The Landscapes of Enslavement (Part 2)

Monticello / Wikipedia

At a day-long colloqium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies, assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architect, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the truth of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind. (Read Part 1 in this series).

Monticello: Liberty and White Supremacy

Before moderating the discussion on Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, Eric Avila, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, took at tour there. He said his guide started with a joke: “Monticello, it’s complicated.”

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S., is considered a founding father but he also owned 600 slaves at his 5,000-acre estate. His beliefs and writings helped lay the foundation for American liberty but only for white males. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence but fathered six children with Sally Hemmings, one of his mixed-race slaves.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation manages Monticello and employs Fraser Nieman, who is head of archeology. At the historic estate, “the landscape of slavery has vanished.” Instead, he and his team have had to deduct what the past looked like from available data, in this case, oral histories, documents, and layers of sediment.

Jefferson grew both tobacco and grain, but they required “radically different” agricultural methods. To grow tobacco, enslaved workers would kill trees, leaving the stumps. Then, they would abandon a plot 4-5 years later and cut down more trees starting the cycle over again. “Tobacco required a gang labor system; everyone was at the same time at the same place.”

In contrast, wheat production required all tree stumps to be dug up and removed so that fields could be plowed by livestock. Wheat production demanded an elaborate divisions of labor: slaves to manage livestock, fertilizers, mills, and then blacksmiths to make the plows. “Wheat production required spatially-dispersed task groups.” Nieman thinks the experience of slavery may have differed based on what was being grown. “Tobacco production required more control, while there was slightly more freedom with wheat.”

Without any physical remains of slave dwellings or farmland, Nieman and his team decided to investigate the accumulated layers of sediment, which are an “encapsulation of history.” Pollen samples from those many layers tell the story of the transition from tobacco to grain.

Branden Dillard is an anthropologist who oversees interpretation and the instruction of tour guides at Monticello. While he said “no one can recreate the landscape of enslavement at Monticello,” which was a “forced labor camp in a botanical garden,” his job is to convey “an understanding of what it was.”

Monticello’s landscape / Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Interpretation involves bringing historical data and facts to life for diverse, contemporary audiences, making information relevant on a personal level. One important way the foundation does that is by using facts from documentary records to tell the stories about individual slaves.

Dillard acknowledge that tours can become very tense, particularly when visitors hear things they perhaps don’t want to. “Staff have been yelled at; fights can break out among visitors.” He said “about 15 percent of the reviews of the tours basically say ‘how dare you;’ another 15 percent accuse us of white washing; and 70 percent say we are doing a good job.”

For Niya Bates, who manages the oral history projects at Monticello, it’s important to have “up-front conversations with visitors who have been miseducated on the history of slavery and its legacy.”

She said Jefferson was “obsessive about taking notes, marking the weather twice a day.” From all these records, they were able to piece together the names of the 600 slaves who lived there, and then trace descendants, who have become critical stakeholders in Monticello.

Oral history interviews with descendants about the lives of their ancestors at Monticello and after slavery, and the after-shocks of slavery among the descendants themselves, helps enrich the story of this historic landscape. “Monticello is really a black space, even though it is not thought of as such. We can re-frame it as a black history site.”

The foundation has organized events where descendants plant trees to honor their ancestors. Visitors can sleep overnight in rebuilt slave quarters. Through the incredible Getting Word project, they can hear the stories themselves both online and in exhibitions. And there are also grants available to descendants to pursue their own projects and development.

The Legacy of Slavery in East End Cemetery

Introduced by landscape architect Sara Zewde, Brian Palmer, a photographer, journalist and professor gave a heart-felt talk about his explorations in the South, both photographing white supremacist rallies and exploring abandoned African American cemeteries.

In 1892, Jim Crow, which was a system of laws and regulations that enforced racial segregation across Southern states, “followed people to the grave.” African Americans had to be buried in their own cemeteries. The fact that many of these places are so neglected today plays into “our community’s residual shame.”

East End Cemetery, which is near Richmond, Virginia, is a historic 16-acre site where an estimated 17,000 African Americans are buried. It was one of many neglected African American cemeteries in the South.

After discovering the site through a photography assignment, Palmer and his wife later returned to volunteer, clearing out invasive plants, making the cemetery more visible and accessible, and posting images of gravestones on “Find a Grave” in an effort to identify descendants. Palmer went on to become the president of the non-profit managing the clean-up.

East End Cemetery / Church Hill People’s News

Reviewing microfiche of old newspapers, Palmer also discovered some of the famous African Americans buried at East End, including a doctor who became a bank president. “Reclaiming the cemetery is about reclaiming the history there.”

