It’s complicated: the city of Mobile, the landscape, Oakleigh Villa, and the historic narrative of the people involved. Just like the live oaks that surround the Villa, it is almost impossible to convey the level of overlapped, interconnected, subplots that define a historic site, but Oakleigh stands out in its complexities. Perhaps, for me, the reason why Oakleigh’s story is so tangled is because most of the true story exists in far-off, remote, and at times hidden & decaying remnants of the built environment and as far away as New Orleans and Virginia. It spans eras involving trans-Atlantic slavery, the domestic slave trade, the Jim Crow Era, the Civil Rights Movement, all the way up to the present.
Oakleigh as a house and site is quite beautiful. When I first approached, I was taken by the beautiful live oak grove that grows like moss around the crisp, clean white house. There is something about the deep green oaks forming a frame into which the house is displayed that heightens the “object-ness” of this historic site. So full is the oak tree canopy that the sun actually takes on a greenish hue. It is hard to take an ugly photograph of this house.
And that is a big part of the discordance at this site. Beauty is so powerful, so pervasive, that it is almost quite impossible to get past that layer, and grab hold of something deeper, and more meaningful than simply outward attractiveness. In some ways, I felt like the publically interpreted narrative was as thin and delicate as one of Oakleigh’s lace curtain – as if the filter through with the sun passed, took on a more primary role than the sun itself.
I arrived in Mobile, Alabama, after the flight from New York City was late and I missed my connecting flight in Charlotte, NC (my luggage continued on that missed flight without me). I knew that I had luggage, I just didn’t know where it was. It was odd feeling to factually know that something existed, but no one had any documentation to validate that knowledge, and I was put into the position to prove its existence. I will be honest and tell you that I became a tad pushy when the flight with my luggage took off without me.
Once situated in my hotel (reunited with my luggage), which was on the 14th floor of a tall building, I became acutely aware of the manufacturing, transportation and landscape of the city of Mobile. From that vantage point, I could see that even today, Mobile has a somewhat old-school feel about its operations. From my hotel window, I could see Mobile bay, the tankers, trains, highways, airplanes, and manufacturing plants – all within the same view field. This perspective allowed me a tangible visual that would become quite useful in understanding why and how Oakleigh Villa came to be. Mobile has always been a place of active, intense commerce, production, and trade. Historically, you came to Mobile because it was a trading port, to make money, or if you were a slave. What I was to learn at Oakleigh, was that all of these were interconnected in a complex web of economics and the built environment. Nothing ever seemed to hold still long enough to understand it.
Herein lies the beginning of the complication. The house was, to the best of our knowledge, almost entirely constructed in 1837 by anonymous slave labor. The original owner of Oakleigh, among other business ventures, ran his own brick manufacturing facility. The man owned 18 slaves. Based upon the documented value of the Oakleigh slaves, they most likely were forced to work at the brick factory or as house slaves. When you walk into this house it is easy to see the beauty and to forget who created those bricks, who crafted that beautiful spiral staircase, created that beautiful molding and window, and who maintained those beautiful wide plank floors.
Now, I don’t cite these as an egregious, fatal offense for Oakleigh Villa. I can think of thousands of others that have similar issues to overcome, and the staff is doing an admirable job at trying to convey this larger, more inclusive message. It’s just that the layers of human stories at Oakleigh are dense and take on so many difficult subjects, that, like multiple conversations at one time, some louder voices are heard over the other, softer ones.
To me, the original owner is but a short footnote to the larger story. It is the slaves (and later servants) who built & maintained Oakleigh, who are the real heroes. The owner had a series of feast or famine businesses, when he was doing well financially at the brick manufacturing company, he was able to pay for the construction Oakleigh, and the ownership of 18 slaves, from profits accumulated through this company. In fact, bricks that form the ground floor base of the villa are products of not only slave production at the factory, but also slave production on site. One of his other businesses was representing plantations at the cotton exchange. There is also documentation that he assisted his Plantation clients with the sale and transportation of human commodity – slaves.
As of 1808, because of changes in American law, it became illegal to transport captive human cargo (slaves) across the Atlantic. Because of this policy shift, the only legal trading of slave labor had to occur with slaves that already existed in the Unites States or children who were to be born under enslavement. The details of this “domestic slave trade” have been known for some time through the work of Zora Neal Hurston and the WPA Writer’s Collective, but just now making the mainstream awareness.
