when the dust clears

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Posts Tagged ‘sesquicentennial

Postcards from the Great Dismal Swamp

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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

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A Journey Toward Healing in Yorktown, Virginia

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Young lady photographs newly installed wayside at the old Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, VA,  July 23, 2013

Young girl photographs newly installed wayside at the old Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013

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.

Former residents of Uniontown and friends look at new wayside at the Yorktown National Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 23, 2013

Former residents of Uniontown and friends look at new wayside at Yorktown National Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013. Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer

“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.

Young boy lays wreath on the grave of a Yorktown soldier who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, Yorktown, VA, July 23, 2013

Young boy lays wreath on the grave of a Yorktown soldier who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013. Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer

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.

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

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation at the Schomburg Center, NY, NY

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Wonderfully diverse crowds lined up last week at the Schomburg to view the early version of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862. 150 years ago.

The document stated that “on the first day of January . . . all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

The Emancipation didn’t end slavery; it was but another shot across the Confederacy’s bow. The words on the page became reality largely because countless shots, rhetorical and metallic—some of the latter fired by members of the 180,000-strong U.S. Colored Troops—actually connected.

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