He called out the injustice that continues today in Virginia, noting that the state has provided over $9 million over the past 100 years for the upkeep of Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, where many Confederate figures are buried, but exactly zero for the maintenance of African American cemeteries. “There’s affirmative action for Confederate cemeteries.”

Through a number of grants, East End Cemetery has been able to create a community for descendants and an ambitious preservation plan. Palmer said it’s slowly becoming a tourist destination, along with Evergreen and Woodland cemeteries nearby, which are also being restored. Read more in Palmer’s op-ed in The New York Times.

Uncovering the Truth of Slavery at Universities

Nathan D.B. Connolly, a historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University moderated a discussion on how universities are dealing with complicated pasts intertwined with slavery. Given we now know that “slave money built many American universities,” including Ivy League institutions, how can universities create an inclusive community? Donnolly believes that “racism is still rampant in higher education,” adding to the challenge.

Adam Rothman, a professor of history at Georgetown University, has worked to uncover the full story of slavery at his university, which has been in the news because Jesuits sold some 275 slaves in 1838 for $115,000 to get out from under “crushing debt.” While this information was publicly known at least since the 1960s, it has been “rediscovered” and taken on a new life.

Frank Campbell, an enslaved person sold by Georgetown University / Robert Ruffin Barrow, Jr., Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, La., Public Domain

To date, the university’s official response has been to offer a formal apology, institute a new process for engaging descendants of those slaves, and give descendants privileged position in admission considerations. However, current students recently found this didn’t go far enough and voted for giving reparations to descendants, arguing that one dormitory paid for with proceeds from the sale of slaves generates more than $1 million in revenue annually.

Rothman served on Georgetown’s working group on slavery, memory, and reconciliation, which generated a set of “steps” for justice after discussions with faculty, students, and descendants, who are represented by the Georgetown Memory Project. One result of the work has been the renaming of two halls on campus for slaves sold by Georgetown. There is now the Isaac Hawkins Hall and the Anne Marie Becraft Hall. But Rothman complained that “these names have no meaning for students; they need additional interpretation.”

As the Georgetown Memory Project calls for more research and students demand reparations, Georgetown is “seriously wrestling with the facts of history.”

Hilary N. Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, who runs the Hallowed Grounds project, a walking tour of slave history on campus, said her university has a “dismal retention rate for diverse students and faculty” perhaps in part because the past there hasn’t been fully acknowledged.

Hilary Green giving Hallowed Grounds tour / The Crimson White, University of Alabama

While the university created a marker honoring slaves and their legacy on the campus, Green decided to dig deeper, looking into the archives, and uncovering personal stories of slaves on campus. All this information has been presented in a walking tour to over 4,300 people, in rain or shine.

Hallowed Grounds / Hilary N. Green

Her efforts have yielded progress: the university has formed a new commission to study race, slavery, and civil rights. Green has also created a pop-up museum on racial history at the university and is seeking a dedicated space.

And Elgin Cleckley, assistant professor of architecture and design thinking at the University of Virginia, described how he brings his empathetic design approach to complex sites on campus and in Charlottesville.

He said the walking tour on enslaved African Americans at the University of Virginia inspired him to work with students to create a new project and exhibition called Mapping, which is now on view in the Rotunda until 2020. The project features documentation from the University of Virginia president’s commission on slavery and an orientation model laser-etched in slate roof tiles that enslaved workers on campus created.

Mapping / University of Virginia

UVA recently commissioned Howeler+Yoon to create a new monument to enslaved labor on campus, which will feature 973 names. (Some 4,000-5,000 workers were enslaved on the campus). Cleckley participated in the monument’s planning and design, stating that it adds an African form that contrasts with axial structure of the traditional campus. The monument is expected to open in 2020.

Memorial to Enslaved Laborers / Howeler+Yoon, University of Virginia

Cleckley said UVA is a complicated place to work because it “has produced both white supremacists and African American civil rights leaders.”

In the Q&A, conversation veered towards what to do with the Confederate statues that still take center stage in many Southern parks, plazas, and streets, serve as daily reminders of the “Lost Cause,” and are major flash points in race relations.

Some cities like Baltimore and Austin have removed all Confederate monuments, while other cities are moving cautiously, deliberating over whether to reinterpret the sites for a contemporary audience. The conclusion seemed to be to go slowly in removing them and focus on building new monuments to enslaved people first, rather than tearing down the old.

Another question arose about how to represent the influence of African slaves in historic American places like Monticello through design. The landscape isn’t just a white landscape, but also a black one.

Bates at Monticello said one way would be to contrast the “Western, rigid, grid forms” with something antithetical and African, “with movement, color, asymmetrical and curvilinear forms.” Intervening in the symbolic Western forms can “disrupt the landscape of white supremacy.”

Read part 1 of Landscapes of Enslavement.

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