Another Plantation Site Gets Moved, Misremembered, and Ultimately Erased

19th century slave cabin at Greenfield Plantation in Botetourt County, VA
19th century slave cabin at Greenfield Plantation in Botetourt County, VA–set to be disassembled and stored in a barn

While meeting with a student in my office on Wednesday, November 18th, my phone rang.  On the other end was Jim Glanville.  Jim is a retired chemist who lives in Blacksburg, VA and writes op-ed columns for the local papers – News Messenger, The Roanoke Times – with an occasional publication in the Smithfield Review, a journal focused on historical and scholarly accounts of events west of the Bluefield Mountains in Virginia and adjacent states.  Jim and I were first acquainted via my AAIHS blog posts.  Back in October, he reached out to me about my research inquiring about grave sites where enslaved persons were interred.  This phone conversation though was about Greenfield Plantation in Botetourt County, VA. 

Jim informed me that 19th century slave cabins, on what is known as Greenfield Plantation, were being moved.  They were being moved to make way for a shell building, “an empty and ready-to-move-into structure built for economic industry”.[1]  I was as disheartened and I was angered by a decision to move such valuable historical structures from their historical contexts.  As I relayed to Jim: to move the structures is to move these slave cabins from their place in history…a social forgetting.  And just how are we supposed to learn anything of the Black lived experience – that during this time period was governed by the institution of slavery – if we do not show this lived experience through African American material culture and make sure that this lived experience is portrayed accurately and central to the overall narrative??

I hung up with Jim, looked at my student and said “they are steadily trying to erase us!”

I continued with my office hours and throughout the months of November and December I received updates from Jim that helped me put this issue into context.  I told Jim that I would take pen to paper (or more aptly, put fingers to laptop keyboard) and help publicize this issue to keep it from happening again bringing awareness to preserving African American material culture.

Through Jim’s emails and research of my own, I first learned that there were only 2 historical sites left on Greenfield Plantation –

Two-story 19th century detached kitchen at Greenfield Plantation–set to be disassembled and stored in a barn

slave quarters and a detached kitchen.  In 1959, a fire burned down the slaveholding family home leaving only the two 19th century historic buildings: 1) a multi-family slave cabin located 200 feet behind the slaveholding family house; 2) a nearby two-story kitchen, which included living quarters for the cook and her family or another enslaved Black family altogether.  And these are the two buildings scheduled for removal as early as February 2016 because of a plan made by the Botetourt County back in 1995.  Back then, the county purchased 923 acres of the Greenfield site and two years later in 1997 developed a plan to construct a “mixed-use business park, with both manufacturing and office space, a recreational park, and a new Greenfield Elementary School.”[2]  The plan also included setting aside 28 acres for a historic site at the front of this property meaning that the slave cabin and kitchen, which are deteriorating and in need of immediate repair and preservation, would have to be disassembled and moved 0.6 miles from where they now stand.  Click here for more pictures of the slave cabin and kitchen.

Secondly, I learned that Greenfield Plantation was a historical site of enormous importance.  As John Raider, President of the Botetourt County Historical Society stated in the Roanoke Times, “I think of [Greenfield Plantation] as being our Monticello.”[3]  And rightfully so.  The land on which Greenfield Plantation stands was first purchased by Colonel William Preston (1729-1783) a historicized Revolutionary hero who defended the Virginia frontier under the command of George Washington.  According to the 2011 National Register of Historic Places form, Preston purchased 191 acres in 1759 which morphed into 2,345 acres by 1761.  By 1832 when the kitchen was built and the 1830s/1840’s time period when the slave cabin was built, Preston was deceased and the land had passed on to his son, John Preston who divided the estate and passed it down to his son William and his daughters Susanna and Sarah.  During this time period, between 28 and 35 enslaved Blacks toiled 600 plus acres.

After reading that the 1995 decision to move the structures was driven by economics, a much needed revenue stream in the form of jobs and continued capital, I began to think deeply about this.  Several times throughout the different newspaper articles, the point was made that this decision to move the historical structures and replace them with a mixed-use business plan was one driven by economics and economics alone.  The Botetourt County officers are the main ones carrying this position saying that they “hope to attract a new tenant to the park” by sticking to this 20 year plan that “make[s] way for economic development.”  Said another way, county officials hope that a “new corporate citizen will come to Botetourt” with this plan that creates “more jobs and tax revenue than currently at the park”.[4]

 

19th century detached kitchen located at Greenfield Plantation
19th century detached kitchen located at Greenfield Plantation–set to be disassembled and stored in a barn

Making the decision to move what many may see as antiquated and crumbling structures less than a mile away in order to foster new business and new economic life in Botetourt is a rationale that perhaps many cannot easily disagree with.  Because, on its head, the question becomes “why would the county want to invest money into structures that, on the surface, are not revenue generating when the county can invest in corporations?  In a November 9th article authored by reporter Laurence Hammack, he surmises as much writing “the county plan[s] to move the two buildings…became part of a debate over how to preserve the county’s past while forging its economic future.”[5]

In this line of thinking and questioning economics are posed against historical preservation.  This is the wrong question to ask.  Wrong because it is short-sighted putting the onus for revenue-generating all on the removal of two historic structures.  Surely there are more options for generating revenue for Botetourt County especially since the county waited 20 years to act on this plan.