I visited Erin Greenwald curator of the groundbreaking, now traveling exhibit, PURCHASED LIVES. This exhibition begins outlining the complicated network that was the US Domestic Slave Trade Market. The domestic slave trade is distinct from the trans-Atlantic slave trade because those humans sold in the domestic trade market as slaves were already enslaved within the USA. Although most African-born peoples shipped to the USA were first “seasoned as slaves” in the Caribbean or Africa, it is at this point, after the first generation of American-born slaves, that a forced cultural distinction takes place between those African-born (who continued to retain their lost culture and usually were the instigators of rebellions) vs those Creole or American-born, and “enculturated” slaves. “The Slave Ship” by Marcus Rediker will provide further background on this subject.
The second form of research comes in a new book, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, by Ned and Constance Sublette. This book also begins to detail, as Elon Cook stated to me, “The act of subjecting an already vulnerable population to extreme emotional and reproductive violence”. Documentation shows us that the owner of Oakleigh, as a representative for his plantation clients, sent slaves via ship to New Orleans to be sold at the slave markets. It is understood that Oakleigh’s owner benefited from commissions on the sale of such cargo, thus supporting the construction of the villa in Mobile.
It is from such earnings as these domestic slave sales, that when I look at this house and its considerable beauty and well-constructed craftsmanship, I also imagine the legacy of the slave sales in New Orleans, as well as the slave crew forced to construct the house. It really is impossible to fully experience the narrative of Oakleigh without integrating and understanding the systematic use of humans, as both commodity as well as labor.
On the surface, the house exemplifies the classic stereotype of a “Southern, Antebellum Plantation House”. Certaintly, the house’s architecture, and aesthetics document a very specific period of fashionable interest in the Greek revival. It was never a “Plantation” in the true sense of the word (it was considered a “country villa”), nor is it curated in its pre-civil war condition. When the house was turned into a museum in 1956 it was, as many historic sites, romantically decorated and furnished. It looks as if “Gone With The Wind”, was used as an accurate representation of a Southern Home. Oakleigh’s present historic interpretation is somewhat narrow. It’s not as much a “period of interpretation” as it is a “theme”.
Although its social history is multi-layered, the house proper has a deceptively simple layout. It was originally a single story home, elevated 10 feet above the red soil of Mobile, Alabama. It consisted of a large front porch (now under restoration), a front parlor, back parlor, two large bedrooms (library), and several smaller ancillary rooms. The kitchen and support functions for the house were placed in out buildings. It wasn’t until later that the house’s open-air ground level was fully enclosed and made into living spaces. The house today is much larger than originally built.
It was considered a rural Villa; whose function was to allow the occupants the ability to connect directly with the fresh air of the countryside. Plentiful porches, high ceilings, and large walk-through windows all contributed to the permeability of the house. I was told that there is no record of the ancillary outbuildings, slave quarters (if any existed), or the definitive appearance of the landscape when built.
My “One-Night Stand” began with a dinner. These “one-night stands” are my attempt to experience historic house museums and sites as domestic spaces. In these blog posts, my hope is to present a wider view of what they can tell us beyond simply beautiful things.
At the suggestion of one of one of our new Mobilian friends, Felicia Bryant, we ordered our take-out meal from “Cozy Brown’s Kitchen – Soul Food”. This restaurant is owned by Cozy Brown himself and is considered a Mobilian favorite. It rests in Prichard, Alabama, which borders Mobile and the African-American community of “Africatown”.
In researching this “One-Night Stand”, I looked at 2013, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, which was written by Adrian Miller, The Jemima Code (2016) by Toni Tipton-Martin. Both books place the contributions of Africans and African-Americans within the larger food landscape of the United States. Some scholars have made the case that the roots of American Cuisine can be found in the expertise and recipes of Black Culture. Beginning with the leftover food rations that owners provided to their slaves, and continuing 100 years later well into the Jim Crow era, the notion of Soul Food (or a certain type of traditional African-American cuisine) defined a cultural identity.
