January 11, 2023

The Persistence of Love: Jerome Bias, Belle Grove's First Artist in Residence

For most of his life, Jerome Bias heard a specific story about his Black ancestors, a history embedded in trauma and pain, one that only spoke of their existence in the framework of the white family that enslaved them. One day, a shopping trip with his fiancée changed that narrative and the course of his life.

During that trip—Bias was a graduate student for interior architecture at the time—they stopped to rest on a large wooden bedframe. When he picked up the tag to learn more about the product, he was surprised to read that the frame was a replica of a bed made by Thomas Day, a free Black cabinetmaker from North Carolina. For Bias, who had only ever heard about how his ancestors picked cotton or tobacco, learning about a free Black tradesperson was a revelation.

Jerome Bias is an artist in residence at Belle Grove Plantation.

photo by: Sean Rowe

Portrait of Jerome Bias as he works at his craft of building furniture.

With this knowledge, Bias, who ended up crafting the bedframe as a wedding present for his wife, began a career where he used his skill as a furniture maker to shift perspectives, to reframe the past so that it no longer begins with the enslavers, but rather with the full scope of experiences of Black people in this era—enslaved and free. As a living historian Bias brings his practice as a woodworker to visitors to share that there is more to the story. He emphasized that while these historic sites carry their ancestors' pain and trauma, they also hold stories of skill, love, joy, and resilience.

In the fall of 2022, Belle Grove Plantation, a National Trust Historic Site in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, hosted Bias as their first-ever artist in residence. During the six weeks of his residency, he used furniture making and cooking to center the expertise and experiences of enslaved people beyond the standard narrative.

Shifting Perspectives at Historic Sites

If you have ever been on a historic house tour, you know that they usually start the same way—with conversations about the owners of the home, their wealth, their history, and their positions as landed gentry. The story of enslaved people begins only as you are taken to the back stairs, the attics, the kitchen, and the remnants of slave cabins, describing the act of enslavement by these families. For Bias that perspective is limiting and one-way, and so he reshaped his work to change that.

During his time at Belle Grove, Bias drew attention to the work and skills of enslaved and free craftspeople who played a role in the development of the Southern decorative arts tradition. His current project involved developing six pieces of furniture from the regions of the United States where his family was enslaved. In an indoor workshop space, Bias worked on a china press from Louisville, Kentucky. As he shaped the wood, he spoke to visitors about the lives of enslaved people at Belle Grove, but not as you would typically talk about objects of decorative arts.

A carpentry plane with wood shavings around it.

photo by: Sean Rowe

A detailed look at one of the carpentry planes used by Jerome Bias in his craft.

For example, take the china press—also known as a kitchen cupboard or hutch—that would be placed in the downstairs kitchens where enslaved people worked. A typical tour would center the history of the object in terms of the white family that used it, but Bias takes a different approach, asking visitors to look at it from a new perspective, one where these objects serve as witnesses to Black love and life. This china press is a living witness, an object that may have seen moments not usually documented and shared.

That storage container for ceramics and china could also be, as Bias described, “a witness to an enslaved woman, a mother, combing out her child’s hair, or a husband and wife having intimate conversations that people who love each other have. The china press was there when a father came across a flower and brought it in to give to his daughter and said ‘I love you.’”

During one of his demonstrations—this time with a descendant—Bias described how one of his audience members explained that that they knew how to have pride in the Civil Rights movement, or their ancestors being queens and kings in Africa, but when it came to ancestors that were enslaved, she “knew only how to be embarrassed that they had been enslaved.” Bias’ response was to say that, “[these objects] are a witness not only to what was done to these people and how they were treated, but also how they had lives. These artifacts that we have in these places, these china presses, these buffets, these combs, these mirrors, they give us our opportunity to talk about the pain and suffering and also the presence hope, the persistence of love.”

A table covered in a white tablecloth with a bunch of ingredients, including seasonal gourds.

photo by: Belle Grove Plantation

Ingredients used by Bias as part of a meal he prepared for descendants at Belle Grove.

Building Connections With Descendants

In September 2022, Bias planned and hosted a meal at Belle Grove for the local community of descendants. For Bias, this was a chance to distill the message of his work into something that could be collectively shared: “I took that opportunity to craft a meal that had the message of, ‘How did the enslaved community have hope? How did they express love?’ To have a conversation about them making choices.”

In talking about the material culture and the skills used by enslaved people to make the combs, the furniture, the baskets and how these items carry these moments of life in tandem with the skills of Judah, the enslaved cook at Belle Grove, Bias drew connections between the intangible and the tangible heritage that exists at these historic sites. He reminded those that came to the meal that in the act of preparing food and eating together there is love, just as in the making of furniture and other items for their daily lives there was love as well.

He said, “You’ve got to hold and see the trauma in one hand, and you have to hold the hope and love in the other. Without that hope all you see is pain and suffering, and the African American experience is a product of love that went through a cauldron of fire and survived. You can’t understand what they have today unless you understand both those things together.”

Bias said, “I had a hard time leaving. I was giving voice to the ancestors. Their voices had not been heard in many years. It was healing."

A man standing over a fire doing a cooking demonstration at a historic site.

photo by: Belle Grove Plantation

View of Bias as he cooks outdoors as part of his demonstrations at Belle Grove.

For Kristen Laise, executive director of Belle Grove, having Bias at the site for so long was an incredible experience. She said, “It was beneficial having Jerome be there for six weeks to interact with staff and volunteers. They were eager to include conversations with Jerome as part of their tours. Most visitors didn’t expect this living history demonstration when they planned their visit and had a much deeper and richer experience because they met and talked with him. Even though Jerome is now gone, those conversations and his stories hang in that space—we don’t look at it the same way now.”

For more on the 276 men, women, and children enslaved by the Hite Family at Belle Grove, visit the Virtual Belle Grove Portal: Honoring Belle Grove’s Enslaved Community .

Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Max Chavez is a Chicago-based historic preservationist and currently director of research & special projects at Preservation Chicago.

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By: Priya Chhaya and Max Chavez

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