Also what about other places to put this shell and industrial park?  John Williamson, member of the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors, addresses this question head on in a recent article in the Roanoke Times.  “Yes, there are other places in Greenfield where the shell building could go,” starts Williamson.  Continuing, though, he makes the issue about keep a promise to produce jobs for his constituents and his constituents’ children – eluding that this industrial park will produce revenue that will flow well into the next generation. “However,” starts Williamson, “if we live up to the promises made when the bond referendum[6] was passed, there will be industry located on each of those potential sites over time.”[7]  Each of those potential sites?

So the question is: “is there ever room for historical sites in Botetourt County?”  Actually the answer is yes.  But it is only yes when Botetourt County is allowed to continue the dominant narrative of the heroic colonel who fought under George Washington.  I was surprised to find out that back in September major plans had been made for a Colonel William Preston Memorial.  According to the Virginia Dispatches: Newsletter of the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution due to “generous contributions from SAR [Sons of the American Revolution] compatriots, DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] chapters, Preston family members and others…a permanent stone memorial to honor the memory of Colonel William Preston of Greenfield and his distinguished descendants is under way near the site in Botetourt County”.[8]  They have raised enough money to secure a contract with a construction company that guaranteed enough physical progress for a ribbon cutting ceremony 2 months later.  And the nearby site referenced is the very same Greenfield site where the slave cabin and kitchen are being moved from.  After talking to Jim about it for a bit, I was informed that the memorial is to be located right across the street from where the slave cabin and kitchen is supposed to be moved.  However, there will be no mention of the two aforementioned sites at the Colonel William Preston Memorial.

Drawing of Colonel William Preston Memorial
Drawing of Colonel William Preston Memorial

There is a disconnect of some sort here that is telling.  Historical sites should strive to make connections for the visitor – present a well-rounded narrative that includes all known facets of a person’s life and legacy.  I argue that this is not happening here if you do not include slave cabins where the human beings he bought to toil his land for no compensation lived.  This is an instructive example of social forgetting.  From what is said to be the purpose and attraction of this memorial, it is clear that the narrative is of a colonial hero that fought under George Washington.  But the fact that he enslaved Africans and their lives and experiences on his property also reflects a part of Preston’s narrative, yet it is omitted.  These men and women also tell part of Preston’s story.  It is very plausible that they built the slaveholder’s home, their cabins, the kitchen and other various structures on the plantation.  Case in point, in the past I have taken my students to visit the Hampton House in Towson, MD.  One Ridgely descendant who owned the home is called “the builder” because he said to have built portions or the entire home.  When I pressed the docent, we were told that he didn’t actually take hammer to nail on the structures (the enslaved persons built them) but they were built under his ownership, hence the nickname of “the builder.”  But how misleading?!  Historical plantation sites are continuing a narrative that erases the presence and contributions of African Americans.

I began to think deeply about this white supremacist story of southern heroes and how it manages to erase African American material culture, that is the artifacts (i.e. clothing, dwellings, ceremonial objects, kitchen wares, furniture, etc.) used and possessed during a certain period that informs and educates about African American life and lived experience.  Colonel William Preston becomes a planter and not a slaveholder and his life, family, and experiences in the colonial military does not just monopolize the narrative of Greenfield Plantation but is the narrative.

When visitors come to the Colonel William Preston Memorial, how are they to make sense of how he became wealthy from the crops if those who tilled the soil are erased?  Are we to believe that Preston and his family did this sun up to sun down work?  Perhaps.  The more likely conclusion drawn is that “servants,” labored on the plantation.  Again, when I toured the Hampton House with my students, “servants” were said to labor on the farm and care for the planter (not slaveholding) family.  Servants imply persons who were employees NOT held against their will but willfully sought out such work.  It can be concluded that servants are men and women who are financially compensated.

These are not servants but enslaved persons held against their will who were forced to labor without a hope of direct compensation.  Speaking on behalf of her ancestors at the Greenfield Plantation, Shirley Johnson, told the Botetourt county officials that to move the slave cabins and kitchen is to eradicate the African American presence the same as the institution of slavery sought to do. “We slaves survived as a people what was designed to rob us of our history and a future, and now the little physical remains of that history you want to erase like it never happened.”[9]

There is serious cause for Shirley Johnson to be concerned.  Not only because the slave cabin and the kitchen will be disassembled and moved, “eradicating the footprints of African Americans at Greenfield” but more importantly because there is no guarantee that the historic structures will be reassembled and properly restored or even displayed at a historic site.  According to Botetourt county officials, “the structures will be stored in a barn in the Fincastle area” and “funding [is] an issue in the long term reconstruct[ion] of the buildings” meaning that they do not presently possess the money to reconstruct buildings that will be disassembled and left to rot in a nonclimate-controlled barn by February 2016![10]  The first rule of preservation of any historical artifact is the further prevention of mold, dampness, decay.  How is storage in a barn that has not been converted into a property storage unit a step towards preservation?  More likely this is out of sight, out of mind.

