One-Night Stand: Shifting Fog

Johnny and I just got back from Charlotte, NC. We were celebrating Yom Kippur with my sister and her family. It was so nice to enjoy not only their hospitality but also be reminded of how important family is to social stability.  After dinner, my sister pulled out a large cardboard box full of family papers and artifacts. She saved them from the dumpster when my mom moved out of our family home. We began silently to search through the box.

I pulled out objects that I remembered, such as a rosary that rested on the bedside table of my grandmother and my great-grandparents’ wedding certificate.  My voiced memory filled in blank spaces for my younger sister’s lost memory. After a bit, we paused and sat there – gave a sigh. We were both thinking the same thing, “What do we do with all of this stuff? This box full of things”. The more philosophic question was, “How do we share our personal memories in a way that makes this box of ‘junk’ meaningful?”

This very same question comes up when speaking about a heritage site’s legacy. The problem is that I am not simply interested in the historical facts and artifacts that made something unique; I am interested in those intimate, daily things that bound the objects and community into a cohesive and essential society. The real task is making memory tangible.

This is even more difficult when you don’t have an artifact, or have only a partial artifact, to experience.

I have been to Menokin heritage site before, a few years ago. I knew nothing of it, and on the advice of a good museum friend, we drove out of our way to take a quick look. In fact, you don’t simply “drive-by” Menokin; you kind of have to put it into your map app and take the back roads of Virginia and seek it out. Thinking about it now, the fact that you are forced into the more rural Virginia countryside increases the surprise of what can only be called “amazing.” As you make your way up the long drive through corn and soybean fields, your view is partially shielded from the house ruin that is Menokin.  As you drive deeper into the open vista, the house ruin comes into sight, and all you can do is stare.  It takes a while to comprehend what is going on and realize that this is unlike any other historic house museum site you have ever seen.

Menokin was built for a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Lightfoot Lee, in 1769, and was a working plantation until 1886 falling into decline in the 20th century. Eventually, a tree fell on the house, and nature slowly took over. In 1995, Menokin’s owner, Mr. Omohundro, gave the house and land to the newly formed Menokin Foundation who, by 2004, built the Visitor Center. In 2013, Menokin hired Machado Silvetti Architects to design the Glass House Project, preserving the 18th c. mansion as is, and filling in the missing parts with glass.

My One-Night Stand at Menokin had a different purpose than a casual visit. I was going to help facilitate a weekend gathering with my friend Joe McGill, Founder and President of the SLAVE DWELLING PROJECT. Joe’s project consists of traveling the country and sleeping in heritage sites that have extant slave dwellings or narratives of enslaved populations so as to increase awareness of this often-overlooked piece of history.  Joe’s Slave Dwelling Project and my One-Night Stands are both engaging heritage sites in new, tactile and emotional ways – our missions and tactics are similar and clearly compatible, yet Joe’s narrative is quite a bit more targeted. That being stated, we both value what the other is doing, and we wanted a location where we could overlap our energies and combine our work. Menokin became the site for this rare collaboration.

The plan for the weekend was to hold various discussions and site walks and, of course, a group sleepover on Saturday night. The great team at Menokin organized the entire weekend, and Joe and I showed up and facilitated discussions. Over 40 participants from around the United States traveled in for the weekend.

The goal of the sleepover was to better understand the story of those enslaved at Menokin and to discuss ways that Menokin staff could integrate this history into the overall narrative. The story begins as two family lines intertwine when a Tayloe married a Lee.

As was the case in most of colonial America, large landowning families tended to dominate entire regions as land and slave holdings were passed down from one generation to the next. John Tayloe II, the owner of the renowned Mt. Airy plantation, also owned the land called Menokin, which served as a satellite farm. Upon his daughter’s marriage to Francis “Frank” Lightfoot Lee, Tayloe gifted Menokin, along with a newly built house and 20 slaves, to the couple. At the time of their death, The Library of Virginia’s personal property tax records for Richmond County shows a Francis L. Lee with 26 slaves above 16 years of age, 8 slaves above 12 years of age, and 5 horses. The Richmond County court records note that the appraisal of Lee’s property, held on February 6, 1797, showed that the Lees had 48 “Negroes,” old and young, valued at $2880. All these enslaved people were inherited by Frank’s nephew, Ludwell Lee.