In wanting to understand more about this cultural connection between African-American cuisine and social history of the South, I visited the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB), in New Orleans. After speaking with the friendly founder and director, Liz Williams, perhaps one of the most valuable lessons from my time at SoFAB, was that cooking and eating is essentially a participatory act. Everyone involved, from the growing of the food, marketing, preparation, all the way to those of us who simply sit at the table and eat it, collaborate on forming the complex matrix of CUISINE. In many ways, that is exactly how I was beginning to feel about Oakleigh; everyone involved with the house played some role in its execution, but not everyone’s voice was heard as part of the story. What this house needed was not the exclusion of narratives, but rather the expertise to include disparate elements into a single theme.
In this way, I particularly liked how the concept of a communal food prep experience dovetailed with my Oakleigh “One-Night Stand”. I always feel that there is a relationship between the food I am eating and the environment within which I am eating it. The historic narrative of such an act of eating could be felt through the built environment. Our meal at Oakleigh Villa consisted of baked chicken, dirty rice, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, cornbread, and sweet iced tea. For dessert, we had peach cobbler and banana bread pudding. It reminded me of growing up in North Carolina. Everything was delicious. There is a reason why this restaurant is so locally famous.
In wanting to experience a wider narrative at Oakleigh, we decided to take our meal in the servant’s kitchen of Oakleigh Villa. It is positioned on the ground floor of the house. As mentioned, the ground floor used to be open air and primarily the domain of the slaves’ activities, however, following the Civil War and continuing into the 1930’s the ground floor was enclosed and made into more living spaces. Part of that renovation work included a servant’s kitchen and areas for servant activities. The world of the Black servant during the “Jim Crow” era is unique, and in my opinion, should be interpreted as an important period in American history, and Oakleigh has the possibility to tell this story because these spaces right now are still actively used by the staff.
That is why I chose to eat in this 1930’s room and not in the upstairs, fancy 1860’s dining room: different eras of course, but similar social divisions. I wanted to know if Oakleigh Villa staff had any information on any of the servants who worked in the house during the time this kitchen was actively in use. My hosts are presently doing this research. So far they have found 4 people who were house slaves and later servants.
From 1852 until 1916, The Irwin Family called Oakleigh home. Almost 4 generations of Irwin’s walked the halls of this estate; alongside them were the Gaithers’ and Bonners’, two African American families who worked as slaves prior to the Civil War and domestic laborers following the war and emancipation. The Gaithers’ and Bonners’ were very much a part of the Irwin family and equally represent a piece of the Oakleigh story.
Cecile Broadus was born a slave around 1849. Her husband Jacob Gaither was born in 1845. Cecile had a daughter, named Lottie in 1863. Both Cecile and Lottie worked for the Irwin family after they were emanicipated. Lottie had a daughter and named her after her mother, Cecile. Cecile eventually worked for the Irwin family as well, along with Samuel Bonner. Both families lived several streets over, though we do know from the census that Lottie and her daughter Cecile lived at Oakleigh in 1880.
The only thing we know about the Cole family servants is one of their names- Allen, the gardener. His wife was the housekeeper. We do not know for sure if they lived in the barracks building after the Cole family moved it on their property in 1919 (they were not listed in the 1920 census, but could have lived there between 1920-1927). Walter and Daisy Benson, the Denniston family servants, lived in the barracks building in 1930.
It was at this point in my stay that I was introduced to an entire world of Mobile that rests silently, and hidden among the beautiful live oaks, off in the literal and figurative fringe of the city itself. All I had to do was to look at the family photograph (above), and take note, not of the seated & resting white Oakleigh owners, but rather the 3 black servants (and one child) standing way off in the fringe of the image and out of focus. It is amazing how simple things take on entirely new meanings once you are aware of the complete story.
At the facilitation of my host, Melanie Thornton, Director of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society, a two-hour tour of Mobile was set up for Johnny and I. Our tour guide was the young and astute Lauren Vanderbijl. She is a scholar of the black heritage of Mobile, Alabama, and gives private tours of often overlooked historic sites of importance which add context to the more mainstream historic sites.
I asked Lauren to fill in the blanks regarding the lives and existence of Oakleigh’s slaves and later the “Jim Crow” era servants of later owners. I told her that I was also interested in the broader story of blacks in Mobile and I would appreciate anything she could tell & show me.
Her response was, “I could go on for days, How much time do you have!”.
We jumped in her car and took off. From the moment we left the parking lot of Oakleigh, she started talking and we didn’t stop until over 2 hours later. It also seemed noticeable to me that the further we traveled AWAY from Oakleigh, the more things came into focus. I felt like, once the blinding “attractiveness” of the historic site faded from my eyes, the greater possibility there was for me to understand the larger social, cultural ramifications of its existence.