[1] Laurence Hammack, “At a Botetourt industrial park, history and progress on a collision course,” The Roanoke Times, November 9, 2015.

[2] Jim Glanville, “Time to save the Greenfield site,” Radford News Journal, November 25, 2015.

[3] Laurence Hammack, “Botetourt County to move forward with plan to relocate Greenfield Plantation slave quarters,” Roanoke Times, November 17, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Laurence Hammack, “At a Botetourt industrial park, history and progress on a collision course,” Roanoke Times, November 9, 2015.

[6] The bond referendum refers to $300,000 of approved county funds, in 1994, for grading, which includes leveling the hilltop where the slave cabin and kitchen are located to make way for the industrial shell, to install roads, water, and sewer.

[7] John Williamson, “Williamson: Botetourt keeps its promises on Greenfield,” Roanoke Times, December 7, 2015.

[8] Rupert Cutler, “Colonel William Preston Memorial,” Virginia Dispatches: Newsletter of the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, August 16, 2015.

[9] Laurence Hammack, “Descendant of slaves implores Botetourt County board to preserve historic buildings as they are,” Roanoke Times, December 17, 2015.

[10] Cathy Benson, “County aims to move Greenfield historical buildings by Feb. 1,” Roanoke Times, December 1, 2015.


Comments on “Another Plantation Site Gets Moved, Misremembered, and Ultimately Erased

  • Many, many thanks for this detailed, informative report on the on-going efforts of Virginia officials to erase the African American experience in Virginia. So sad, so needless, but so revealing of the truth that our country remains racist.

    • Right. Thanks so much for reading and leaving this comment

  • Interesting article. One question, has anyone apply to have the plantation placed on the Historic Registry? I noticed from the article that one had been done for the Col and his family but not for the slave plantation portion of the property, is there a reason after all the research conducted, what is the hold up before it gets destroyed?

    • Great question. Yes, the slave cabin and the kitchen, that will be disassembled and moved, are on the the National Register of Historic Places as of 2011. I reference it in the blog and provide the link here for your review http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/counties/botetourt/011-0026_greenfield_2010_nrhp_final.pdf. So upon finding this out, I had immediate questions surrounding protection and importance. How could Botetourt still carry out plans to move the historic sites after they are on the National Register? But I guess, it boils down to a decision made in 1995 where monetary value outweighs historical value.

      • Thanks for the reply, Ms. Fletcher. Once I review the link you send I probably will have more comments. There is a way, I believe to either appeal this decision or block the attempt to dismantle it until maybe some “anthropological study” or “NPS intervention” can be conducted to give it more “significance “. I am sure you are familiar with the African Project in New York and what happened when they tried to remove the gravesite of the Africans, right? If there is anything I can do to assist, research wise I will be more than willing to help this along, this is an important piece of African American about to be lost.

      • Please know that the community as a whole is outraged over this. I have spoken directly with people that have fought and continue to fight, the county’s move to dismantle. This battle has gone on for years with the county balking and blocking historical preservation. This move does not affect only one aspect or one race in our community. It has a direct impact on everyone. To remove the cabins and kitchen is to obliterate artifacts and concrete evidence of factual daily life. How are we to represent history in a clear concise, accurate manner if we pick up disjointed fragments and move select remnants to a sanitized location?
        This historic site is on a beautiful piece of rolling land. The community has access to walking, jogging and horseback trails. There are no markers, no historical information plaques anywhere. If there are, I apologize. I’ve looked and cannot find them. Our community has a lot of recent transplants that have no concept of our rich history. It’s almost as if it has been kept secret in order to facilitate the erasure of these sites. Erasing history or worse, sanitizing history, puts us on a fast track to repeating atrocities. Human nature, being it what is, is bound to repeat actions unless hard lessons are won and marked.

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  • Once this is gone, and the ground dug up and covered, it will never be recovered or remembered. There are so few sites like that which have survived. We protect endangered species, what about endangered heritage? How can future generations learn from the past if we bulldoze it over for covenience? Thank you for your amazing research for this article. This is a priceless national treasure and should be preserved for the many lessons it can share.

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  • YES! This is so very disgraceful to the history here- all in name of “progress” and increased revenue to Boterout county ( the proposed industrial building). I have walked these trails for several years. A beautiful site. As with any old buildings, I looked up the history, visited the grave yards, and looked up those people. I just wish this could be stopped. The buildings will not even be relocated until the county finds the funds. Until then , they are to be stored in a barn!

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