A Painful Past We Must Not Forget

It isn’t possible to truly understand Stratford Hall’s history without examining the lives of the enslaved Africans and African Americans who labored on Lee family lands and who mastered crafts necessary to make plantation operations flow smoothly. As on other colonial tidewater plantations, it was chiefly their toil that produced the cured tobacco that was the foundation of the region’s agricultural economy up to the American Revolution.

Stratford Hall’s staff uses a variety of tools to tell the story of the many slaves who once lived here and whose presence is now witnessed chiefly through the archaeological record and surviving period documents. An 1801 insurance document that illustrated two 16’ x 32’ slave quarters “built of stone…covered with wood” offers an excellent example of the latter (image courtesy Library of Virginia). This, in turn, helped guide the 1939 reconstruction of the two-roomquarters located southeast of the Stratford Great House. Our curatorial department is currently developing a new furnishing and signage plan for one of these. Aided by 18th-century documentation, this will offer a much-enhanced understanding of the daily lives of four identified members of the Lee slave community. Not only will these improvements enlighten day-to-day visitors, but they will also be valuable assets to our interpretive staff who lead students through the “Slavery” unit of our Educational Adventure field trip program.

To help teachers examine the topic in depth, Stratford Hall is also offering a “Symposium on Slavery” October 2-4, 2009. A residential, day-and-evening program, it will introduce educators to noted slavery scholars, along with the best literature available on the topic. Led by emeritus Virginia Commonwealth University professor Phil Schwarz, the symposium is being supported by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and is closely linked to the Virginia Standards of Learning. Details are at the symposium’s page on our website or simply call the Education Department.

If you cannot come in person please explore the topic of slavery at Stratford Hall by visiting our website. From there you can also link to the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery and discover more about Stratford Hall’s digs as well as about archaeological investigations at other slave-related sites in Virginia, South Carolina, and the Caribbean.