Prior to 1808, Mobile was the #1 port in the US that traded in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although the old slave market site is now a parking lot, a historical marker marks the location. After driving by the Slave market site, we headed directly to an area called “Africatown”. This residential area is core to the black experience in Mobile. Its existence begins from a very sordid, illegal act of secretly bringing slaves across the Atlantic and ends with a self-imposed shipwreck (Look this up online. Fascinating and appalling).
Our first stop in Africatown was the cemetery. Lauren stopped the car on the side of the road and we all got out. The heat & humidity of the Alabama Gulf coast air fogged up my camera as I tried to take pictures.
As we walked into what initially appeared to be an overgrown field, I was told that it was a cemetery. I followed Lauren into the naturalized graveyard, which was hardly noticeable over the knee height grass and weeds. She told us to watch out for snakes. She pointed out important grave markers with particular emphasis on the individuals who were born into slavery and then later lived as a freeman.
After walking through the graveyard, our host drove us up into a shelved parking lot. The site looked like a trash dump. I wondered to myself why we were in this spot? She stopped the car and told us that this is the “Africatown” “visitors center”. To gain a fuller understanding of this area, please check out Sylviane Diouf’s book “Dreams of Africa”.
Stunned, I got out of the car and simply stood there. Never before had I been able to actually see how a marginalized population could watch its history just simply decay away. The city of Mobile had placed a mobile home on the site to be used as a welcome center for people interested in visiting this extraordinarily important historic site. There was also a memorial placed to the founders of this residential site.
In reality, what I was seeing in front of me was the result of utter neglect and disregard for a legacy. The memorial, which consisted of a brick wall with the busts of two important members of the community, was overgrown with weeds and the two busts had been destroyed, the heads removed. The contrast between Oakleigh’s romanticized perfection and this site was stunning. Who allowed this to occur? Surely the story behind the condition of this site is complicated. Perhaps what was needed here was not a memorial, but something else? Perhaps there is a limit to what history and preservation can fix?
We got back in the car and our host drove us around the area of Africatown. Although in desperate need of assistance, the area is still an active residential area. The story of this community is complicated and in fact is still the result of the same economic and social conditions that, under the institution of slavery, formed it. Street after street revealed significant, intact and inhabited homes, yet in need of repair. My mind had a difficult time teasing apart the images that I was viewing contrasting with the image of Oakleigh Villa.
I didn’t take any pictures. (The pictures I am showing here are from a Google search). I was ashamed of myself. I went there seeking information about history and preservation, and what I was faced with, was the realization that for many, history is not history – for many, the same reality exists today as it did 100 years ago. This is an important and powerful message. Historic sites should be about TODAY, not the past. No one was restoring these homes, nor, in contrast to Oakleigh Villa, were they considered by many to be of aesthetic and historic importance. This is where real people live, with real lives, and real problems.
As we drove out of Africa Town, Lauren took us to a series of manufacturing factories situated directly adjacent to the homes. She told me that one of the reasons that these factories were located in this area was that the “black” section of town was here and the workers could live nearby. In addition, the nicer sections of Mobile didn’t want the smoke and fumes from the production plants to affect their environment. This issue continues even into today. The air quality in and around “Africatown” is some of the most toxic in the area. I rolled down my window and took in the smell of the air. This was a far cry from the rarified environment of Oakleigh. I was struck by how different the two scenes were, yet a part of the same story.
We drove out of Africa Town and toward a section of town called Down the Bay. This section of Mobile is where many slaves lived, and later, many black servants resided. This is where I learned about a very particular form of slavery in the Deep South, “Urban Slavery”. “Urban Slavery” consisted of a Master, who owned slaves but the enslaved did not live on site (as in larger rural agricultural plantations). Luckily, Melanie Thornton’s research into “Urban slavery” in Mobile, is now included in Oakleigh’s tour narrative and she shared with me more information regarding this unique form of bondage.
