclamation, in May 1861, Union General Benjamin Butler had refused to return the escaped men and women to slaveholders. He shrewdly claimed these people as “contraband of war.” Wartime law allowed Butler to seize the “property” of those rebelling against the United States, and that’s precisely what Confederates considered their slaves to be.

"Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of "contrabands" at Foller's house," May 14, 1862, Photo by James F. Gibson, from the Library of Congress

“Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of ‘contrabands’ at Foller’s house,” May 14, 1862, Photo by James F. Gibson, from Library of Congress

While the strength and dignity of self-liberated black folks is made plain by photos such as the one above, it’s clear from cartoons that even “enlightened” journalists clung to patronizing and racist stereotypes—though you gotta love the bare-chested brother blowing a raspberry at Rhett Butler (no relation to Benjamin).

Political cartoon, circa 1861, from Library of Congress

Political cartoon, circa 1861, from Library of Congress

Harpers Weekly cartoon, June 29, 1861

Harper’s Weekly cartoon, June 29, 1861

Those gathered beneath the Oak had freed themselves, but they’d only stay free if the Union won the war. Historian Eric Foner reminds us in his op-ed in the New Year’s day issue of the New York Times that the Proclamation “could not even be enforced in most of the areas where it applied, which were under Confederate control.” But the document signaled Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to eradicating slavery and was a giant step toward the 13th Amendment, ratified at the end of 1865.

People started calling Ft. Monroe “Freedom’s Fortress,” and waves of so-called “contrabands” converged, and then dispersed across the area. They founded several communities radiating from Hampton; some, like the one that grew around the fort, were dubbed “Slabtown” for the ersatz materials freedmen used to build their shelters. More than a few of my ancestors undoubtedly settled in these encampments, which grew into towns. We visited the site of Yorktown’s Slabtown on our trip.

A path through what was once Slabtown, Yorktown, VA, December 31, 2012

A path through what was once Slabtown, Yorktown, VA, December 31, 2012

On our drive home north on Route 13, we passed through New Church, Virginia, on the border with Maryland. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this store, but each time the glowing sign reminds us of the durability and insidiousness of the Rebel myth.

Dixieland minmart/gas station, New Church, VA, January 1, 2013

Dixieland minimart/gas station, New Church, VA, January 1, 2013, Erin Hollaway Palmer photo

Dateline: Hampton, VA, December 29, 2012

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After coffee at Lamplighter Roasting Company—go if you’re within 50 miles of South Addison Street in Richmond—we found our way to Chop Suey Books (thanks, Toby!), where we seized the opportunity to feed our bulging Civil War library. The rest of the morning we spent rooting through dirt and tangled ivy for the grave of A. Maben Hobson, Brian’s great-grandfather’s probable owner.

BP @ Lamplighter Roasting Co., Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012 (Beverage: Black Eye)

BP @ Lamplighter Roasting Co., Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012 (Beverage: Black Eye)

Erin at Chop Suey Books, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

Erin at Chop Suey Books, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

FindAGrave.com told us Hobson is buried at Hollywood Cemetery, eternal home to thousands of dead Confederate soldiers and their president, Jefferson Davis. Ah, the Internet!

“Major Alexander Maben Hobson” appears in the cemetery’s records, complete with the location of his grave, but he is not in the ledger of interments kept at the main office. The assistant general manager pointed us toward Hobson’s probable plot and wished us luck.

Members of interlocking families—Hobsons, Mabens, Pembertons, Cullens—are packed into a small parcel of land in Section P. Many of the headstones are remarkably well preserved, including those of AMH’s parents, John Cannon (born in 1791 in Cumberland Co., VA; died 1873) and Mary Shaw Maben (“born at Dumfries, Scotland, April 10, 1795,” died 1871). Two of AMH’s children, both of whom died as infants, are there, too.

Hobson grave, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

John C. Hobson grave, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

We hunted, we pecked, but we saw no headstone for AMH. Erin felt a hard spot beneath the thick ground cover through her boots. Tugging back the ivy, we found the headstone of John Maben Cullen, son of James and Jane. Still no AMH. So close… (“The exact location of the grave is unknown,” the cemetery’s historian writes, “although it is possible he lies in an unmarked grave in the Hobson family plot.”)

On our way back to the main office, we spotted Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s grave—the bright red battle flags flapping in the winter pallor kind of gave it away. Moving to some white Southerners, perhaps, deeply saddening and kind of grotesque to us. Wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthourse in 1864, Stuart reportedly told his men, “I’d rather die than be whipped.” He got his wish.

Grave of James Ewell Brown Stuart, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

Grave of James Ewell Brown Stuart, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

Joyce and Lankford Blair welcomed us to the Magnolia House, their lovely Hampton inn (no, not the Hampton Inn, though we did stay at one in Richmond), with big hugs and half a dozen warm chocolate chip cookies. And here we are.

—BP. Additional reporting by EHP.

Making the ground talk

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Snowden, Goochland VA, November, 2012

Snowden, Goochland VA, November 2012

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.

View of the valley from rear of Snowden, Photo by Erin, November 2012

View of the valley from rear of Snowden, Photo by Erin, November 2012

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.

Snowden from the rear, Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer, November 2012

Snowden from the rear, Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer, November 2012

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.

Mat Palmer, circa 1900, Williamsburg, VA

Mat Palmer, circa 1900, Williamsburg, VA

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.”

Frame grab from Mat Palmer's Union pension application

Frame grab from Mat Palmer’s Union pension application

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.

Grave of Mathew Palmer, Mouquin's/Finger Road Cemetery, Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity–Camp Peary, VA, July 2012

Grave of Mathew Palmer, Mouquin’s/Finger Road Cemetery, Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity–Camp Peary, VA, July 2012

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.