A Historic Black History Month at Belle Grove

By Special Contributor posted 03-22-2017 16:44


By Kristen Laise and Shannon Moeck

“It needs to be in this place,” said A.D. Carter III, scanning the 1,000-square-foot room on the ground level of the 1797 Manor House at Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, Virginia. This room, with its exposed limestone walls and oak beams, was where enslaved laborers performed domestic work from the time that Isaac Hite Jr. and Nelly Madison Hite moved to the property in 1783 until the house was sold out of the family in 1860. Because Belle Grove Plantation has no extant slave quarters, the lower level of the Manor House is one of the few tangible reminders of its enslaved inhabitants.

Carter, president of the NAACP branch that represents Warren and Page counties in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, wanted to honor and share the history of this space. He and Belle Grove Executive Director Kristen Laise, in conjunction with the Shenandoah Valley chapter of Coming to the Table (CTTT) and the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, held a Black History Month program here on February 4.

Dr. Judith James lead the February 4 Black History Month program. | Photo by Jeff Taylor of The Winchester Star

A Glimpse into Judah

As part of Belle Grove’s commitment to bringing forward the history of the 276 individuals whom the Hite family enslaved from the 1780s through the 1850s, the two lower-level rooms have been used as a transformative space. Along the walls are exhibit panels that outline sla
very at the plantation, as well as relevant ongoing archival and archaeological research. This is also where Belle Grove installed “To Be Sold”—the Library of Virginia’s traveling exhibit about the domestic slave trade—in summer 2016. Also last year, four representatives from the Slave Dwelling Project; Kelly Schindler, associate manager of historic sites for the National Trust for Historic Preservation; 10 students and teachers  from Bloomsburg University’s Frederick Douglass Institute for Academic Excellence; and Kristen Laise all spent the night on the brick floor of these rooms.    

The space is especially coming alive through a National Park Service program spearheaded by ranger Shannon Moeck—“Kneading in Silence: A Glimpse into Judah the Enslaved Cook.” Moeck uses “glimpse” in the title because, at this time, there are only two archival documents that tell us about Judah’s life:

  • A ledger kept by the Hite family that shows the purchase of Judah and her two young sons in 1816 and the births of the 10 children she had while at Belle Grove; and
  • A letter from Ann Hite that recounts Judah’s illness and subsequent death on April 2, 1836, at age 42.

This program is presented in the winter kitchen, where visitors can feel the weight of a cast iron pot, see how dim the room becomes with the electric light off, and listen to voices in the parlor above to realize how quiet the enslaved workers in the kitchen had to be. The program includes facilitated dialog and other forms of audience participation—like visitors reading aloud the names of Judah’s children and grandchildren. This not only gives voice to their lives but also emphasizes the fate of those children: since their mother was enslaved, they were too. As stated in the 1785 deed that details the transfer of 15 enslaved people from James Madison Sr. to his daughter Nelly’s new husband upon her move to Belle Grove, “all their future increase, to the said Isaac Hite, Jr. and his heirs forever.” Belle Grove is currently working to identify descendants of the individuals that the Hite family enslaved.

Filling a Historic Property with New History

The idea for the joint Black History Month program at Belle Grove began with Moeck inviting local NAACP chapters to participate in the interpretive program about Judah. Carter saw this as an opportunity to strengthen the partnership between his organization and Belle Grove Plantation and the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park—all connected through their mutual participation in the Shenandoah Valley chapter of CTTT.

The organizers of the Black History Month program acknowledge that there is a painful history to face but are encouraged by the personal relationships that they have built with one another, group discussions at CTTT gatherings, and researching the local history of enslavement together. Connecting with the NAACP and CTTT allow Belle Grove and the National Historical Park to share the information they are learning about the people enslaved on the plantation and the practice of slavery in the Shenandoah Valley with a wider audience.

Vocalist Mrs. Jean Ollie Baltimore. | Photo by Jeff Taylor The WInchester Star

The program was shaped by the CTTT approach, which is defined by four actions: uncovering history, making connections, working toward healing, and taking action. CTTT was founded in 2006 by individuals who discovered a legacy of enslaving or enslavement in their family histories and realized the need to heal from the racial wounds of the past—from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned. The group seeks to provide leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal those wounds. Members work on the four actions through social media, conference calls, local affiliate chapter meetings, and a biennial conference.

The February 4 program at Belle Grove:

  • Uncovered history through a presentation about slavery at Belle Grove by Laise as well as Moeck’s “Kneading in Silence” program;
  • Made connections by sharing the work of CTTT and the NAACP with a wider audience; and
  • Worked toward healing through prayers from reverends Alfred Woods and James Kilby, a keynote address about “freeing our minds from mental slavery” by Reverend Bessie Taylor Jett, and hymns sung by vocalist Jean Ollie Baltimore.

Attendance at the event exceeded expectations. Among the 108 guests squeezed into the lower-level room were local African American community leaders, veterans of the Civil Rights movement, supporters of Belle Grove and the National Historical Park, members of a church youth group, and reporters, among others. Organizers had considered more spacious venues, but Carter had been adamant that the power of the program would be “in this place.” He wanted participants to have the visceral experience of the lower level rooms at Belle Grove, as well as the neighboring kitchen with its hard-packed dirt floor and faint smell of wood smoke. These rooms contrast sharply with high ceilings, ornate moldings, glistening painted surfaces, and brightly woven wool carpets of the floor above. 

The impact of the February 4 event was not just in sharing an authentic space of enslaved people and the stories of their lives. It was also the gift that the program participants gave one another by filling the space—with their presence, attention, questions, prayers, words of hope, and song. As Dr. Judith James, co-chair of the Shenandoah Valley chapter of CTTT lead the event, she emphasized that “we are one.” Indeed, as the program closed with the entire group singing “This Little Light of Mine,” we were inspired toward further research, conversation, and reconciliation.

Kristen Overbeck Laise is the executive director of Belle Grove Plantation. Shannon Moeck is an interpretive ranger at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park.

#Interpretation #AfricanAmerican #Diversity #HistoricSites #BelleGrove

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