10% – 20% of all slavery populations lived and worked in cites, they worked at all levels of society. Any work that you can imagine (skilled and unskilled) slaves performed them. They were not controlled by the agricultural calendar – they were controlled by the urban needs (not the yearly cycle). A lot more geographic mobility that plantation slaves. The residential areas were usually on the fringe of the city and contained residents that were both slaves as well as a freeman. The gender relationship of slaves in urban situations tends to be a majority of women due to household work. Some city municipalities themselves owned slaves, or “rented” them from their owners (IE: think “The US White House”.)
Often, the urban slaves lived in areas of town that were heavily guarded and the slaves themselves had to travel with papers designating the ownership of his/her person and which locations that slave could travel to/from. This is the social and economic situation within which that Oakleigh’s slaves (and later the servants) existed. Oakleigh’s slaves traveled between their home in Down the Bay, to Oakleigh owner’s brick manufacturing facility on Water Street and Oakleigh Villa itself.
There are no historic records showing that Oakleigh’s owners housed any of his 18 slaves on the immediate villa grounds. We do know there was a separate kitchen building (original building now demolished). What we don’t know for 100% is if, as was typical of that time, any slaves lived in that building. Oakleigh’s lost outdoor kitchen and possible slave quarters is an example of why my friend, Joe McGill (Founder of THE SLAVE DWELLING PROJECT), travels the United States and sleeps and conducts public forums in extant slave dwellings. His work is extremely valuable and brings to light the importance of these, often lost locations.
There are no records existing that give us a clue to the living location nor conditions of the Oakleigh slaves. Slavery descendants are put in the position of having to validate something that has no documentation – very few wrote down their history – they only wrote down Oakleigh’s heritage. We only have records of this section of Mobile starting in the 1880’s into the “Jim Crow” era. By the 1950’s, Down the Bay was the target of a complete urban renewal project. As if to erase the existence of this neighborhood, almost everything was demolished and curving suburban street forms replaced the rectilinear urban city grid, and the older wood shotgun houses were replaced with suburban ranch houses. Driving through the residential area today makes you think of almost any other suburban tract development. The only remains from the antebellum, reconstruction eras are a few isolated homes that survived urban renewal and a series of photographs that were taken before the demolition occurred.
After more travel, our host dropped me off. This had been one of the most interesting, sad, and enlightening tours that I have ever taken. My morning tour placed Oakleigh, it’s history, people, and culture, within the larger social construct of Mobile, Alabama and the institution of slavery. Elements from this tour continued to (and still do) surface as I write about my “One-night stand” at Oakleigh. My mind wanders back to the evening before while finishing dinner.
After dinner, I took the dirty, used dishes, and cleaned them to a shiny glow. I remember noticing how nice the silver looked up against the dishes. As I dried the dishes, I looked out into the darkening landscape shrouded in massive live oaks and thought of the slaves or servants, after working all day and well into the night for Oakleigh’s owner, had to walk home back to Down the Bay.
On the wall next to the darkening landscape, an old historic wall plaque that designated landmarked sites in Mobile. This must have been an old marker that was nailed onto Oakleigh that signified that it was a landmarked site. I asked my host about the shield. She responded, “The shield is the former seal of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society, similar to the former City of Mobile seal, which displays the flags that Mobile has flown under. Both have been changed”.
I wondered to myself if anyone from Africatown or Down the Bay took offense to the Confederate flag being illustrated on this seal?
I wiped down the table and turned off the lights in the servants’ kitchen. The sun had set and the house started to take on a vacuous quality. Before, when the blazing heat of the day was pounding through the windows, the dark interior felt cool and sheltering, but now it began to feel empty. Before the sun activated the spaces and the artifacts, now the artifacts seemed lifeless. What seemed shiny and beautiful earlier in the day now seemed dull.
I walked around the house noticing the changes in the atmosphere from earlier in the day to the evening. I found myself retreat into the one room that felt alive and welcoming, the room that is now interpreted as the library. I had set up my computer and books on the library table. The table was placed directly in the center of the room with the chair situated such that my back was to the door. As the darkness increased, I have to say that it freaked me out a bit. I rotated the chair and all of my stuff 180 degrees so that I faced the door.
It was getting late, and I was a bit tired from my day’s activities. I went online and started to review the day’s news. I noticed that it was the last day for the Democratic Convention. I had watched the entire Republican Convention, and I have watched almost all of the Democratic Convention as well. The Clinton acceptance speech was coming online live in about 15 minutes, so I choose to watch it while I sat in Oakleigh’s library.
