I have been struggling to formulate the “official Menokin blog post” about the Menokin Sleepover Conference. We have heard from others: blog and facebook posts; tweets and instagram stories.
This morning it occurred to me that the trouble was that I was trying to write from Menokin’s perspective instead of my own. With that clarity, I decided that instead, I will share my personal journey through the process of understanding white privilege and how it led me to the truths of the weekend’s conversations.
Let me confess that until very recently, I had never really given the concept of white privilege a second thought. How very white privileged of me! So it will not come as a surprise that it had also never occurred to me, until Michelle Obama gave vocal credit, that enslaved people had built the White House.
Of course they did. The landed gentry of the 18th-century certainly weren’t out in the woods felling trees and turning them into construction timbers and beautifully carved panelling. They weren’t burning their hands baking bricks, or sweating over a hot fire forging nails and hinges.
This dentil molding has stood the test of time and the stress of several journeys.
The hidden work of the builders is exposed at Menokin. Here chisel marks tell the story of fitting the front door assembly into a stone opening.
Hand-carved molding exhibits the level of craftsmanship that was available at Menokin.
Hand-carved raised panel door and hand-wrought hinge.
Grain of the long-leaf pine used for the woodwork.
Their unpaid, enslaved laborers did that work. At the White House, and in Colonial Williamsburg, and at all the grand plantation homes that are so revered as part of our national history. Including Menokin.
Fingerprints captured forever in bricks still warm from baking.
Joe McGill places his hand in the indentations.
Joe McGill and Lauranett Lee search for more fingerprints in the chimney bricks.
This hat has more stories than I will ever get to hear.
Hand wrought nails.
The evidence is everywhere. These people were makers. They made houses and bricks. They made nails and hinges. They wove fabric and spun wool. They grew crops and cooked meals for their owners while their own families often went hungry.
I am a maker. I paint and draw. I knit and needle felt. I take pictures. I cook. And I love to share my accomplishments with my friends and family. I enjoy the appreciation of the work I have created with my own hands.
So when I started to really think about the Makers of Menokin and how their voices were silenced, their children sold, their lives and work unappreciated, their history UNTOLD — I got mad.
And the more I think about it, the more I understand today’s anger. We ALL want to be proud of our accomplishments. We all want to share a very personal part of ourselves and be told how beautiful our creations are. We all want to be valued.
When I lead visitors through Menokin now, I share my white-privileged revelation with them. Many of them are guilty of the same. And together we approach the story with an amended view, by thinking and talking about the enslaved people whose hands shaped and carved and constructed an infrastructure that allowed our “little experiment in democracy” a fighting chance at success.
Frank Vagnone and me shooting selfies at Menokin.
Joe McGill at the Menokin ruin.
The Menokin Sleepover Conference provided a safe place to have a difficult conversation during a tumultuous time. Frank Vagnone and Joe McGill help lead a diverse but eager group through the landmines.
I am proud of our foundation and its good work. And I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to work in a place and with people who are committed to shining a light into the darkness.
Last weekend, 23-24 September 2017, I had the fortune to partake in the Menokin Sleepover Conference from the unique perspective of a Menokin Trustee, as well as from the various perspectives of a descendant of Virginia Northern Neck African American slaves, free African Americans, and White slaveholders.
Featuring facilitators Frank Vagnone (One Night Stand) and
Joseph McGill (The Slave Dwelling Project) in their first joint project, the Conference fostered an incredible amount of dialogue and reflection about Menokin, the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife, Rebecca Tayloe Lee of Mount Airy Plantation.
After an authentic mid-19th century open-fire meal, Vagnone and McGill facilitated a lantern-lit discussion among the Conference participants about Menokin’s historic inhabitants; its current stewards; its mission, its intrepid melding of colonial architecture and modern glass structural building techniques; and its potential role as a catalyst of racial understanding, reconciliation, and unification.
Following the riveting discussion, several participants and I emulated Vagnone and McGill by pitching tents amidst the Menokin House ruins or in the nearby sward where the former Menokin slave dwellings once stood. At first, my immediate impression was that I was just experiencing a familiar camping-out experience under a clear star-spangled sky, not unlike those of past scouting trips, school outdoor adventures, Army bivouacs, or family mountain getaways.
As I gazed at the twinkling constellations and reacquainted myself with camping accoutrements, it suddenly dawned on me that this was not an ordinary camping experience at all. Rather, the purpose was to contemplate what it would have been like to be an inhabitant or visitor in a Menokin slave dwelling or in the Menokin House.
