Understanding an African American Community in Gloucester County, Virginia

Archaeologists and historians throughout the United States conduct research about the transition from slavery to freedom. Occasionally, we will be featuring a guest post from these researchers to demonstrate the ways that this transition was experienced by African Americans throughout the country. This post is written by David Brown and Thane Harpol, co-directors of the Fairfield Foundation, an organization dedicated to the history, archaeology, preservation, and education of the Fairfield Plantation in Gloucester County, Virginia. Interested in contributing? Send us a message!

The sheriff and his son approached the steps of the old manor house.  A chicken, tied to the porch, pecked around for seeds, worms, and insects to eat. They ascended the stairs to the porch, entered the house, and addressed the African-American woman sitting on the piano stool beside the fire.  She fed corn cobs, collected from the recent harvest and piled in the corner, into the fire to keep herself and another chicken (tied to the piano) warm.  The young boy knew the house, having pushed his brother into the “dungeon” beneath it as they played on previous visits. This house had a long history: once the centerpiece of a large 18th century plantation, the building evoked images of colonial dames dancing in the ball room, of enslaved Africans harvesting tobacco in the nearby fields, and those early Burwells whose initials could still be seen in the cartouche just beneath the building’s massive triple diagonally-set chimney stacks.  The initials of Lewis and Abigail Burwell, and the date 1694, were set in stark contrast to the building’s current resident, a single woman, once a slave, now farming the land and living in this aging manor.

The plantation home at Fairfield Foundation, occupied by an African American family in this photo (courtesy of the Fairfield Foundation).

Ten days later, the house burned.  The year was 1897 and Fairfield Plantation (then known as Carter Creek farm) lost its most recognizable connection to the past. The story of the African American woman passed from one generation to the next, arrived at our doorstep when we founded the Fairfield Foundation in 2000.  Our organization’s treasurer, Col. Cecil Wray Page Jr. was the sheriff’s grandson. Before his passing in 2011, we asked him about this story many times, hoping for any additional details that would shed light on the building, its architecture, its use, and its destruction.  As eager, young archaeologists we initially focused our search for information on the plantation’s superlatives: the first occupation in the 1640s, its earliest residents, the exceptional architectural design of the manor house, and the symbols of wealth and power that made the Burwell family one of Virginia’s most significant (but least well known) in the colony.  Over time, though, as our excavations uncovered thousands of artifacts dating to the late 19th century, our attention returned to this unknown woman.
[one_half]A picture of an African American woman sitting on the porch of the Fairfield Plantation. (courtesy of the Fairfield Foundation)[/one_half][one_half_last]What was her story? What was her name?  Did she have a family?  Did she grow up at Fairfield?  Asking these questions are the beginning of a journey towards understanding whom this woman was, what her life was like, and what we might learn from it. And yet, the answer will emerge slowly, and incompletely, as we delve into the material and documentary remains that surround this woman’s tenure at Fairfield.  The search for her name and identity, born of oral history and archaeology, but drawn in contrast with the image of this magnificent 17th-century manor house, is essential to discussions we have about the evolution of this plantation. Her story and her landscape, a complicated and interwoven picture of life over three centuries, is worth preserving and sharing. It is also part of a larger story of African American life in Gloucester County. [/one_half_last]

Gloucester is best known for its magnificent colonial manor homes and plantations, its essential part in the victory at Yorktown during the Revolutionary War, and its direct link with Pocahontas and Powhatan at Werowocomoco.  Few know of the its rich late 19th-/early 20th-century history when W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington showcased Gloucester as an example of “the progress of the Negro race in a single county in one of the Southern States” in their pamphlet The Negro in the South: His Economic Progress in Relation to His Moral and Religious Development (1907). These are remarkable people who did remarkable things at a remarkable time. Our shared heritage includes their stories – this first generation of freedom – the African-American families who survived slavery and made a world for themselves after emancipation. At Fairfield, this history survives in the historic documents, the archaeological record, and the descendant community still living in the neighborhoods their ancestors created.

