Time passed quickly as I became engrossed in dusty church documents, portions of Dolley Madison’s letters to her niece Anna, and narratives by slaves and former slaves.
I read accounts of thousands of acres of tobacco cultivated by tens of thousands of slaves. I examined photographs of mansions and slave shacks, deciphered personal letters written by public figures and everyday citizens, and stared at notices of slave auctions. The Orange County of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came alive. It was clear that life in pre–Civil War Virginia was either grand or shabby, filled with optimism or devoid of hope, comfortable or desperate, depending primarily on the color of one’s skin. White citizens, no matter how destitute, had freedom, had never had to fear shackles, chains, and whips. Blacks with “free papers” had freedom as fragile as the documents themselves. For slaves, freedom was an improbable dream.
I was beginning to understand how slavery shaped the lives of my ancestors, both slaves and slaveholders. It spawned the vulnerability of the former and the ironic combination of dependence and power of the latter. Antebellum Virginia was a place where masters treated their slaves as chattel, controlling what they ate, when they worked, when they slept, where they could go, and whom they could love. Yet the powerful were dependent on the vulnerable to cook and clean, take care of their children, work their fields, bathe, dress, and groom them, and, most important, keep them wealthy and secure.
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