Race, history, and memories of a Virginia girlhood.
We stopped first at the cemetery. My brother had picked me up at the Philadelphia airport, and we had driven south and west from there—to Baltimore and Frederick, then down through the hills of the Blue Ridge, past the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers at Harpers Ferry and into the Valley of Virginia. Civil War country. The route of the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns. The site of John Brown’s incendiary attempt to foment a slave uprising. The place where we grew up.
Apart from one brief drive-through, I hadn’t been back in nearly two decades—not since a visit the year after my father died. Now we could see next to his grave the dirt already unearthed to make a place for my stepmother’s ashes the next day. We had come for her funeral and in my father’s memory.
I had attended many burials here. The family plot houses uncles, aunts, grandparents, and great-grandparents, but no graves nearly as old as those dug soon after the nearby chapel was built in the 1790s. Edmund Randolph, the U.S. secretary of state and the nation’s first attorney general, a Virginia governor and a member of the Constitutional Convention, is a few yards away, surrounded by a crowd of Randolphs, Pages, Burwells, and Carters— members of the First Families of Virginia who had migrated to this northern end of the Shenandoah Valley when the children of the 18th-century Tide water gentry began to seek new lands and new opportunities. Nestled behind what has come to be known as the Old Chapel, in the quiet of an isolated crossroad, the beautiful little cemetery is so small that no one is much more than a stone’s throw from everyone else.
My brother and I, the only visitors, wandered, reading epitaphs that called up Virginia’s storied past or reminded us of figures from our childhood: the leader of my Girl Scout troop; a teacher from our elementary school; a classmate’s mother, who was an extraordinary horsewoman; and my father’s drinking buddy and his long-suffering wife.
But I wanted to be sure my brother saw one plaque in particular. I remembered its words dimly and had perhaps even tried to forget them altogether. But now here I was again, and I needed to remind myself. I knew it was at the back of the oldest part of the cemetery, and there I found it, partially hidden by leaves and vines, and covered with lichen that nearly obscured its inscription. But I could still read:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE MANY PERSONAL SERVANTS BURIED HERE BEFORE 1865. FAITHFUL AND DEVOTED IN LIFE, THEIR FRIENDS AND MASTERS LAID THEM NEAR THEM IN DEATH WITH AFFECTION AND GRATITUDE THEIR MEMORY REMAINS, THOUGH THEIR WOODEN MARKERS, LIKE THE WAY OF LIFE OF THAT DAY, ARE GONE FOREVER
I.T.G. was my grandmother. In 1957, I was 10 years old. We both lived here.
There is a monument to the Confederate dead in this cemetery; there are markers for unknown Confederates killed in skirmishes nearby. That is complicated enough. But what is to be made of this invocation of slavery offered during my own lifetime? Of this tangible link between who we are now and who we were more than a century and a half ago? Between attitudes and practices that were taught to me as a child and the person I could or would become? Between the Virginia of 1957 or 1857 and the one that—on the very day in February 2019 when I stood in the Old Chapel cemetery— was confronting the crisis of a governor whose medical- school yearbook page had just been discovered to have included a repugnant, racist photograph of a man in blackface and another in Klan robes?
What had my grandmother been thinking? The language and tone are right out of what is sometimes called the “moonlight and magnolias” version of the pre–Civil War South—the romanticization of plantation culture, the erasure of slavery and its brutalities. Here on the plaque we have not slaves but “servants,” “faithful and devoted” rather than subjugated against their will. The words describe affectionate and appreciative masters—a benign domination, not the cruel system of physical brutality, lives stolen, and human beings bought and sold that we know slavery to have been. The marker declares a nostalgia for an era, a “way of life” that is “gone forever.” Gone, we might say, with the wind. Margaret Mitchell’s book, published in 1936, and the movie that followed in 1939 were still exerting their influence in 1957, as they have well into our own time. And I think, too, of the “Mammy” memorial approved by the U.S. Senate in 1923, and the numerous “Mammy” monuments proposed at that time across the South.
But this wasn’t 1923 or even 1936. It was 1957. Why did my grandmother go to the trouble—and expense—of erecting the plaque at this particular time? It was more than just an expression the idealization of the Old South had solidified among white people in the years after Appomattox, views that she had been indoctrinated to embrace from the time of her birth in Tennessee in 1894.
