“Reclaim Your Story.” That’s the stirring call to action for descendants of former slaves at the early 19th century Oatlands Plantation, who are among an increasingly large number of African-Americans interested in exploring the family histories of those enslaved at that plantation and other sites.
The plantation was the largest enslaved community in Loudoun—amounting to 133 people at the outset of the Civil War, according to Elizabeth Carter’s diary of her families’ operations at Oatlands, south of Leesburg, and Bellefield Planation, near Upperville. Some workers were hired out and families were often split—adding to the complexity of telling their stories.
Oatlands House and Gardens has formally opened an interactive website exhibit in a garden dependency building that allows descendants to search a comprehensive database of those working for the Carter family—from the slavery era, through the Jim Crow era to modern day—and find individual stories about their ancestors.
The project was funded through a $12,000 grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with support from The JPB Foundation.
Director of Programming and Education Lori Kimball, along with new Oatlands CEO Caleb M. Schutz, was on hand last week to show off the new exhibit, which is accompanied by artwork from Gertrude Ashton Evans, depicting life on the plantation.
“It’s descendant driven,” said Kimball, noting the comprehensive input from those whose ancestors were enslaved on the property. “We asked them what they wanted,” which was a full history and genealogy, with interpretive panels to come later, for the public to see, Kimball said.
“It’s still raw,” Kimball said, adding that she hopes to include information from the World War I and World War II eras, plus expanding the digital expertise to allow a comprehensive interpretation. “We want to do so much more.”
Digging for Stories
During the slavery era, African-Americans were denied their story—stories that most of us today can draw on when we trace our antecedents—and that has made the task of finding family histories more difficult. But it also is making their descendants only more determined to find those facts.
Many are digging deeper into their families’ past.
“I’m a descendant of the enslaved at Oatlands Plantation and many others in Loudoun,” Ellen Thaxton says proudly. Her family came from Loudoun, but during the harsh practices of the Jim Crow era, which segregated everything in public life, her grandfather moved to Falls Church. They later moved back, settling in Sterling.
As a child, Thaxton remembered her mother, Helen L. Cook, introducing her to the family history—history her mother had received from Janie Redwood, a teacher at the Mt. Gap colored school at Gleedsville and reaching back to Professor Rev. Bushrod Murray, who taught at the school for 50 years. He was Thaxton’s great-great grandfather.
“That got me interested. Where did I come from? Whom did I descend from?” she said.
Then she heard about the work being done at Oatlands, and started researching in earnest. Relative after relative emerged.
“I was starting to realize what strong people they were,” Thaxton said, recalling the bullying she received in elementary school in Sterling where boys spat at her and called her names.
She thanked the Oatlands staff for their assistance and welcome during the Descendants Day programs that bring families of enslaved workers back to the property to share their connections each year.
“Every day it’s like opening a Christmas present—it’s constantly unfolding,” Thaxton said of the numerous relatives she’s uncovered from different parts of the country and some from Europe. “It’s a blessing to discover where and who you came from. We stand on their shoulders.”
Biographer Kevin Grigsby has written two well-received books about African-Americans in Loudoun. “Howardsville: The Journey of an African American Community in Loudoun County,” founded by freed slaves after the Civil War; and “From Loudoun to Glory,” detailing the role of African-Americans from Loudoun during the Civil War.
He said for African-Americans seeking details of their family history, the search can be emotionally rewarding. It gives a connection. For African-Americans descendants, for whom there were no records, no deeds, no names of their ancestors, nothing showing where their forebears were born—it puts it in perspective.
Knowing that some former slaves founded freedmen communities, including Howardsville and Gleedsville, is important, he noted.
“I’ve seen some school programs at Oatlands that give the kids a phenomenal glimpse [of history] where the history books don’t give the view they get—actually seeing the place where slavery took place,” he said.
Since he wrote “Howardsville,” in 2008, Grigsby said people have become more aware and more open about exploring the enslaved communities—not just the [Confederate] “lost cause” narrative that has been highlighted for so long.
“Oatlands has been instrumental in that change—it gives people hope,” Grigsby said of Kimball’s constant approach in working to assure their ancestors are not forgotten, but ensuring their lives are well documented.
He came to Oatlands to explore his family connection after discovering a mention of an ancestor at the Carter plantation in Elizabeth Carter’s dairy. Looking at slavery through the Jim Crow era to today—it made him feel part of a family.
“For any descendant to ‘stand in the place’ where his ancestor worked is very moving,” he said.
For Catrice Vandross, the research into her ancestors Andrew and Fanny Buchanan goes back to pre-Oatlands days. They were the parents of Nancy Buchanan Stewart, who was born in 1798 on the site of what would become George Carter’s Oatlands. Vandross found Nancy’s death certificate to corroborate the story. Nancy had three brothers, one of whom was Robert, also born there, from whom Vandross descends.
Vandross first got the history bug during a Colonial Williamsburg seminar on the history of African-Americans in the colonial period.
She contacted the elders of the family and got names from them, and started researching from there.
For the past 20 years, Vandross has been tracing the family history back to Oatlands. She attended a descendants’ gathering and looked at Kimball’s database. Technology has made the job easier—and that’s a good thing, as she’s found 1,300 relatives so far.
The job proved so involved over the past four years that, “I took a break—so I could live in the land of the living,” she said. “It’s a journey, and it’s so rewarding to be able to pass it on to my children—and then to theirs,” as her family didn’t know of their Virginia roots.
The chief emotion that she experiences in her research is one of admiration. “When you take a person’s name away—you don’t know how to live beyond that—and they’ve been able to do that and to survive,” she said.
Oatlands new CEO marveled at the descendants’ ability to tell the complex stories of more than 200 years ago, how to get your head around them. “They’re an incredible example of trying to understand something that happened a long time ago,” Schutz said.