September 10, 2015

Researching and Interpreting Slavery at Belle Grove Plantation

For the last two decades, historic sites around the country have been engaged in a steady, thoughtful discussion about slavery and race. This conversation isn’t always comfortable or easy, but it happens consistently and it happens with the authenticity and veracity that can only happen in an old place, in a place where history happened and history is preserved, and history is connected to the present. This year the Preservation Leadership Forum takes a look at National Trust Historic Sites and how their interpretation of slavery has evolved and changed over the years.

Visitors to Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, Virginia, experience sweeping views of three mountain ranges and Shenandoah Valley fields that are still farmed today; a Jeffersonian inspired Manor House; a historically re-created garden; and outbuildings that depict 18th- and 19th-century life and work. But why does “this place matter”? Rather than a single defining historical figure or moment, Belle Grove’s history encompasses many great American themes: founding fathers, westward expansion, prosperity through ingenuity, and brother fighting brother in the Civil War. These are familiar stories to many of our visitors, but we also have a more challenging, and often overlooked, history to research and discuss—slavery.

Panorama of Belle Grove Plantation. | Photo by Ann and Rob Simpson

Slavery at Belle Grove

From the founding fathers to the American Civil War, the “peculiar institution” of slavery runs through all of Belle Grove’s history. Belle Grove Plantation began with a 1783 gift of land from Isaac Hite, Sr., to his son, Major Isaac Hite, Jr., and his new wife, Nelly Madison—sister of President James Madison. The couple had success with agricultural and business enterprises, due in part to having slave labor, which began with a deed from James Madison, Sr., for 15 enslaved men, women, and children. Archival records from the plantation include a list of 276 enslaved people owned by Major Isaac Hite, Jr.’s family during the period from 1783 to 1851. In the early 1800s, some 103 enslaved individuals were recorded as living at the property. Family ledgers indicate that several families lived and worked at Belle Grove for three generations. The Hite family acquired slaves through inheritance or through trades or purchases with family members or neighbors. Others were born at the plantation.

In the 1820s there was a steady decline in the number of slaves, as they were sold or given to the Hite family’s adult children. Researchers have found a newspaper from 1824 with an advertisement for the sale of “sixty slaves, of various ages, in families...” by Isaac Hite. Researchers also uncovered an 1837 bill of sale between the executors of Major Isaac Hite, Jr., and a free black man, Manuel Jackson, for the purchase of his son, Emmanuel for $800 (about $21,000 today).

Recognizing and Interpreting Belle Grove’s Institution of Slavery

In recent years, Belle Grove’s board and staff recognized that although the history of slavery at the site was mentioned, it was done as a side story with little specific information. We realized we were not fully representing the history of the site or the stories of the people who lived and labored there, and we have made the research and interpretation of slavery a top priority.

Increased cataloging and digitization of archival records is aiding this research. For example, the documents about the sale of Emmanuel Jackson were discovered in a bound volume of freedom papers in the Allegheny County Courthouse. The volume has since been given to the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and was part of a 2009 exhibit Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries at the University of Pittsburgh Library.

Others share our commitment to uncover the history of slavery at the site and are helping our small staff and volunteer corps. A Syracuse University archaeology student has begun the work of rediscovering some of the Belle Grove slave dwellings as part of his PhD research, and initial archaeological testing has yielded promising finds. Members of Coming to the Table, an organization that works to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery, are sharing their skills and resources in conducting African American genealogical research.

Documenting the Former Slave Cemetery

Two Hite family descendants recently visited Belle Grove and asked why there was no signage to mark the location of what we believe to be a slave cemetery based on oral history from early 20th-century residents. (This area is also slated for further scientific research.) We acknowledged this failure and explained plans for increased interpretation of slavery at Belle Grove. The conversation led to them sponsoring signage that was put in place this summer.

This signage is the first permanent marker about slavery at Belle Grove, and we used it as an opportunity to show an image of James Madison Sr.’s signed deed that names the first slaves at Belle Grove: Jerry, Jemmy, Sally, Milley, Eliza, Joanna, Diana, Demas, Pendar, Webster, Truelove, Peggy, Priscilla, Henry and Katey. It is possible that some of these individuals are buried in the cemetery. At Belle Grove we have also committed these 15 names to memory, just as we have committed the Hite family names to memory, as a reminder that our role as site administrators includes the responsibility to restore the humanity to individuals previously lost to history.

At this point in our work, Belle Grove has many more questions than answers, but we are committed to updating visitors about our work in progress and even engage them in our hunt for information. We are building a private website so that staff and volunteers will have access to the latest findings and can discuss it with visitors. We also plan to install a temporary exhibit sharing the documentation that we currently have on the enslaved residents who worked at the site. Because we hope that more information will become known, we are using exhibit materials that are inexpensive and easy to update.

Signage near Belle Grove’s slave cemetery with the deed for the first 15 enslaved workers. | Photo by Kristen Laise

The discomfort of talking with public about slavery in an honest and respectful way often holds historic sites and museums back from raising the subject. At Belle Grove, we know there is much work to be done in this area, and we are finding that our research and discussion prompts more interest and questions from the public and creates new opportunities to include visitors in archaeology and crowd-sourced research as we move forward. Interpreting slavery at Belle Grove is both a process and a responsibility, and we are committed to approaching it with honesty and diligence.

Kristen Overbeck Laise has been the executive director of Belle Grove Plantation since August 2013. Previously, Laise served as executive vice president of Heritage Preservation, a Washington, D.C.-based, national organization that advocates for the care of collections.

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By: Kristen Overbeck Laise

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