Accordingly, via a time and memory conduit constructed by interlacing the “rings” of my family tree with www.ancestry.com DNA dendochronology, I traveled back in time to 1792 — the penultimate year of the second term of Northern Neck son President George Washington – and I began to imagine what several of my Northern Neck ancestors might have been doing then at Menokin.
First, I conjured up the image of my 4th great-grandfather John Newman, who was born a slave in 1770 at Nomini Hall in neighboring Westmoreland County and freed in 1791 by Robert Carter III (1727-1804) as part of the latter’s manumission of more than 500 of his slaves. There are references in peripatetic tutor Philip Vickers Fithian’s Diary about Robert Carter III and his visits to Menokin.
Still savoring his newly acquired freedom, my ancestor John Newman may very well have spent many nights visiting friends and relatives in the Menokin slave dwellings, an example of how many ante-bellum African American families — similar to today’s mixed status immigrant families — had members of mixed free and slave status.
Second, I thought of my fifth great-uncle Moses Liverpool, who was born in 1773 as a slave of Lt. Col. William Fauntleroy (1716 – 1793) on his “Old Plantation” in Naylors Creek, a short paddle ride up the Rappahannock River from Menokin, which is located along the shoreline of Cat Point Creek, a tributary of the Rappahannock River.
Because Moses was described by the Fauntleroy family as “… a very smart, smiling fellow, who is a good cooper, a house carpenter, and ‘a little acquainted’ with the ships’ carpenter business,” I imagined Moses might have spent a few night in the Menokin slave dwellings, perhaps having been hired out to Francis Lightfoot Lee to create or repair Menokin House’s interior woodwork or, alternatively, to build or repair the ships, casks, barrels, and hogsheads used to transport commodities produced at Menokin.
Third, I contemplated how my White slave-holding ancestor Henry Lee III (1756-1818) — my 2nd cousin, 8x removed and known as
“Lighthorse Harry” because of his daring in the Revolutionary War — might have spent an evening with his cousin Francis Lightfoot Lee. Henry III’s great-grandfather, Henry Lee I, was a brother of Governor Thomas Lee (1690-1750), the builder of Stratford Hall in neighboring Westmoreland County, Virginia, and Governor Thomas Lee was the father of Francis Lightfoot Lee of Menokin. Henry Lee III married his distant cousin Matilda, granddaughter of Governor Thomas Lee, niece to Francis Lightfoot Lee, and heiress to Stratford Hall.
On the canvas of my mind, I painted a picture of Henry Lee III dining at Menokin in 1792 with his cousin Francis Lightfoot Lee and Francis’ brother Arthur Lee (1740-1792), a physician and opponent of slavery in Virginia, who served as an American diplomat during the American Revolutionary War. I considered that, among other topics, these cousins may have debated slavery and the tension and cognitive dissonance between the institution of slavery and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, which expresses:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Taken together, the fervent and introspective discussions of the Menokin Sleepover Conference participants, my own musings concerning how some of my racially diverse ancestors may have inter-related with Menokin, and the social, political, and economic issues revolving around it, Menokin occupies a singularly unique position.
Menokin can not only be the focal point and catalyst for preserving and rebuilding a national historic landmark, but also be the focal point, catalyst, and host of future conferences – a la the Aspen Institute — to foster discussions that can promote understanding and reconciliation to dissipate the long shadow of slavery by actualizing the shining ideals of the Declaration of Independence signed by Francis Lightfoot Lee and 55 other American patriots.
Hannah Valentine was 300 miles away from her family in 1838 when she wrote to say how much she missed them.
“My dear husband I begin to feel so anxious to hear from you and my children,” she wrote.
This wasn’t just any separation; this was the forced absence of slavery. Hannah Valentine had been left behind in Abingdon while her husband, Michael, and others went to Richmond with the Campbells, the white family who owned them.
David Campbell had been elected governor of Virginia. For three years, Michael Valentine and several of his children lived and worked for Campbell at the Executive Mansion, which stands today as the oldest continuously used governor’s residence in the country.
While all of the men who have spent a term as governor in that house are meticulously remembered in the history-obsessed state, the black families who served them — who actually helped build the house in 1813 — are largely forgotten. Every new governor brought his own staff, and they were anonymous property. Even the furniture is better recorded.
So when current Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his wife, Dorothy, decided to honor the contributions of enslaved workers, they faced a problem: Nobody knew who they were. Eventually, historians working with a group of citizen advisers and students from Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs managed to unearth a couple of names — among them, Hannah Valentine.
Not only is Valentine an extraordinary character, but her story might have been forgotten if not for the work of historian Norma Taylor Mitchell, who defied her own odds to tell it.
As a graduate student at Duke University in the 1960s, Mitchell was casting around for a dissertation topic when her adviser suggested she look at Campbell’s papers, which had been recently acquired by the university. She quickly discovered something unusual about those papers: They included the letters of a number of women, including the enslaved.
