when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Posts Tagged ‘enslaved

Postcards from Elmerton, Brian and Erin, October 4, 2013

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Someone cuts the grass, though he or she (or they) doesn’t clean up the clippings, which had gathered into little brown mats on the upended gravestones when Erin and I visited Elmerton Cemetery last week.

We’d driven by before, even stopped the car and peeked. But we’d never really taken the whole place in.

There’s no sign that bears the name of the graveyard, which is smack across the street from a bus depot. But there is one dedicated to the cemetery’s most prominent inhabitant, Mary S. Peake.

Peake was remarkable. A free African American, she taught black children secretly before the Civil War, because to educate them publicly was illegal. During the war, she opened a school in Union-held territory.

Missionary Lewis Lockwood wrote a short book about her, The Colored Teacher of Fort Monroe. He tells us that Peake inculcated her students with Scripture and “considered singing an important part of a right education.” Lockwood seems to have been quite enamored of Mrs. Peake. She died at 39 of tuberculosis.

Peake’s headstone and those of her family members are set apart from the others in a fenced-in plot at Elmerton. They’re in good condition compared with others. Many have clearly been toppled, some smashed—by human hands—which is striking and sad.

Two years ago, the Virginia Department of Transportation published a survey of sites that might be affected, directly or indirectly, by construction to improve Interstate 64 and the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. That survey included Elmerton. These sections of the report are devastating:

Although a cemetery for the first generation of African Americans following emancipation, including Mary Peake, the cemetery suffered from decades of neglect during the twentieth century. In an effort to restore the cemetery, volunteers dedicated time to clear overgrowth and debris, sadly causing significant damages as well. While the cemetery was established during a crucial time in African American history, and contains the remains of an important individual, the cemetery is in extreme poor condition, and historic African American landmarks with a higher degree of integrity exist within the region. As such, the resource is recommended Not Eligible for individual listing in the NRHP [National Register of Historic Places] under Criteria A–C.

I suppose this means African Americans need only a few landmarks to our history and achievements, ones “with a higher degree of integrity,” chosen by state agencies. Let the others crumble and disappear.

When a place such as this is no one’s responsibility, it’s easy and cheap to say it’s everyone’s—Hampton city, the state of Virginia, regular citizens, black folk. Like me. But if it were, Elmerton wouldn’t be in a shattered and neglected state.

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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