The quest to know more about this mysterious woman led us to the surrounding community.  It led us to Charlie Carter, a local African-American retiree who was born and raised near Fairfield. As he described his father’s work at the local mill, making boats and spending his off hours oystering on Carter Creek, he lamented ignoring his father’s efforts to share old stories and the history of this small corner of Gloucester County.  He regretted that we had not arrived a few years earlier, as some of the elders in the area passed away in the mid-to-late 1990s. He shared with us old plats from the late 19th century, and talked about how proud his family was to own their land.  He was particularly proud of the alligator he caught in the mill pond in the 1960s, but was sorry that he knew very little about Carter Creek farm or the people who had lived there.

“Struggle, achievement, strife and reward are words that define the growth of African-American communities in late 19th-century Gloucester County, Virginia”. These words, the first sentence in our booklet Fairfield Plantation and the Emergence of an African-American Community, (2009), summarize the results of our continued search through the county court records, the federal census, and early topographic maps. These bits of evidence documented land ownership, individuals’ occupations, and the winding roads that formerly crossed the area but were now camouflaged by the thick undergrowth of young forests or paved over by new housing developments and their clusters of new houses. While each source of information has its limitations, together they told this remarkable story of what these African American communities endured and accomplished between the Civil War and the second quarter of the 20th century. The booklet synthesizes the beginning of our efforts to unite oral history, documentary research, map and topographic data, and archaeological information into a detailed story of the evolution of a plantation landscape and its changing communities.  There is much still to learn.

Read about the changing landscapes of the post-slavery plantation in St. Mary’s Manor.

The woman was the final resident of the Fairfield manor house.  She rented the building or served as a tenant farmer on the property and it is largely her possessions that we recover when excavating in the house cellar.  We have found evidence corroborating the story handed down to us: a cast-iron stove that shattered and collapsed into the cellar, charred remains of corn cobs which may have helped spark the fire in the first place, burnt chicken bone, and the utilitarian fragments of everyday life.  The broken remains of plates, saucers, cups, medicine bottles, shoes, utensils, bullets, and assorted tools, speak to a simple yet busy life.  How much different was her life from those who labored as slaves a century or two before her?  How different were her experiences from those of her neighbors, both white and black, in the decades of economic turmoil and social upheaval that marked much of the post-bellum South? This stove, excavated at Fairfield, was likely the same one used by the woman who lived in the home when it burned (Courtesy of the Fairfield Foundation).

Though we continue to devise new research questions, after more than a decade of archaeology, we have learned more about her life than we have the better known Burwell and Thruston families who lived before her. Much like this website, the booklet we created uses the study of these artifacts and an analysis of land ownership in the acreage surrounding the house, as a starting point for discussing the history of this unnamed woman and her neighbors from 1865 through the early decades of the 20th century. Through hard work and determination, they built their own houses, schools and churches, worked at the local mill and the store, became farmers, watermen, and entrepreneurs, and pulled together to purchase property and build a community.

Read about the post-slavery African American community in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.

The booklet, funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, is an early step in our research and outreach with current residents and the larger descendant community. It is a small part of the much larger story of African-American life in Gloucester County, and we hope that it helps provoke discussion and encourages further collaboration with those interested in studying the broader strokes of our history. Our efforts will slowly expand to extend this pilot study across the entirety of Fairfield Plantation – some 7000 acres that left the Burwell family in the late 18th century and eventually splintered into a handful of smaller plantations, then modest farms, and finally into small plots of land largely owned and farmed by African Americans. While the African American population nearly equaled the white population following the Civil War, it now only accounts for 5 percent.  It is important to recognize, discuss, and celebrate the lives of these people within a society increasingly less connected to the historic landscape. The stories of these communities and individuals from the past, uncovered through scant historical and archaeological evidence, are what intimately connect history to our present lives.

It is this connection with property and landscape where we find our greatest opportunity to engage, both with the past and the present.  Our approach will examine the fluid meaning of land ownership, landscape, and property as Gloucester County struggled to recover after the end of the Civil War.  Was this population exceptional for its efforts to acquire and maintain their connection with the land?  Were they simply one of many small communities that grew out of Reconstruction, but that are all too often forgotten in the common narrative of our society’s accomplishments? Our hope is to bring this discussion back to the forefront of Gloucester County history and encourage others to look at this important part of our past and recognize that its preservation is just as important.

You can learn more about the Fairfield Foundation by visiting their website and blog at fairfieldfoundation.org and following them on Facebook. You can download their booklet, Fairfield Plantation and the Emergence of an African-American Community, here.

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