Her adviser was not impressed.
“He said a few antiquarians in Virginia might find that interesting, but that’s not real history,” said Mitchell, 81, now retired from a long career at Troy University. She did her dissertation on Campbell, but came back to those papers years later to write about the women.
And the strongest voice she found was Hannah Valentine’s.
She first turns up simply as Hannah in the records of the Campbell family — in 1811, when she was 17 and pregnant.
David and Mary Campbell were local royalty. One relative had led troops in the Revolution, another served as treasurer of the United States under presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. David Campbell had wealth and land.
The one thing missing from David and Mary’s life was children. Their niece, Virginia, lived with them for long stretches and became a surrogate daughter, but Mary Campbell desperately wanted a baby and was apparently unable to have one.
In 1827, the family built a brick home called Montcalm. Rather than house their enslaved servants in separate quarters, the Campbells — who seemed to crave social interaction — took the unusual step of housing them in the basement of the main home.
Hannah, Mary Campbell’s personal maid, had at least three children by the time they moved into Montcalm. Mitchell notes that her youngest, David, was named after his master and was mulatto. Hannah herself may have been mulatto, Mitchell says.
While it wouldn’t have been uncommon for the white head of the household to have impregnated a young enslaved girl, Mitchell said she doesn’t believe Campbell was the father of Hannah’s children. Living together so closely, she said, the wife would know, and in most cases would shun the enslaved woman. But that was far from the case here: Mary Campbell and Hannah had a tight relationship their whole lives.
The children were part of a thriving extended family taking shape in that basement. An older woman, Lethe Jackson, who had a daughter of her own, had been owned by Mary Campbell’s family and became a de facto sister to Hannah. Michael Valentine, purchased from Richmond as a carriage driver, married Hannah, who was 10 years his senior. They had three children together, including twins, though one died of scarlet fever as an infant.
Hannah managed the house servants and was the center of family life in the basement, where, according to Mitchell, the population numbered between 12 and 20 at various times.
The children of the enslaved women “provided daily drama and entertainment for the Campbells,” Mitchell writes in her essay, “A Slave Woman and Her Family in Abingdon, Virginia.”
“The children even galloped down the hill each day to greet David Campbell as he returned from his work at the courthouse. The Campbells doted on the black infants and toddlers.”
It was still slavery, though. In some of his letters, Campbell worries that his wife is becoming too indulgent. Later in life, Campbell will sell one of Hannah’s sons when the young man gets into trouble with the law.
But for a time, the Campbells and their slaves achieved a rare degree of — for lack of a better word — integration. The women, white and black, sometimes worshiped together at a Methodist church, and they attended weddings and funerals together. The Campbells purchased an enslaved woman named Mary Burwell who was literate, and she and their niece, Virginia Campbell, taught the rest of the slaves to read and write — despite such education being illegal.
Years later, when Lethe Jackson died, the enslaved families held a wake in the basement, mourning and singing spirituals. Mary and Virginia Campbell opened a trap door in the upstairs kitchen and sat around it, listening, for hours.
The white women appreciated “the beautiful singing,” Mitchell said, but knew enough to enjoy it from a distance. “They respected it,” she said. “They knew it wasn’t theirs, but they respected it.”
In 1837, the family’s unusual togetherness was disrupted when David Campbell was elected governor. He, Mary and niece Virginia moved the 300 miles to Richmond, and they took some of their black servants with them.
Michael Valentine and several older children — including David — made the trip, while Hannah, Lethe and other children were left at Montcalm.
For three years, the families were kept apart. As harsh as that was, here again the Campbells showed an unusual measure of permissiveness: They and their slaves stayed in touch through letters.
The letters of Hannah and Lethe apparently were dictated to white friends in the Abingdon community (it was after Richmond that the women learned to write for themselves). But they are rare glimpses into life under enslavement.
They show, as Mitchell writes, that “despite the limitations and restrictions of the system, domestic slavery could become the setting for the development of slave culture and slave power.”
For humor and sheer poetry of expression, it’s hard to beat Lethe Jackson’s letter to Virginia Campbell on April 18, 1838. Her report on life at the farm could stand as free verse, with a soothing rhythm that merits reading aloud: “Everything is going on finely and prosper in my hands — The flowers in the garden are putting out and it begins to look like a little paradise and the Calves and the Chickens and the children are all fine and lively — just waiting your return to complete their happiness — ”
Then she flashes wit: “I am sorry that Masters cow has so little manners as to eat Onions — in the City of Richmond too — well what a disgrace! I wish you to tell her that our Mountain Cows are better trained than that — and that if she will come up here we will learn her to be more genteel and not spoil the Governers milk.”
