Invisible Lives: Hunting for Slave Quarters at Montpelier

posted on: September 6, 2012

American racial ideology is as original an invention of the Founders as is the United States itself. Those holding liberty to be inalienable and holding Afro-Americans as slaves were bound to end by holding race to be a self-evident truth. Thus we ought to begin by restoring to race—that is, the American version of race—its proper history…Barbara Jeanne Fields

Part I:  Warnings Before I leave

When I tell my friends and family that I’m going on an archeological dig in slave quarters on a tobacco field that is part of James Madison plantation, I’m met with a wide variety of reactions.  Several friends narrow their eyes and say, “Virginia? In August?  You know how hot it will be, right?”

My hairdresser offers tips on greasing my hair with jojoba or olive oil and turning the occasion into a heat treatment instead of risking hair torture by the sun.  Other people nod slowly or wave a hand and comment, “That’s something you would really like” with the clear understanding that they would never sign up for hard labor, in the heat, and dirt, but it fit me.

A friend whose mother had worked on a tobacco field cautions, “My mom had to squish the worms between her fingers. There were poisonous snakes, too. But she was terrified of the worms.”

Another, who’s an artist, becomes very quiet, and concentrates on her fork poking her salad.

“Whatcha thinking?” I ask.

She raises serious brown eyes, “You might be disturbing old souls. And pick up gloom from their tragedy. Imagine the horror.”

“I hope to give a voice to their lives. So we’re reminded again. The issues resulting from slavery have not been erased from our country.  Who knows, maybe I’ll even be inspired with a new character.”

“It’s like visiting the holocaust museum or Auschwitz.  You’re inviting nightmares, you expose yourselves to torture, death.  It might blanket you for months.”

Her reaction is most similar to a friend who is in prison in California.  He becomes very quiet, then says, “People contribute a degree of compassion to slave owners that doesn’t exist.  You can’t work someone to death and have a degree of compassion.  This—prison—is a cakewalk compared of how slaves were treated. It’s hard being in handcuffs but that’s nothing compared to a five pound shackle around your neck. This is a result of a bad decision and life mistake I made. There are no slaves who made a bad decision and ended up in America.” He continues, “When you’re walking through those tobacco fields remember that a couple hundred years ago those tobacco fields were fertilized by human lives. Because the whites captured a people they didn’t respect and forced them to do work they couldn’t or wouldn’t do.  They decimated a group of people and they’re scared there will be 400 years of payback.

“This country was built on the back of backs of slaves. Don’t excuse the slaveholders.”

The husband of one of my dear cookie club friends says, “Well you’re going to learn a lot about the constitution and history. Can’t wait to hear all about it.”

Yes, it is through history that I learned about this program.  My daughter and her fiancé are both American historians, his area of concentration is the Revolutionary period, my daughter is passionate about modern American history, 1965-1985.  They were at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation, and took the thirty mile trip to James Madison’s plantation where they stumbled across the archeological lab.  Excited, they call me up and suggest that the three of us go. “August will be when they’re finding the most important stuff,” my daughter promises. “This will be sooo exciting.” (She speaks like me) “We thought it would be a great trip for us to do together.”

They know me and my interest in archeology, which comes from the love of Egyptology  and having been on several digs in the American southwest. There I dug in a midden—a garbage pit—beside the ruin of crumbling adobe bricks.  I had a sense of the people who lived there, the walls they walked between, the doors they entered, the kiva where they performed rituals and prayers. My most exciting find was a potshard with a fingerprint.  I placed my finger over the small print, the whirls still embossed by the clay. I imagined the woman who made the bowl sitting in the same spot, seeing the same desert, the far away mesa, the unbelievably blue sky, and felt her presence, this woman from a thousand years ago.  Before they knew that the white man and white diseases existed.

But it isn’t only an abstract love of archaeology that drives me. As many of my readers know, we are a biracial family.  Some of my daughter’s ancestors were slaves in the American south. We are seeking understanding of their lives. And a closeness with the least understood or examined group during the formation of our country.

We sign up, and the archeology department sends a forest green tee shirt, and two books: one on James Madison and one on the archeology program at Montpelier.

Of course I don’t read them.  I ready myself for the launch of A Gift for My Sister, my second novel which has as a major theme the formation and acceptance of a biracial family, and a trip to Croatia where I give a copy of the Croatian translation of Christmas Cookie Club to a family there. Meanwhile, I fantasize about what I’ll find on a tobacco field in Virginia in the heat of August.


This is the first of a five part series on an Archeological dig at James Madison’s Plantation, Montpelier.

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