The land and house were sold from Tayloe ownership in 1823, to Benjamin Boughton. In an 1828 document, Boughton lists the names of his enslaved and also lists their skills. He sold the house and property in 1838. The next family to own the property was the Harwoods, from 1836-1879. The best accounting of the site’s enslaved people come from his records. In 1837, Richard Harwood owned 7 enslaved people; the numbers change over the years reaching 22 by 1863.  Slaves are not listed in 1864, instead, all the black men above 21 years of age are listed for the 60-cent tax. Full names are used by 1867 and continue to be noted until 1886.

Knowing this detailed and factual information, I arrived a few days early for the sleepover weekend, so Menokin Board member and good friend Ro King found us a room at her husband’s family farm nearby Grove Mount. Grove Mount is a National Historic Landmark plantation house located in Warsaw, Richmond County, Virginia. The main house was built by Robert Mitchell and his wife, Priscilla Carter Mitchell. It is a two-story, five-bay late Georgian-style frame dwelling. Priscilla Carter Mitchell was the daughter of Robert Carter III, known as “Councillor” Carter, of Nomini Hall in Westmoreland County. The style and construction of the dwelling house and the dairy suggest a date about 1785-1800. The dwelling house has a kitchen wing, added in 1952, and an orangery added in 1989. On the south side of the dwelling house is a sweeping view of the Rappahannock River valley and two levels of grassed terraces.

As mentioned earlier, Grove Mount is one of a group of four eighteenth-century plantation houses in near proximity in Richmond County connected by close family ties and some architectural and landscape similarities. This group also includes Sabine Hall (ca. 1735), Mount Airy (1748-58) and Menokin. Martin King was the founder of the Menokin Foundation. The farm is lived in by his son Kirwan’s family.  The farm had been a modest plantation worked by an enslaved population.

As I was escorted up the main hall star, I glanced over to the balustrade.  It’s a small detail, but the vertical posts holding up the handrail were turned 45 degrees.  I had never seen that before and took notice. Maybe this was a Virginia style?

The hospitality and the environment of the farm were calming. We had just finished a difficult two weeks of traveling internationally and I needed some downtime. Jet lag was getting the better of me, and the room at the top of the stair provided just the respite I required. The long vistas of open land, the Guinea fowl, cows, and roaming dogs and cats animated the farmland like fireflies in a meadow at night. Our hosts kept the food, drink, and conversation flowing well throughout the day. Joe Mc Gill eventually arrived at the farm as well and joined in our discussions. Our hosts Fran and Kirwan King and Ro King shared with us how the Lee and Tayloe families were family connected, not only with Menokin but also another important plantation site, Mount Airy.

We became interested in visiting the other family-related historic sites (public and private) and asked for an introduction to the ones that were still privately owned.

Our first stop was Stratford Hall. It was built by Francis Lightfoot Lee’s father Thomas Lee, by the time Francis was 4. This is where Frank spent his formative years until his parents died when he was 16. At this point, his eldest brother Phillip Ludwell Lee took on the property of Stratford as his rightful inheritance and gave his brother Frank an outlying plantation (now Leesburg and the home of Dulles Airport), where Frank established himself in politics in Loudon County. After marrying Rebecca Tayloe and receiving Menokin as a gift, John Tayloe helped Frank relocate to Warsaw, VA, and secure a position in the House of Burgesses.

Above all else, Stratford Hall is an amazing piece of architecture. As the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, it has taken on something of an iconic aura of pilgrimage for some. Filled with the beautiful and precious, almost every inch of this plantation has been reworked, restored, romanticized and then remade again.

My friend Abbie Newkirk showed us the latest restoration work going on, and we grabbed a quick trek unto the fireplace roof deck. From that vista, she showed us how the staff is reconsidering the immediate landscape, removing the romanticized colonial revival plantings and trees and bringing the site back to its workaday plantation roots. It occurred to me how lucky they were even to have these physical artifacts, a house, and a landscape, to work from.  Removing history to reveal another history is, like a huge holiday feast, a luxurious, and potentially oppressive delight.

