A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited the state of Virginia. While there, we went to the American Civil War Museum, formerly known as the Museum of the Confederacy, a small town called New Castle in the western part of the Commonwealth, Washington and Lee College in Roanoke (Home of Lee Chapel, the final resting place of Robert E. Lee), Monticello, and the University of Virginia Campus. During this trip, and since, I have reflected quite a bit on the history of race relations in the United States, especially the lasting impact of what many refer to as America’s original sin: the enslavement of millions of people of African origin. This past weekend’s horrific events at UVA have placed an additional point of context on those reflections and prompted me to share some of my thoughts here.
The place where these thoughts were most poignant was at Monticello. Before touring the mansion, we did what they call the Slave Tour. This tour is actually more of an interactive talk, as most of it takes place with the visitors seated, listening to a speaker talk about the lives of the enslaved people on Jefferson’s plantation. It was here that I heard stories that made me question my reverence for the man who wrote of self evident and inalienable rights, which all men are given by the Creator. I also heard stories of great courage and love on the part of those who were enslaved or had recently been freed. Before and after the presentation, I walked along Mulberry Row, which is a foot path along which many of the slave quarters and worksites were located. One of the huts, said to have been inhabited by the Hemings family is still standing. Most of the others, along with the work buildings are reduced to the foundation. But being there, hearing the stories, many of which quoted first hand accounts describing fear of not just corporal punishment, but death, and worst of all, separation from one’s family – it sliced through me. I don’t think any of us can fathom the pain of knowing that on any day, our child or spouse could be taken from us on a whim, and shipped far away, with no way to know where they are, how they are doing, or if they are even still alive. There were certainly slave owners who were harsher than Jefferson, but the system itself was built on violence and threats of violence. There is no getting around this reality. There is something inherently de-humanizing about saying that you own another person, both for you, and the person over whom you claim ownership.
After the Slave Tour, we toured the mansion. During this tour, we were told of Jefferson’s need to always be learning or working. We were told that during a trans-Atlantic voyage with just a copy of Don Quixote and a Spanish grammar book he taught himself Spanish. We saw a room where he had five book stands in a circular arrangement so he could read from any one of the five at any time. We saw oddities that he had collected from around the world. And the one thing that kept going through my mind as I was hearing all this was that he was able to spend all this time learning, writing, traveling, and philosophizing, because he had 100 plus human beings who were paid only with a small living space and the bare minimum of food to eat, keeping his plantation running, earning him money. I could not escape the irony that the man who wrote “All men are created equal” and endowed with “inalienable rights” to include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” kept hundreds of men, women and children in bondage. Our guide informed us that this irony was not lost on Jefferson himself, but it did not apparently trouble his conscience enough for him to free those he held as slaves, nor pursue the abolishment of the practice in the United States.
After our tour of the house, we walked back down to the visitor center, passing by the Jefferson family cemetery where we saw the large monument erected to Thomas Jefferson, and then almost in the parking lot, we came to the final stop of the day: A slave cemetery. But cemetery probably isn’t the right word. Cemeteries usually have markers and head stones. These are completely absent in this location. There isn’t even any grass growing there, as if even the grass is protesting the horrors these people endured. There is just a simple fence and a couple of signs, showing where they have discovered bodies. Even in death, they are denied their humanity. We stopped, sat on one of the benches provided, contemplated this reality, and prayed in silence. I prayed that we as a society will work to understand where we have been as a nation, and make a concerted effort to never be satisfied until the day arrives where the color of one’s skin is as inconsequential to opportunity and success as the color of one’s eyes. I prayed that when we think of the accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, we remember too, those enslaved persons whose labor afforded them the time and energy to accomplish the things they accomplished in the founding of this country.
Fast forward a couple hundred years. Yes, slavery has been eradicated (or at least made illegal) and over the past fifty years, many advances have been made in the direction of equality. Official segregation has ended, though depending on the neighborhood, school, or church you visit, you might not think so. And it is painfully clear from the events of the last few days, if it wasn’t already, that there are still far too many in our society who view race as a dividing line, separating us from them. Many of the people who gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee think that their skin color makes them superior to others. Most perplexing of all, they manage to convince themselves that this is compatible with Christianity. It is all too obvious that whatever progress has been made, there is still a long way to go. So, I will go back in my mind to that bench on the edge of the slave burial ground, and repeat the prayers that I offered there. And I will ask you to pray with me.