In a little over an hour, a woman will arrive here on the farm in hopes of finding out more about her great, great grandfather Pleasant. She’s on a research trip to find out more about this man who become a preacher in Ohio but who was raised, as a slave here in Virginia. She’s coming to me for information.

What I can tell her of the man named Pleasant who lived here consists of just a smattering of information gathered from four documents. On an inventory of slaves that was taken on December 28, 1827, Pleasant is listed as one of several men living “below, in, or near the dining room” and that he is twelve and a half years old at that point. On another inventory, this one from June 1, 1840, he’s on the list of men between the ages of 24 and 36. Then, on an undated list of families, Pleasant is listed alone – no wife, no children. Finally, on a “Schedule” of the General’s “Servants,” he is listed as working in the garden and being a “non-professor,” a person who didn’t claim Christianity, or at least didn’t claim it the way the General thought was correct.

A Man Who Was Born in Slavery

To be honest, it’s not likely that the man named Pleasant who lived here is the man that my guest this morning is descended from. The birth dates don’t line up correctly. This disappoints me (and I’m still hoping I might be wrong), but in the very least, we can exchange research and build our own 21st century connection even if the 19th century one doesn’t pan out.

Plus, her visit sparked my return to Pleasant, the gardener. Last night, I sat up until after midnight writing to him, trying to find him in the landscape of the farm that lives in my imagination. For some reason, I kept seeing him with his arms full of bell peppers, his back slightly curved so that his chest held the peppers to his arms. I like this image of him. I know what it is to be a gardener.

But perhaps what most intrigues me is the fact that he was a “non-professor.” As a person whose faith is the grace that holds her life together, I wonder how it was that he survived, if he did, slavery without faith. I wonder if he did have faith, just not in whatever system his master deemed “right.” I wonder what it was to live that life, in that house, without a family to sit with at night and without a God to hear your pleas. And yet, how do you believe in a loving God when you are in the midst of that life, that house?

My letter to him ended this way:

On Sundays, as a man of the fields, a man whose work was not as brutal to body but may have been more taxing to the mind, did you give thanks to the Creator of all, you a “nonprofessor” or did you know that much of what happened to those plants came from your tender care? Or could you see both – your role and God’s in this production? Did you see the General’s role at all?

If I was on the list, Pleasant, I would have a place much the same as yours. Single, childless. Gardener. I might have been the gardener, too, if I’d been a man. But we are different in this – I am a professor. I believe that all this is from God, but then, if I were you, how could I have believed that God would allow this “institution” where a man had to “steal” a pumpkin he grew himself?

The image of the man above is of Mr. Henry Brooks, and comes from this great website “Son of the South” that contains wonderful images and information about the institution of slavery here in the States.

My Other Portraits of People Enslaved on This Farm
Lucy Nicholas

Primus Randall