Yesterday, P and I dropped off a load of wood that will become the mobile chicken coop at our new farm, and the current owners were there, loading the last of their things. We were thrilled to meet them and have some time to chat and thank them for the gift they are giving us.
They wanted to show us a couple of things about the house, too. The first was a long flat stone that we’d noted under some peonies in the front yard. “This was the stepping stone. You stood on it and climbed onto your horse,” the owner said. He even demonstrated the step up. It was lovely.
Then, he pointed over to a mound that we’d all noticed as we visited the place. The last time I’d been there, Dad and I had stood there and tried to determine what it was. “The old well, maybe,” Dad guessed. “Or the foundation of something.” I had no idea except to know that in places over 200 years old changes in the landscape indicate intention, human intervention.
Yesterday, the owner pointed there and said, “The mound there. That’s where the old slave quarter stood.”
If you know me at all, you know this moment was holy to me. An honor and a duty and a blessed obligation tied up in a brief sentence. Now, now I knew where these 5 people who were enslaved on this place lived. I could almost see the building – two rooms probably . Stone foundation. Plank walls. A stone chimney.
The rise in the earth was probably from the tumbled chimney and foundation. A chimney that was – very likely – pushed over when the building was taken down – I want to write destroyed, but I can’t quite yet lay that much evasion on the family that used to own this place.
I do note, though, that all the other buildings still stand – the smokehouse, the wood shed, even the outhouse with it’s “3-seater.” And yet, the slave quarter – it has been pushed over and hidden. There has to be intention there.
This forced absence is too familiar for me to be surprised. Slave quarters all over the South were destroyed – through apathy or willful action – and yet, to see it happen here – on a place that I will sign my name to – it weighs heavy.
The owner also told us about a photo he’d seen at a nearby church, where the African American people in the image were labelled as “Effie’s Tom” and such. He shared that with just the right touch of shame – our shared shame at history – and also with energy because he knew – given what he knew of me – that I would want to know that we might have images of these some of these enslaved people. I don’t know that he understood the rareness of that photo, but somehow he knew it was important to pass it’s existence on.
The images of those people – of any enslaved people – are rare and treasured. It belongs to their descendants, and I will do all I can to find all these people and show them to each other.
In time, P and I – with the help of archaeologists and historians and African American ceremony experts – will take this small foundation and make it a place of honor with a plaque and a restoration that is wise and appropriate. We will tell everyone who comes that this was a slave quarter, that people who had very little that was their own called this place “home” and did what was most precious to them in this small private space. We will do our best to build back their stories and make them heard.
Tonight, when we arrive at our new home, the first thing I will do – before even going into our new house – is pour out a libation on that foundation. I will stand silent and listen with my heart as wide open as I can. Then, I will promise.
“I will do all I can with all that I have to honor your life, your words, your work, and your memory. Here, you will be honored and revered because you are precious.”
If you are interested in learning more about slave dwellings around the U.S., please visit – and support – my friend Joseph McGill’s work with The Slave Dwelling Project. I will be inviting Joe to come sleep here on our farm.