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Va. Mansion History Is Incomplete Without Stories Of Enslaved People


Enslaved people built and maintained many of Virginia's historic institutions. Their history is often told from the perspective of their enslavers. Now descendants of those enslaved are telling their own stories. Here's Ben Paviour from member station VPM in Richmond.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Last year, I took a tour of Virginia's two-century-old executive mansion. There was a lot of talk about furniture and decor.

UNIDENTIFIED GUIDE: This large piece is the punch bowl. And it holds eight gallons of punch.

PAVIOUR: But Justin Reid wants to take visitors somewhere else on the property, to a separate building. Reid's been working on this site in his role with the Virginia Humanities, the state office of the National Endowment for the Humanities. For more than 50 years, enslaved people served the governor from this stone kitchen. A few were able to receive letters from home.

JUSTIN REID: Give my love, my good husband Michael (ph). Tell him he can form no idea how much I have thought of him since he left this place and how much I have missed him. November 1, 1837.

PAVIOUR: Written records from enslaved people like these letters are rare. That's a challenge for scholars like Reid, who is updating the history of the mansion. So he's turned to oral histories of slavery, stories he grew up with.

REID: I can definitely talk about my enslaved ancestors because of the stories that my grandmother told me from her direct experience with them.

PAVIOUR: Reid's ancestors were enslaved by the family of Jane Randolph Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's mother. Governors like Jefferson brought in slave people from their plantations to Richmond. Now Reid is bringing together other descendants. Their goal - refocus the history of the mansion, overhauling everything from plaques to the tour.

REID: This isn't a box to check. This is something that's integral to the story of the executive mansion.

PAVIOUR: The work involves traumas that have been passed down through generations. But Kerri Moseley-Hobbs, whose ancestors were enslaved by former Virginia Gov. James Preston, says there's more to it than that.

KERRI MOSELEY-HOBBS: The cooking, the celebration, the art - all of that stuff passes down also. So if you want to document and get to know the enslaved community, you look at the descendants.

PAVIOUR: One of Moseley-Hobbs' ancestors, Virginia Fraction (ph), was known as Aunt Jenny (ph) by the white children she helped raise and was buried in the Preston's family cemetery. Her brothers, Thomas and Othello Fraction, fled the plantation to join the Union Army. Moseley-Hobbs says their stories add up to a more honest depiction of the enslaved.

MOSELEY-HOBBS: When you focus on the truth, you're able to do what we haven't been able to do up until this point, which is really humanize the enslaved community.

PAVIOUR: Descendants are also involved in projects across the state.

MOSELEY-HOBBS: We're in the middle of our history with slavery. We're not done with it yet.

PAVIOUR: That became abundantly clear last year when reporters found a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam's 1984 medical school yearbook page. While politicians have largely moved on from the scandal, some Black activists say he hasn't shown enough leadership on issues like criminal justice reform. Historian Lauranett Lee gets that.

LAURANETT LEE: I can understand the frustration because there is so much that needs to be done.

PAVIOUR: Lee teaches at the University of Richmond and works alongside First Lady Pam Northam, who was a key backer of the executive mansion project. Lee wants to connect their work at the mansion to modern Richmond. She's watched many of the city's Confederate statues topple this summer, asking...

LEE: Why does it even matter when you have people who are being shot down in the street?

PAVIOUR: But for Lee, monuments tell the story of who society looks up to. The enslaved people who built Richmond, who powered Virginia's economy, didn't get statues. But Justin Reid sees their mark everywhere.

REID: In many parts of this country, but especially in Virginia, you really can't go anywhere and not enter a landscape of slavery.

PAVIOUR: It's a history Reid says is best told by the ancestors of the people who lived it.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.


Ben Paviour