When some folks hear the word lecture, it typically conjures the image of a giant snoozefest, with people desperately attempting to find something else to focus on while the speaker drones on and on, seemingly trying to reenact the myth of Hermes and Argus the Watchman by boring the attendants to death. Anyone that came to Stratford Hall to attend a lecture on the subject of telling the history of the place through artifacts discovered this was not one of those sorts of lectures. Sadly, what is written here will only be a smattering of what was discussed.
An expert in her field of African American studies and Archaeology, Dr. Kelly Deetz, Stratford Hall’s Director of Programming, Education, & Visitor Engagement avoided those pitfalls. She did not drone into a microphone, or read from a paper, despite having to recap repeatedly whenever someone new came into the lecture hall. Historians are, by their nature, storytellers, and while they try to stick to the truth, truth’s tendency to be stranger than fiction can go a long way to keeping these sorts of things from putting people to sleep.
“I was brought here a year and a half ago to help with telling more stories. Until now, the main focus has been Robert E. Lee, which is all well and good, but there is so much more!” She explained, “This is the home of the Lees. We can have that story and elevate the rest, telling them all. People like stories; they like learning about the different people that occupied a space. Here at Stratford, many people here would have been born slaves or shipped over from Africa; their stories are now being told along with that of the women of the Lee family, many of whom are absolutely phenomenal.”
Archaeology and the study of artifacts is essential, according to Deetz, due to most slaves being kept illiterate. Instead, their stories have to be gleaned from objects pulled from the ground, and a healthy dose of inductive reasoning applied based on what was known of the people of that time and what was known about their culture, a practice not unlike trying to figure out what the driver of the car ahead is like based on their license plate and bumper stickers.
“Archaeology,” she continued, “is the study of garbage, it is ancient dumpster diving. We are literally studying things that were thrown away in the trash bin, a burial vault, or fell out of someone’s pocket in an outhouse. You go through garbage and you’ll find out a lot about how people lived. It helps fill in the blanks about diet, hobbies, and much more. It rounds out peoples’ history.
“The archaeological record of those that were enslaved is phenomenal, and we are telling these stories not just through the archives, but also through the material culture; the objects brought across on the Middle Passage from Africa, the clay pipes cooked in kilns, and so much more; we are using these to tell the story about their history and culture, as well as their daily lives of persevering through their enslavement.”
While many are content to start the story of slaves with their arrival in America, Deetz instead turns the dial back further to before they were captured, usually by rival tribes, and sold to slave traders.
“We’re starting not with them as slaves, but as princes, kings, queens, and warriors in West Africa, because when you start at just their time as slaves, you erase the rich history that came before that. They came from a variety of cultures, and were all at war with each other, with prisoners of war usually being sold off as slaves.”
Another topic touched on were methods that slaves would use to take the proverbial baseball bat to the machine that was slavery. Along with the more active methods, like slave revolts, there were also bits of sabotage, escape, obfuscating stupidity, and no small amount of resourcefulness, whether it was communicating through song, improvising drums after slave codes banned their use, or breaking tools, acting sick, in one case that is particularly legendary around Stratford, embarrassing their master, but more on that little tidbit later.
One object brought out during this chat was a marked slave collar that had been smashed and flattened, probably with a hammer, with the date of 1733 and the name of St. John Island in the Virgin Islands. A massive slave revolt erupted that year, during which the escaped Akwamli massacred whoever they could get their hands on and ran the island for the next six months until the Danish came in and put the revolt down. One of the artifacts recovered was the aforementioned slave collar, which had been turned essentially into a trophy by its former wearer, which eventually found its way to Virginia.
“People resisted every day, starting the moment they were kidnapped. You’d be bringing your language, history, culture, and recipes with you. A quarter of the slave ships in the late 1700s had a revolt on them, and of course there were different modes of running away. Slave revolts on plantations would also happen, such as with Nat Turner.
“The language of the American Revolution is so proud for us, yet an enslaved person like Nat Turner probably had the same thoughts: ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ He’s not remembered as a hero, while Patrick Henry is.”
Of course, the reason people remember Patrick Henry a lot more fondly than Nat Turner might have something to do with the women and children killed in their beds during Turner’s slave revolt. John Brown, the man who would attempt to raid the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry to arm another slave revolt, did something similar during the preview of the Civil War that became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” breaking into peoples’ houses while they were asleep with his sons and hacking everyone inside to pieces with a huge broadsword.
Leaving that grisly bit of trivia behind, probably one of the more entertaining stories involved Philip Ludwell Lee, probably one of the more eccentric and foppish personalities to live at Stratford. He even had a section of French Horns on his carriage, which would result in a scene that can only be described as the 18th-century equivalent of someone rolling down the street nowadays in a car with a loud, thumping bass on their speakers cranked to eleven and beyond.
In Phil’s case, this desire to keep up appearances led to his manservant and slave, a fellow by the name of Sawney, eventually getting one last act of defiance in before the Revolutionary War started. Walking in during one of Phil’s dinners, Sawney looked like a drunken hooligan wearing unkempt and dirty clothes while his master was entertaining guests.
It was after the lecture that a thorough and in-depth tour commenced, starting at the kitchen and working through the lower section of the Great Hall before finishing in the upper floor at the room where Robert E. Lee, and many Lees before him, came into the world. All throughout, there was no stone unturned, and yet it still barely tells a fraction of the rich history, both of the house, the slaves, and the family.
In the meantime, Deetz and the others at Stratford are busy working on the numerous audio tours dedicated to telling the history and stories of the men and women, both enslaved and free, from a first-person perspective, which is slated to be ready around the summer. One of the exhibits is a wall dedicated to the women at Stratford, with portraits of the Lee women and silhouettes of the enslaved, the line of portraits ending with Robert E. Lee’s daughter, who was pulling a Rosa Parks decades before Parks did, sitting in the back of streetcars with blacks in solidarity with them.
“What is it about her childhood? What is it about that ancestry, at a home, at a country where blacks were enslaved and sleeping at the foot of whites to serve them at every waking moment? That kind of social space and intimacy is American history, and we’re telling all those stories now. Here at Stratford, we have over 20 years of archaeology that hasn’t been analyzed; we’re doing that now. We have some of the most incredible artifacts here, from a tortoiseshell hookah to waist beads. What I’m doing here at Stratford is hard and challenging, but I’m honored to be doing this work. There are so many stories waiting to be told, and we’re doing that now. You can learn about the Lees and about the slaves that lived here at the same time now. This is a plantation, they all lived here, some by force, some by choice, but they all lived here.”