Tag Archives: AAAWG

Research of Enslaved Families Brings Ph.D. Candidate to Menokin

BY GUEST BLOGGER: Mariaelena DiBenigno

My name is Mariaelena DiBenigno, and I am an American Studies Ph.D. candidate at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Mariaelena DiBenigno

My research focuses primarily on how enslavement manifests at public history sites in Virginia’s Tidewater and Northern Neck regions. I study how these histories emerge on the museum landscape in both material and narrative form. Often, these histories involve communities still overlooked by public and academic history.

In February 2016, I learned of an opportunity to research enslaved families at Menokin. I had long appreciated Menokin’s interdisciplinary focus and its insistence on telling diverse, multilayered narratives. It is a site committed to collaboration and community.

During my initial Menokin visit, I learned about the Gordon family and their ties to the local landscape. Daniel Gordon, whose biography I was asked to trace, was the grandfather of Evelyn Taylor Parker and Juanita Taylor Wells; these two sisters had shared their story during an oral history outreach program hosted by Menokin.  According to Evelyn and Juanita, their great-grandparents, Alexander and Nellie Gordon, may have been enslaved at Menokin along with their son, Daniel. Their family had compiled a family

cookbook that contained an extensive genealogy and family history. I also had access to several primary and secondary documents that, coupled with Evelyn and Juanita’s interview and family cookbook, provided substantial assistance for my research into the Gordon family’s connection with Menokin’s nineteenth-century past. Throughout this spring and summer, I worked with genealogists, historians and family members, and I learned far more than I ever expected about local history projects and genealogical research techniques. I also thought long and hard about the implications of interpretation at historic sites and who has a role in the decision-making process.

Currently, I am exploring Daniel’s parents, Alexander and Nellie, in order to concretely tie Daniel to the Menokin property. So far, I have discovered much about Daniel and his wife Maria. They owned extensive property in Richmond County, and they were involved in local religious and social life. However, I have yet to definitively link Evelyn and Juanita’s Daniel Gordon to the Daniel Gordon found in Menokin’s inventories. There is an age discrepancy between the Daniels, but this does not mean the families are not linked to Menokin’s landscape. My work will now track the earlier generations to find a common ancestor who might link the two family lines. I have more censuses to transcribe, birth and death certificates to analyze, circuit court records to explore, and church archives to examine.

There is also the fascinating angle of DNA testing among Gordon family descendants. Overall, this is a project that requires diligence, close reading, and perseverance. It is a necessary endeavor. The Gordon family’s relationship to Menokin deserves focused attention and it is an honor to conduct such research.

Maria also serves on Menokin’s African American Advisory Work Group (AAAWG).

Menokin African American Advisory Workgroup

In 2016, the Menokin Foundation  spearheaded the formation of the African American Advisory Work Group (AAAWG). The primary goals of the AAAWG are to assist the Menokin Foundation in:

  • telling the story of African Americans at Menokin to inspire a fuller understanding of and appreciation for their central role in Menokin’s story.
  • engaging and involving the African American community in ongoing efforts to preserve and interpret Menokin, and developing the historic site into a cultural learning center.
  • acting as a leading pilot or prototype for engagement of any community type.
  • telling the big picture story. (What are the lessons to be extracted from our local history?  How do we relate this history to the state in general and, in bigger terms, the world?)

The group now consists of the following advisory members:


  • Alice French – Menokin Staff; Education and Outreach Coordinator
  • Dudley Olsson – Menokin Board; Education Committee chair
  • Tom Duckenfield – Menokin Board; Education Committee member


  • Bessida Cauthorne White – Genealogist; Member of Middle Peninsula African American Genealogical Society
  • Lauranett Lee – Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Trustee; former curator of VHS African American exhibits
  • Mariaelena DeBenignio – College of William & Mary history doctorate and researcher


  • Evelyn Parker
  • Juanita Wells
  • Mark Cox
  • Brenda Leigh Wells
  • Beatrice Robinson Ball
  • Vera Robinson Rich
  • Skip Taylor