Now I bet no one will believe me when I tell you this, but after a few minutes of watching the Clinton acceptance speech, my eye wandered a bit. In the distance, on the wall directly above my computer was a portrait of Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederate States of America). I looked around the rest of the room, and I noticed a handful of other Confederate-related items. On the mantel was a bust of Robert E. Lee (General of the Confederate States of America), and on the wall beneath Jefferson Davis was another illustration honoring Confederate soldiers. It all gave me some pause. In such a contentious Presidential election year, with profound issues of race, immigration, and economics at the top of the discussion, I was listening to Clinton, the first US female presidential nominee, address the very same issues that drove these men on the wall and mantel to civil war.
My mind began to think about the angry discussion regarding Confederate memorials, statues, flags and symbols – and how these items had become the targets of resistance. I wondered how these items in the Oakleigh Library would make “Black Lives Matter” or #TakeEmDownNOLA advocates feel if they ever visited the house and took a tour? Would they be seen as historic fragments, memorializing and honoring individuals, or would they be seen in a larger context as icons of race-related oppression? How would a house museum thoughtfully deal with this issue? Would some people never enter this historic site because of the historic marker nailed to the front door?
I contacted Michael Quess Moore, Founder of the the group #TakeEmDownNOLA, to ask him few questions about historic sites and the public perception of their meaning. Quess believes that there is a difference between authentic acknowledgment of an individual or event, versus veneration of such things. He makes the point that in Historic houses and sites certain artifacts may be original to the situation, and as historic artifacts can tell a part of the story. His objection is when these objects were not original to the site, and used later (while turning the house or site into a museum) as a “false narrative”. I asked him if he would visit a site dedicated to a Confederate supporter, his response was, “I would be inclined to never visit such a site at all unless absolutely necessary for the purpose of research”.
Following the Convention speech, I turned off the computer and lights and walked throughout the house, taking note of the rooms and turning off lights. I walked out onto the large verandas, both to look at the landscape at night as well as look back into the house as an observer. While I was on the front porch a family walked up the street, they had two dogs and they were throwing a ball and playing fetch with the animals. I waved and yelled hello. They responded and we joked about how hot it still was! My view of them and the neighborhood was odd, I stood about 20 feet above the ground and I was able to see quite a distance from my vantage point. It made for a privileged position of surveillance and dominance. I could overhear their conversation as they walked off far into the distance.
The bedroom I was to sleep in is a direct mirror of the library space where I set up my computer. The room was decorated with pretty things, nice furniture, and the light street shone through the lace curtains. The only sounds I heard were crickets and the occasional train horn in the distance. I truly felt isolated, even though the villa rests squarely in the middle of a densely populated residential community, I was elevated above the ground and the porches acted like a filter against the world outside of my room.
My clothes were hung in the armoire and thrown on the floor, suitcase open, with my shoes tossed by the settee. I changed into my nightclothes, turned off the light and got in bed. You could see the tangeled, large live oaks through the thin curtains.
I woke up to the slight atmospheric changes of the sun pushing through the heavy tree canopy. As I lay in my bed, I noticed my clothes thrown over the settee. The filtered sunlight started to move over my shirt and shorts. I know that historically, house slaves would have been up and preparing for the owners to awake. They most likely would have been quietly stepping through the rooms, getting clothes prepared, breakfast cooked, opening the drapes, and cleaning the floors. It is as if an entire world were already awake, and preparing for your arrival.
I got out of bed to walk to the bathroom, and I started to take notice of how everything was moving under the early sunlight. Walking down the hall, I peered into the various other rooms that lined my path to, like a voyeur, watch the sensuous re-awaking of each room and its furniture. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the strong, thin streams of light entering the black rooms through the windows.
I ended up in the library. I checked my email, read the news online, and picked up some Oakleigh articles and folders for research. The sun continued to grow in strength and my ability to more easily read increased. I could see out of the Eastern facing windows onto one of the deep porches. By now the sun was considerably higher and strongly dappled by the live oaks. The rays deeply penetrated on the porch floor, into the library and began to engage the furniture in contorted shadows.