Next up on my quest was the privately-owned Mt. Airy Plantation. We were told that a conjectural slave dwelling was found in an outlying part of the estate, and we could be taken there if we would like to see it. As we drove up the gravel driveway we were stormed by barking dogs. Once we got out of the cars, we were warmly greeted by Catherine and J. Tayloe Emery, a descendant of the Tayloe family, present owners of Mt. Airy. Also living on the estate is their very knowledgeable uncle, Gwynne Tayloe.  We met Catherine up on the pediment portico and she introduced us to all her dogs.

She invited us in. The atmosphere was just as one would imagine – beautifully used and deeply dyed with history. Everywhere you turned were meaningful manifestations of an important family and the resultant cultural fragments.  Joe McGill and I went in different directions. While he spoke with our host, I slowly walked across the room, onto the carpet, and began looking at the small objects placed on tables. Sprinkled throughout the room were family pictures, books, and documents.

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At one point, we all joined again in the main central hall and continued our conversations. I looked up and noticed Joe, standing in front of a series of family portraits in gilded frames hanging from thin lines anchored to the picture molding.  The image of Joe looking up and in some way struggling to understand his place within this extraordinarily beautiful southern plantation context was startling.

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After some time in the main house, our host took us in her car to a location elsewhere on the plantation property.  She turned into a heavily wooded area and we got out. She pointed to a nondescript location off in the woods and started walking in the same direction.  As we stepped closer into the forest, the ruin of a slave dwelling came into view. Joe and I paused, looked at each other, and stepped even closer to the building. It is a rare instance that one can have such an experience as this. We were seeing history unrestored and unromanticized. No one had yet interpreted this building, nor produced a timeline for its use. Much like my families discarded objects, it was simply an artifact, pulled from obscurity and viewed.

We stepped even closer to the cabin ruin and slowly looked around. I felt like I had just accidentally run into an old friend after many years apart and we started catching each other up on our life’s paths. The stories silently screamed at me were overwhelming.  It could just be me, but my friend Joe looked pained as he walked inside the cabin. I didn’t walk inside. That was Joe’s experience to have, not mine.

We left the cabin site in silence and got into the car. As we drove back to the main house all I could think about was that, in a matter of a few hours, we had seen Stratford Hall, Mt. Airy, and now a ruin of a slave cabin hidden in the woods – all tied together by the same family lines. History sure is complicated.

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Upon our arrival back, I drove to the Menokin site and met with the staff.  We concluded that we wanted to pull out some meaningful artifacts from their collection that could give a good sense of how the narrative of the Menokin enslaved was interlaced with the other, more prominent and visible stories. As is usually the case in heritage sites, there is only fragmentary evidence, and much of it has to embrace a certain level of conjecture in order for the story to be pieced together. As we searched the archives, we pulled out nails, pottery shards, decorative molding pieces that showed the handiwork of the craftsman, and other tangential objects that could enable a consistent narrative of the enslaved at Menokin.

As we arranged and curated the artifacts on the tables, I couldn’t help but think back to my visit to Mt. Airy and Stratford Hall. I recalled the overwhelming quantity and quality of the material culture that survived and the contrast to a handful of nails or a few scraps of pottery found in an archeology dig. We must pursue these physically vague narratives in a different manner than the way in which we formulate a more expansive, artifact-rich story.  How does one narrate a “behavior” or a “skill” versus a beautiful object or piece of architecture?  Better still, how can one use a beautiful artifact to help narrate a non-artifact-based story? For me, that was what Menokin was asking us to think about.

Being a friend of tactile engagement, I asked if our participants could touch and immerse themselves in these artifacts. My hosts happily agreed, and we set about making the exhibition touchable and welcoming by introducing signage and open boxes. In choosing artifacts we were constantly pulled between two emotions. The first was an awareness that an object was beautiful and evocative in its appearance; the second was how an object or its physical appearance gave clues to the hands of the craftspeople who created it. The sweet spot was when we found objects that contained both these polarities. Just engaging in this exercise of curation allowed me an opportunity to begin to see a better, more comprehensive understanding of the enslaved at Menokin. I dare say that it might be the first time that all these objects had been gathered in just this way so as to tell a wider story and include more fully the enslaved population.