By the end of the letter Lethe has become philosophical, reflecting on religion and the nature of happiness. It’s easy to forget that this is an enslaved woman writing to a privileged young white girl, but all the more moving to remember when she counsels Virginia to find contentment in “Divine Love & Wisdom” and to aspire to “that heavenly place where all our sorrows will terminate.”
Hannah’s letters are more practical. She’s dealing in news — the business of the household, the comings and goings around town.
But in between best wishes to “Master & Mistress” and updates about who has received letters from whom, Hannah makes it plain that she misses her family. Writing to her daughter Eliza, Hannah asks her to give “My Love to … My Good Husband Michel tell him he can form no Idea how much I Have thought of him since he Left this place and how much I have missed him.”
A few weeks later she writes to her husband, mentioning several times that “I begin to feel anxious to see you all. I am afraid my patience will be quite worn out if you do not come back soon.”
In a long letter to Mary Campbell detailing all the activities of the farm and garden, Hannah asks her to pass along word to Eliza that her daughter Mary (her own granddaughter) is doing better. “I have not found Mary eating dirt since she got her mothers letter,” she says. Eating dirt is a practice that can come from malnourishment or grief.
And on the news that the Campbells might be making a trip to Philadelphia, Hannah says she is “anxious” — that word again — to know which servants will go along. “I hope you will not leave them in Richmond, particularly David,” she says, referring to her cherished youngest son.
It may be a little bold to make demands of the lady of the house, but Hannah Valentine will only grow more assertive over time. Years later, as Mary Campbell becomes feeble, “old Hannah” will virtually run Montcalm, provoking fear even in the former governor.
Near the end of Mary’s life, according to Mitchell, “David Campbell wrote that his wife’s only enjoyment was ‘to get Hannah into the wing and talk old times over with her. This she does every day.’”
Dorothy McAuliffe, who unveiled the plaques just over a year ago, said the letters are especially powerful in the wake of the recent violence in Charlottesville and the debate about Confederate monuments.
“I just think they’re so beautiful,” she said. “There’s resilience but there’s pain, there’s sacrifice but there’s strength. There are all these things in those quotes.”
For architectural historian Bryan Green, who helped a group of VCU students plan the memorial, the letters were an elegant solution to a difficult assignment.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about slavery as an institution,” Green said. But the letters “gave us a chance to talk about it as people — they were a family and they had names.”
The group discussed commissioning sculptures of Valentine and Jackson, “but we didn’t know what they looked like. Anything would’ve been made up,” Green said. “But we do have their words. We have their own words to tell us how they felt. In a sense, the words become the monument.”
These two innovative and well-known historians and speakers will converge at Menokin for an extraordinary weekend of historical reflection, discourse and lessons on new ways to explore and experience historic places and the people who inhabited them.
The weekend is broken up into four sections – a walk through our historic landscape; a rustic dinner at the ruin; the sleepover itself, which involves a guided conversation through new ways of thinking about old topics; and a time of Reflection and Fellowship on Sunday morning. You are invited to select as many of the sections that you’d like to attend. Please use our registration form below to submit your information.
If you plan to camp out overnight, you must provide all of your own camping gear, including tent, sleeping bag, flashlight, etc. These items will not be supplied for you.
If you plan to enjoy one or both of the meals planned for the weekend — or if you can’t come at all but just think this is a really great program — please consider making a donation to offset the cost of the food and supplies. There is limited space available for these events. Once the sections are full, the registration option will be taken down.
Registration form and donation link can be found here.
The program is made possible, in part, by the Signers Society of Menokin.
Friday, September 22 – Sunday 24, 2017 Sleepover Conference
Education Coordinator, Alice French and Menokin Trustee, Dudley Olsson, have organized a Sleepover Conference, which will include Frank Vagnone, international thought leader in innovative and entrepreneurial non-profit management and his blog series, One Night Stand, and Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project.
Franklin Vagnone co-wrote the book: Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. This book is a groundbreaking manifesto that calls for the establishment of a more inclusive, visitor-centered paradigm based on the shared experience of human habitation. He is the President & CEO of Old Salem as well as President of Twisted Preservation.
Image courtesy of Frank Vagnone, One-Night Stand
Image courtesy of Joseph McGill, The Slave Dwelling Project
Bringing together these two important historians and their unique ways of exploring and interpreting American history is a huge win for Menokin. Through this collaboration, we will be able to construct and provide authentic programming experiences in line with our goal to continue to explore ways of interpreting the lives of all the people who once inhabited the site.
More details about programs will be released as they are confirmed.