SHARED IN FULL FROM THE WASHINGTON POST
The forced absence of slavery: Rare letters to a Virginia governor give voice to the faceless and forgotten
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.
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.”