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Once our participants for the sleepover conference arrived, we all sat down and began to discuss the goals of the weekend and how we best could achieve them.  We also asked for emotional states of our guests, and how this evening’s events might change how we think about ourselves and the history of Menokin. I have so much respect for Joe McGill and, as always, enjoy sitting back and hearing him speak about his motivations and goals in founding the Slave Dwelling Project.

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We walked the vast site, exploring the landscape and assessing how its present appearance was a result of the work of enslaved laborers to make the plantation a workable and economically profitable farm for the owners of Menokin. We walked down to the waterfront and discussed the relationship of commerce, shipping, and agricultural production to the stewardship of a Virginia Plantation such as Menokin. Off in the distance were various foundations and fragmentary ruins that suggested a much larger and complex built environment that needed enslaved labor to keep it running and profitable.

As I walked with the others, I tried to imagine this beautiful landscape as something other than a tranquil woodland escape.  For some, it was a jail whose boundaries represented a cage from which they could never leave except with permission. Nothing in and nothing out without approval. No freedom of choice nor allowance for social change. Imagine how the river must have seemed like it was taunting those enslaved with its freedom and constant movement.

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As we continued to walk through the wooded landscape, a path led up to the main house ruin. Even as a ruin, the house is a breathtaking reminder of the dominance of the plantation owners upon the land. I walked through the makeshift platforms and steep structures that provided access to the house site. You are able to experience the house as a voyeur, peeking into its innermost construction details and private structural secrets. At times, it feels too intimate and personal. Every once in a while, you could remind yourself that you were visually embracing the actual fragments, not of the architecture, but of the enslaved craftsmen who constructed the house.

At a typical heritage site, all of this handiwork and skilled effort are hidden behind yards and yards of reproduction fabric drapes beautifully colorful paint, and warehouses full of precious furniture. But here, we have none of that.  It’s bare and naked, with no beautiful affectations to cover its flaws and complicated history. How lucky we are to have Menokin to remind us that it is not the beauty of something that creates its value, but rather the story behind that beauty and the people who crafted that beauty.

At one point, I noticed Joe touching a brick with his fingers. These bricks would normally have been covered by a few inches of plaster and wood paneling, but because the house is an exposed ruin, what was hidden is now revealed. Joe had found fingerprints of the enslaved person who made the brick. He nestled his fingers within the hardened fingerprints on the brick, and for a moment the humanity of making rushed forward in our minds. At Menokin, you have this opportunity, if you are looking and aware, to listen to the less active and vibrantly vocal narratives of the site. This site should be a place of pilgrimage for all of us who are seeking a deeper meaning to heritage and looking to better understand its intangible component. You truly will not find another place in which the veil between history and current experience is so thin.

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Unique among heritage sites, Menokin not only has some portion of an artifact-driven narrative, it has also dissolved in such a way as to reveal a narrative that in most cases is hidden and encased, away from public eyes. As I looked around at the Menokin ruin, I was struck by the intense attempts to stabilize the structure so as to not interfere with a view of the building, but also to ensure that no further natural deconstruction would occur. These modern insertions seemed to me to be written in a parasitic language that only made sense in context. Could these haphazard structural insertions be a manifestation of how we as historians make sense of the remains, physical, written, and oral, of past lives and narratives? The frustration for me is when these parasitic applications onto the existing fragment come to be seen as original and full of truth.

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Our dinner was prepared by public historian, interpreter, and food historian Dontavius Williams. The meal consisted of traditional recipes that might have been cooked by the enslaved on the site. The open fire pit cooking area was surrounded by numerous tables decorated with flowers and plants gathered from the site itself. The meal and conversation were thoughtfully arranged and welcoming.

After dinner, Dontavius began his iconic interpretive first-person theater presentation, “Chronicles of Adam.” In his monologue, Dontavius convincingly and movingly spoke and conversed with us as an enslaved man named Adam. It’s moments like these that I appreciate being surrounded by such talented and dedicated public historians as those joining us around the open fire. The logs burned and cracked, the crickets chirped and the sun set behind the trees.

As the sun began to set, candle lanterns were brought to each table so that the evening could continue in the darkness. Conversations flowed freely and intimately regarding personal reasons for attending the weekend retreat and why overnights can be so useful in better understanding multiple perspectives on difficult histories.

