Monument dispels notions about plantation life

Short Hop

Roanoke: A true picture of slavery and the old South emerges in the Virginia birthplace of educator Booker T. Washington.

April 07, 2002|By Michael Schuman | Michael Schuman,Special to the Sun

Discard your preconceived ideas of plantation life in the ante- bellum South, those notions of white-pillared mansions, formal balls and women in billowing gowns. The Virginia birthplace of famed black educator and political adviser Booker T. Washington hurls a coat of mud on the image of wealth and splendor in plantation palaces.

Here in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Roanoke is the Booker T. Washington National Monument, a living depiction of plantation life as it commonly was. The site is both a tribute to the accomplishments of Washington as well as a gritty look at daily life in the pre-Civil War South. To many visitors, it's a shock.

"Most people who come here expect to see Tara," says Alice Hanawalt, referring to the book Gone With the Wind. "But there were more of these plantations than Taras, especially here in the Piedmont area of western Virginia," adds Hanawalt, a longtime interpreter at the site who recently retired.

Plantation owners James and Elizabeth Burroughs lived with 10 children in a scanty log house and were too busy scratching out a living to be entertaining the Scarlett O'Haras and Rhett Butlers of the antebellum world. It's this setting, the one in which young Booker first saw daylight, that the National Park Service presents to the public.

A day in a slave's life

The grounds are not especially spacious; you can walk across them in five or 10 minutes, and when you do, you are compelled to see things from the point of view of slaves and not slave owners -- yet in some ways, the average day for both was similar.

The owners worked side by side with slaves cultivating tobacco and subsistence crops. Washington later wrote: "In this way we all grew up together, very much like members of one big family. There was no overseer, and we got to know our master and he to know us."

Off the tobacco fields, however, they went separate ways. The Burroughs family ate meals and slept in the "Big House," a label dripping in irony. The house had five rooms and was big only when compared with Booker's family's one-room cabin. Booker spent mealtime in the Big House now and then, but not as a diner. He was often called to fan flies from the dinner table while his owners ate.

The slaves' other duties? On any given day, they could be found making candles or lye soap, spinning wool, banging out nails in the blacksmith's shed or picking tobacco.

For years, the staff interpreted Booker T. Washington National Monument with a heavy emphasis on period craftmaking in addition to the historic angle. But in the mid-1990s, it was decided that to keep up with the times a change in interpretation was needed. Spinning wheels and candle-drying racks are less frequently seen now. The new emphasis is on history.

Visitors today learn how Washington, his family and innumerable forgotten slaves were affected by slavery, reconstruction and racism. The story is told through new interpretive dialogue and periodic living-history programs. Tours in winter and spring are self-guided, but daily guided tours are offered in summer and fall.

In addition, because Washington lived here only until age 9, the emphasis in past years was mostly on his youth. Today one hears about Washington as both child and adult, including his 400-mile journey on foot at age 16 to enroll at the Hampton Institute, his landmark founding of the Tuskegee Institute and his role as adviser to presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Taft.

Washington's famous return

Depending on the specific tour, one may also hear about Washington's now-famous return here in 1908, at the age of 52. When asked whether slaves were whipped, he responded, "Those sorts of things went on so often that hardly anyone but slaves ever took notice of it."

Washington pointed to a catalpa tree and said: "I saw an uncle whipped right over there. I do not recall the purported crime that the retribution was being meted out for, but I do remember the hideous cries of that man. Bad as it was, there were many far more cruel than my owners, some it seemed who actually took delight in the whipping of helpless men, women and even children."

The Burroughs family kept records of all their property, which before the Civil War included: four horses, four "milch" cows, about a dozen sheep, 16 swine, chickens, ducks, geese and eight to 10 slaves, which, like livestock, were property.

Today's visitors can see resident workhorses hauling hay wagons, and they can pet Elizabeth the sheep and hear the gobbles of Tom the turkey.

Washington wasn't usually petting sheep or talking turkey. When not fanning flies or hauling corn, he would clean the farmyard or carry water to slaves in the fields. After work, he could be found in his dank family cabin, which is replicated on the site.

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