The year 1957 was a crucial time in Virginia and in the South generally. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, and the implications of that decision were beginning to become clear. In September 1957, nine African American students entering the previously all-white Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas, were greeted by a segregationist mob supported, per the order of the governor, by the state’s National Guard. President Dwight Eisenhower was compelled to mobilize the 101st Airborne Division to enforce integration and uphold the law. Closer to home, Senator Harry Byrd—who lived just a few miles from the Old Chapel graveyard—had called for “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Engineering a plan to close rather than desegregate schools, Byrd and his aroused followers were transforming the 1957 Virginia governor’s election into a referendum on race and, in a broader sense, on the morality and legitimacy of the white South’s discriminatory assumptions and practices. In the face of such controversy and opprobrium, the plaque invoked a redemptive narrative of the Southernpast, one designed to reassuring a society under siege that it was not just right but righteous. It proclaimed a virtuousness fashioned out of a fantastical history, a virtuousness to be reinforced by the generous act of noticing and remembering that the plaque was meant to be.
But why did my grandmother choose this graveyard and this statement to subdue her unease about the challenges to her taken-for-granted world—her unease, I imagine (and hope), about that very world itself? Why a plaque? It wasn’t filling a gaping need. In both its language and its very existence, it protests too much.
Local circumstances had generated an additional motivation. The far end of the cemetery—the land beyond the plaque—had housed graves of enslaved people, though their locations and markers had all but disappeared. As a child, I remember hearing discussions among the adults in my family about how growing demand for graveyard plots had led to a consideration of extending the white cemetery into the area the slave cemetery occupied. This was not understood as sharing—and certainly not as integrating— the space. Instead, the older graves would essentially be erased from the landscape and from the minds and memories of the white church and its members.
But not from my grandmother’s. The puzzling plaque represented her discomfort with (though not, significantly, any overt objection to) a plan to so callously disrespect the dead. She meant to remember and memorialize them with a permanent stone marker that would not rot and disappear. But as a white southern woman imbued with a conventional understanding of the past and its racial practices, she was memorializing a world that had never been. And she was perpetuating a narrative about race that has continued to poison Virginia and the nation more than a century and a half after slavery’s end.
VIRGINIA HAS a long history to confront. Our nation’s experience with slavery began there, when some 20 captive Africans arrived on a warship in Jamestown in 1619. Black bondage existed in Virginia for close to a century longer than black freedom has. Slavery made colonial Virginia prosperous, creating a plantation society founded on tobacco production, social and economic stratification, and unfree labor. It also produced a class of white owners whose daily witness to the degradations of bondage instilled in them a fierce devotion to their own freedom. They were determined to be the masters not just of their households, their estates, and their laborers, but also of their society, their polity, and their destiny. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason— slaveholders all. That so many of the Founding Fathers, including the leaders of the Revolution and the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, were slaveholders is both an irony and a paradox. As Samuel Johnson remarked with scorn for the revolutionaries across the Atlantic: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
But in another sense, as the historian Edmund Morganargued so powerfully nearly half a century ago, slavery and freedom were not at odds, but integrally intertwined, even mutually constitutive. It was the unfreedom of 40 percent of Virginia’s population that made the liberty of the rest imaginable as well as materially possible. The economic viability of both the colony and the new nation depended on slave labor. And so did the viability of the Revolution’s political experiment and the Founders’ republican vision. The Virginia gentry could countenance the extension of freedom to some men because it was withheld from others; the exclusion of a portion of the population from the polity, their subjugation and control, made possible the advocacy of equality for the rest. The nation conceived in liberty was also the nation conceived in slavery. The state of Virginia and the country it did so much to create were born out of a set of conflicting commitments that have destabilized the republic ever since. Yet the presence of this paradox at the heart of the Founders’ vision is perhaps the good news, for freedom has had its own driving logic, has claimed its own agenda, has propelled us over time toward better angels.
In the earliest years of colonial Virginia, the nature and extent of bondage remained undefined. While most Africans were unfree laborers, some exercised liberties that later would be unthinkable. Distinctions between white indentured servants and bound black laborers became firm and rigid only over time. As the system of slavery was established during the 17th century, perpetual inherited unfreedom gradually became the exclusive fate of Africans and their descendants.
A century separated the legal codification of slavery in Virginia and the beginnings of the revolutionary movement. The Founders had no memory of a society without bondage and no experience of a world where blackness and degradation had not been conjoined—where white supremacy and black inferiority had not been enshrined in both law and culture. The racial definition of American slavery placed yet another contradiction at the new nation’s heart, one that transcended the political difficulties of reconciling slavery and freedom. What did it mean to be human? This question posed a fundamental challenge to the execution of the laws: Was a slave a person or property? Could slaves be seen as having free will and thus legal accountability for their actions? Antebellum Southern judges struggled with these inconsistencies. “A slave is not in the condition of a horse,” a Tennessee judge insisted. “The laws [cannot] … deprive him of his many rights which are inherent in man.” But a North Carolina judge disagreed, baldly underscoring the ultimate logic of slavery: “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect … Such obedience is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body.” Commitment to a republican form of government was incompatible with the absolute power that defined the system of slavery.
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