Yesterday and today Sweet Briar has hosted Joseph McGill Jr., a field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and his Slave Dwelling Project.
In this video, Mr. McGill explains the project, which is dedicated to raising awareness of and preserving the buildings in which African Americans lived while enslaved.
Mr. McGill told me yesterday that Sweet Briar is the first college campus to host his project, which has previously taken him to national and state parks, various historical and living-history sites, and private properties. Yesterday he gave a public lecture and a tour of both the slave cabin and of Sweet Briar House, the “big house.” After that, he and eight members of the community slept in the slave cabin. His visit will conclude with a lunchtime talk in the dining hall today. It has been a privilege to have this program on campus — thanks are due to the Tusculum Institute for sponsoring it.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that the topic of slavery is comfortable or easy to discuss. It’s painful to acknowledge the role slavery played in our region, our state, and our nation, much less its role in the specific history of the property the college occupies and in creating the wealth that established Sweet Briar. Some — both white and African-American students, neighbors, and colleagues — have questioned the value of drawing attention to this painful topic. It would indeed be a grave mistake to focus on the period of slavery to the exclusion of other eras — say, the civil rights movement, which fifty years ago led to the legal integration of Sweet Briar — or of the achievements of 20th-century African Americans, Sweet Briar’s relationship to white workers or the Monacan nation, or the Fletcher family’s deep commitment to education for women.
Nonetheless, it is important that we seek to learn about and understand even those aspects of our history which raise difficult emotions — emotions of guilt, anger, shame, grief and all the complex reactions thinking about slavery and racism evokes. I will confess that, yesterday, it was not easy for me to contemplate Sweet Briar House, the house in which so much of Sweet Briar’s cherished history took place, the house which all Sweet Briar women love as a symbol of our tradition and heritage, as a plantation’s “big house,” with all that phrase entails. But of course, there was a time when that is what it was. Both things are true — it was once the home of slave owners and workplace of enslaved people, and it is now the beloved site where alumnae and students of all races gather in friendship and shared purpose.
Yesterday, Mr. McGill and Tusculum Institute Director Lynn Rainville were speculating that the boxwoods that stand between Sweet Briar House and the slave cabin were planted sometimes well after Emancipation to block the view of the cabin from the House. Their conjecture was that those boxwoods were planted to obscure an architectural reminder of a history that was too painful to confront. Now, as we continue to do research on all aspects of Sweet Briar history, we do not wish to obscure the Slave Cabin any longer. We wish to look at it, with understanding and clarity, as a meaningful part — but just one part — of our history.