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Our conversations started to end in yawns, and it became obvious that it was time for us to settle into our sleeping arrangements. The participants were allowed to set up their tents anywhere on the site, although most people set up at the location believed to be where dwellings of the enslaved once stood. Recent archeological work found significant artifacts on this site and this seemed to validate oral histories that a small community of enslaved families lived there.

As is the case with all of my One-Night Stands, I want to sleep in the house; as this house is a ruin, I chose to set up my tent on the top of the scaffolding and platform structure that snakes its way through the house remains. It was an eerie and at times uncomfortable conceptual state to lie within Menokin. First, the big house, although primarily occupied by the white land- and slave-owners also would have contained a small number of domestic enslaved people living within, or very near the house. Second, the platform hovers above all of the building ruins and feels like the scaffolding is not tied to anything. Although very secure, there is a simmering state of panic that the building will continue to decompose and take the platform down with it.

The fire pit below the platform dissolved into darkness, and all I could hear were the sounds of frogs and insects going about their lives. The vast agricultural fields that surrounded me were empty vacuums of stillness. In contrast, the sky was active with stars and movement. Being a few floors up on the platform, the view afforded was long and I could take in the outer edges of the crop fields. I knew the plantation was large and that what is left is but 500 acres of the original 1000, but it still felt like complete isolation. I wondered how separate and culturally alone the enslaved felt every night when they fell to sleep. Were the boundaries of their dreams limited by the boundaries of the plantation fields? I suspect not. In interpreting heritage sites, we tend to only think about the limits of the site itself; we rarely contextualize the narrative to a wider story. In a way, because I had set up the tent in a higher elevation, I was not visually limited by the tall corn stalks or the far-off tree-blocked vistas.

I went to sleep listening to Menokin in the darkness of the house ruin.

I woke up, as I usually do, just before the sunrise. My view was breathtaking, as the agricultural fields were covered in a slow-moving fog. The sun was just pushing itself above the tree line and the entire site went from silent and calm to vibrant and active. Even the ruin was animated by the sun’s rays. I was also struck by how the sun was entering the ruin’s openings that would have been glazed windows. The sun’s rays entered the destroyed room spaces and crawled along the walls. It occurred to me that this had always happened whether the house was intact, in ruins or never even existed. The built form in the landscape simply acted as the projection screen for the natural world – not the other way around.

As the sun progressed with its awakening, it shifted and faceted along the house ruins, bolding the edges as if to make a statement regarding the dichotomy between the natural and made environments. I often feel that in trying to interpret history, we flatten out the stories – we make them nice and tidy and neat. If anything, the rising sun was making manifest all of the defects, rubble, and layers of the Menokin ruin in such a way as to push me to seek those messy spaces and hidden crevices of untold stories. The sun seemed to want to illuminate the darkness of the history into a rising awareness of Menokin’s social complexity. The fog now seemed to become a player in this opera as it continued to move across the land and slowly encase and then reveal features.

History can seem like a passing storm, heavy with clouds and obscuring the illumination of the sun, and a few minutes later the clouds pass and the sun is revealed. This weekend seemed to me to be about the passing of the fog, the rising of the sun, and the acute awareness that contained within Menokin’s ruins are the stories and fingerprints of a vast and deep history of our collective ancestral heritage. Intertwined between the white, Anglo land and slave owners and the enslaved populations is the vibrant and active narrative of life, death, bondage, freedom, decay, reconciliation and renewal. Just like the stabilization efforts to the building itself, we as historians need to gently and thoughtfully brace up what remains of the Menokin legacy and provide a platform for its viewing that brings us closer to the realities and humanity of the story.

I think how lucky we are that Menokin is a ruin. In searching that ruin, we are pushed into viewing history not from its surface beauty, but by being pulled into the spaces in between that which is expected and that which is decorated. The in-between spaces sometimes exist only as empty air pockets and these pockets of emptiness, in fact, are the voices of us all hoping that the language and translation of that language can be obtained and understood. In seeking that alternative language, we might be able to hear the voices of our past moving over the agricultural fields of Menokin, like the fog covering and then revealing the crevices of lost voices.

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