The Danger of ‘Casually Forgetting’ Racial Violence

Postcard of Confederate Monument, Abingdon, Va. (Photo via Boston Public Library on Flickr)

Southwest Virginia has casually forgotten the racial violence at its heart, as if this ugly history never happened. Instead, the Confederacy is memorialized, new stores are built on top of unique historical landmarks, and community leaders too often simply ignore the few known artifacts that tie the region to the exploitation of the slaves on which much of Appalachian society was built.

Elizabeth Catte, public historian and author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, might call this “the myth of whiteness.” It manifests through willful neglect of public memorialization of the actual history of the racial violence, economic exploitation and inequality that in reality built the region.  

But publicly recognizing the history of race-based violence would dispel the myth that slavery was unimportant here in Appalachia, and in Southwest Virginia in particular, as conversations about racial inequality and injustice take place across Virginia, Appalachia, and the country.

Elected representatives and ordinary folks, large institutions and small town community associations all can shine light on their shameful shared history, and shift the tone of the conversation toward recognition and memorialization.

Just last year, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed two bills (HB 1547, HB 2296) into law that give equal status to African American cemeteries and their preservation by the state.

But before those official measures, a shift was already apparent in the small town of Quicksburg in the Shenandoah Valley, where the local government publicly dedicated a slave cemetery in the spring of 2016 with a plaque, trails and benches.

The Rev. Bill Haley played a major role in the memorialization process. He is the executive director of Corhaven, a nonprofit “retreat farm” in the town.

A few years ago, Haley learned of the long forgotten slave cemetery after he purchased adjacent land to expand the retreat. Since then, he has worked alongside his family and some residents to recognize and memorialize the racial injustice that built his corner of Virginia.

The National Burial Database for Enslaved Americans is “the first national repository of information on the grave sites of individuals who died while enslaved or after they were emancipated,” writes Sandra A. Arnold, executive director of the Database. The project is joined with the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fordham University, the Periwinkle Humanities Initiative, and the 1772 Foundation.  

Arnold remembers going with her family to decorate slave graves near her church cemetery in West Tennessee, where her ancestors were once enslaved. Arnold writes in The New York Times that the memorialization project is significant because it shines a light on “overlooked lives (that) are an inextricable part of the historical narrative of our country.” The cemeteries and slave stories “offer our contemporary society examples of resilience and humanity,” Arnold said, and preserving them “contributes to our own humanity.”

Public memorialization efforts like this are evidence that a shift is afoot in local legislation, as well as in the national and regional conversations about racial inequality and injustice. They mark a tonal change beyond the more obvious and visible nationwide conversation raised by Black Lives Matter on police violence against Black bodies, disagreements over Civil War memorials, and neo-Nazi-white supremacist/anarchist street clashes.

A History of Race-Based Violence

Census records show that slavery has been a violent and unjust part of Southwest Virginia’s basic moral framework and political economy since the 18th century.

Gordon Aronhime examined census records from Washington County in his article “Slavery on the Upper Holston” in 1980, which also included census records for surrounding counties. The records show that in 1786, the north fork of the Holston River Valley in Southwest Virginia had a population of over 5,693 people, including 383 slaves, or 6.73 percent of the population. In 1830, 16.45 percent of the people living in Washington County were slaves. The number of slaves peaked in 1850 and declined in Southwest Virginia until the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Southwest Virginia had relatively few slaves compared to counties in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of Virginia, which enslaved between 40 and 60 percent or more of the population. The Piedmont region of Virginia was similar to the coastal areas in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida.

The town of Abingdon, the seat of Washington County, had a thriving slave economy and was a market stop along the “Slave Trail of Tears” that stretched from Alexandria, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Edward Ball writes that this trail was a three-month-long forced coffle from slave markets in cities like Richmond and Alexandria to market destinations in the Lower South. Armed white men forced groups of bound slaves to walk for 10 hours per day. Between 1810 and 1860, nearly 450,000 slaves were forcibly marched through Virginia along the Great Wagon Road, or what people today call U.S. Route 11. Ball points out that in the Upper South, Virginia was the top source of Black slaves for the Lower South. Abingdon and Southwest Virginia were mountain markets along the way to the great plantations of the antebellum South.

Our history in Southwest Virginia is built on race-based violence and labor exploitation. The forced labor of Black slaves was central to the early development, growth, expansion, and affluence enjoyed especially by the more prosperous white, land and business owning families. That brute fact is nowhere recognized today in Southwest Virginia.

The political problem today is that all those stories seem to be forgotten, and the political and economic establishment acts as if this history did not happen. The violence and exploitation is not publicly recognized or memorialized, which perhaps would go some way to healing our collective wounds. Instead, we have numerous publicly recognized monuments dedicated to the white, mostly wealthy, and mostly male heroes of the Civil and Revolutionary Wars.    

Casually Forgetting the Past in the Present

The Resting Tree slave cemetery near the Washington County and Bristol City border on the Jeb Stuart Highway holds an estimated 100 unmarked and largely unmaintained slave graves. The ancient White Oak served as a shade tree for slaves forced to work the vast fields of Robert Preston’s plantation, according to local historian V. N. “Bud” Philips. Philips lobbied Bristol City, Washington County and civic organizations to mark the site nearly two decades ago, but to no avail. Philips has since died and the cemetery remains largely ignored.

The Meadows development project in Abingdon is the most publicized example of this pattern of disregard for history. The farm was once a slave-run plantation. In 2015, the Abingdon Town Council learned that slave graves were likely located on the property and possibly also Native American graves. The Bristol Herald Courier reported that the Abingdon Town Council, lead by the Mayor and Vice Mayor, repeatedly denied motions to allow the farm property to be searched for free by knowledgeable town and county residents like local historians, the Washington County Cemetery Association, or the Friends of Abingdon. Friends of Abingdon have also filed lawsuits in federal court to stop the development project, but to no avail.

Instead, with legal authorization, Abingdon has already broken ground on an outdoor sports complex for youth and league play on one part of The Meadows. Food City has broken ground on another bigger grocery store on another part of the property. Reportedly, all of the outbuildings and barns are going to be destroyed, but the house preserved.

Conspicuously absent are any official markers that recognize the historical facts of the legal system of slavery and exploited labor that accompanied the Confederate government in Southwest Virginia. Thousands of legally owned slaves in Washington County were registered as property at the Abingdon courthouse. Today, the Common Confederate Soldier statue and the memorial to the five Confederate generals from Washington County stand on its lawn. The courthouse and the Confederate memorials are all located on U.S. Route 11, once the “Slave Trail of Tears,” and Abingdon’s Main Street.

All of this violence, exploitation and stark inequality are nowhere to be found in public memory, denied by elected representatives and civic organizations, bulldozed over, and developed into entertainment and consumer venues, the embodied myth of whiteness in its mundane form.

Resisting the Myth

Casually forgetting the past is not an acceptable response because, to borrow from Sandra Arnold, our humanity is at stake. Repeating the consensus myth that race never mattered and that chattel slavery didn’t exist in the mountains fails to ring true, in light of the evidence. One way to resist this myth of whiteness would be to publicly memorialize the racial violence at the heart of Southwest Virginia.

Jacob L. Stump is an author, professor and small business owner from Konnarock in Southwest Virginia. 

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