AT FIRST, the darkness of the rooms made it difficult to see and comprehend the furniture shapes. Occasionally, a reflective surface would shine brighter than others and become the dominant object or surface in the room. There was also a moment when, while working from my vantage point, the vibrant green of the exterior landscape went from visually dominant to DOMINANCE shifting to the room and activity within the room. This occurred once enough sunlight had illuminated the room so that it took on an identity of its own. It occurred to me that my visual perception of Oakleigh changed according to both the level and direction of sunlight. When dimly illuminated, the house felt thin and fragile. Once it became more fully illuminated, I was able to better see all of the nuanced particles of its collective situation.
Do I need to state the obvious analogy?
I left Oakleigh Villa feeling emotionally mixed. I felt like it was at a crossroad. Just like the front porch of the house is undergoing restoration, the house’s interpretation seems to be undergoing the same thoughtful restoration. The stewards could choose to be a status quo “antebellum plantation house” that glosses over the larger social issues in favor of furniture and dishes, OR it could aggressively throw itself into the future of historic sites and embrace what few others have. I lean on the positive in this case, because I feel as if this site is in good hands with the present staff, and under the leadership of historian Melanie Thornton, the new Executive Director, they are consciously and earnestly seeking out new information to illuminate the larger social, political and economic narrative.
After all, it was my hosts who contacted me via Twitter asking me to “sleep over” in the first place. It was my hosts who insisted that I take the tour of African-American sites in Mobile; It was my hosts who, unexpectedly, sent me ship manifests documenting the domestic slave trade of its original owner; and it was my hosts who openly discussed the most inclusive narrative of the house. I never once felt resistance from the staff regarding my probing questions or comparisons.
The potential power of Oakleigh is that, if its current Board and Staff continue seeking, it can span an enormous spectrum of important themes. These themes are incredibly inclusive and can help transcend the history of slavery at Oakleigh beyond merely obligatory mention of historic facts, to fully engage in current dialogue relative to the lingering effects of this pervasive institution. There is the strong possibility for Oakleigh Villa to become a national model for interpreting, not the “attractiveness” of the site, but rather a deeper, perhaps less “pretty” part of the story – the domestic slave trade through the Jim Crow Era. I think this expanded narrative would be able to reach out to those who, presently, would never, ever think of visiting this historic site. It has the potential to be, just like Laura Plantation and Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, a destination historic site that clearly and unapologetically tells their complicated, messy story.
Imagine one day visiting the Oakleigh site, and encountering “Anarchist Tag” labels on all of the pretty things decorating the house. Now imagine looking at those tags, and realizing that each tag stipulates the value of the item in 1837 dollars alongside the value of the item in slave exchanges, commodities, and lives. Someone smart out there, please show me that this can be done –
Imagine that Oakleigh tracks down buildings that were built using Oakleigh’s slave-produced bricks and begin to cull a community of sites that work together to honor the slaves that produced those bricks.
Imagine, just as we are restoring the building, we restore the narrative by adding flesh to the anonymous names of the slave ship manifest or to the slaves that built the front porch spiral stair.
Now that would be something to experience.
I offer my free consulting services to sites that are willing to try such changes. Contact me TwistedPreservation.com (Franklin Vagnone).
Melanie Thornton, Executive Director (Mobile, AL)
The Board & Staff of Oakleigh Villa, David Newell – President; Bob Allan – Board Member, (Mobile, AL)
Lauren Vanderbijl, Our great Mobile tour guide (Mobile, AL)
Felicia Bryant, Our new friend who suggested “Cozy Brown’s Soul Food” restaurant (Mobile, AL)
Michael Quess Moore – Founder of #TakeEmDownNOLA (New Orleans, LA)
Elon Cook – Program Coordinator for The Center for Reconciliation (Providence, RI) and Director for The Robbins House (Concord, MA)
Sylviane A. Diouf – Dreams of Africa in Alabama
Liz Williams, Founder and Director of The Southern Food & Beverage Museums (New Orleans, LA)
Erin Greenwald, Ph.D., Curator/Historian, The Historic New Orleans Collection (New Orleans, LA)
Herman-Grimma House, David Johnson (New Orleans, LA)
Joe Mc Gill – Founder of THE SLAVE DWELLING PROJECT (USA)
WHITNEY PLANTATION (LA) – Dr. Ibrahima, Director of Research, Cheryl Gaudet, Tour guide.
LAURA PLANTATION (LA) – Sandra Marmillion, Founder; Joseph Dunn, Creole tour guide.
John Yeagley, Twisted Preservation, Research.
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