Back Across Virginia: I Didn’t Want to Love You
Our five years of visiting the entire South would soon be over. As we left central North Carolina, George and I still had a huge portion of Virginia to cross, this time following the Blue Ridge Mountains back to D.C. for our flight home to Denver.
Did I suffer from National Historic Site Fatigue? I even felt ambivalent about looping off US 29 to see Appomattox. Maybe it was just plain old fatigue after weeks packed with chance encounters, tightly scheduled conversations, wrong turns, and too many roadside non-attractions across Virginia and North Carolina. But it was just after the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant in that village courthouse, and George wanted to stop there, so we took state route 24 through some of the most magnificent rural country I’ve ever seen. Mile after undulating green mile, completely devoid of franchise cluster-mucks, billboards, Econolodges, strip malls and stripper joints. Small, tidy settlements nestled between pastureland and patches of undisturbed forest, curvaceous scenery that could make anyone a Virginia lover. When we reached the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, already in love with central Virginia, I fell even harder—the preserved village could not have been more quaint and frozen in 1865. It took little effort to envision two exhausted armies converging nearby, on the very same dirt roads that humped over spring-green horizons ravaged from four years of destruction.
One historical re-enactor played a Union soldier from Ohio, an occupying peacekeeper just after the war’s end. Engaging in his role play, George asked about conditions existing in the village on the war’s final days and after. The soldier lamented that he fought all this time to end slavery and ended up having to manage disputes between newly released freemen and their impoverished, resourceless former owners. “I have to prod Negroes to work for their their previous owners, to help plow the fields to fend off starvation this season. Then I have to prod the former owners to care for the Negroes even though they can’t pay them.”
The Ohio soldier created a portrait of structural, almost hopeless postwar deprivation and chaos I had never fully considered. My history books in school had always celebrated the surrender at Appomattox: the Union won, the slaves were free, and that was that. But no teacher or text ever detailed the desperate, immediate financial and institutional collapse of the South, farmers left with no viable currency or, in April, a single crop to bring to market. The soldier pointed toward the long, narrow roadway wending east and west and remembered for us his final sight of the Confederate men wandering to uncertain prospects. He said many of the Union eyes held tears for their erstwhile American brothers as they began the long march homeward to utter devastation.
Our retreat from Appomattox, however, was glorious. Back roads took us north by northeast through more gorgeous rolling forest and farm country and finally along the thickly wooded east side of the Blue Ridge, a pretty evening of prime Virginia.
The next morning, we stopped at Monticello, the highly organized preservation of the third president’s hilltop manor brought to us by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Despite so many historically accurate settings throughout our Virginia and North Carolina travels, I still expected a slanted presentation here, glorifying Jefferson with the usual panting admiration for the Age-of-Reason Rich Kids we call The Founding Fathers. The vast parking lots and hordes of middle class families waiting for shuttle busses seemed to guarantee a Disney version.
Expelled from the shuttle onto the top of Jefferson’s little mountain, George and I found ourselves jostled into the next scheduled tour of the enslaved peoples’ shacks, which lined the slope above extensive gardens. The slaves’ circumstances were brought to life with an excellent guide, Don McCraken, a former Navy man. Don stressed the dark side of Jefferson’s choice to go on enslaving people while living an unsupportable, debt-ridden life despite their unpaid forced labor. To manipulate grounds-keeping affairs and settle a power struggle, Jefferson even pitted two of his enslaved workers against each other, resulting in injury. As we leaned in to listen, marveling at the Jefferson Foundation’s boldness and honesty about the atrocious topic, a white woman with a strong Southern accent felt compelled, in distress and out of the blue, to assert her view. “Despite my many, many friends of the black persuasion, I have to say slavery was a norm of the time! Jefferson was a creature of his times, sir, and it isn’t fair to judge him by our standards.”
The large group turned to her in uneasy silence. Blonde and well-dressed, she boldly stated her objection and waited for a response. Don simply asked her, and us, if Jefferson had a choice. Several voices arose en masse to counter the blonde. It was undeniable that our third president freely chose to go on supporting the enslavement of his extensive work crew, which contradicted the very immortal words—all men are created equal—that had made Jefferson a world famous revolutionary and statesman.
Both of our other guides, including the garden guide, reiterated the importance of Jefferson’s dependence on unpaid, shackled labor. The manor house guide, Virginia, a University of Virginia history student, stopped to make a clear distinction between Jefferson’s famous words on equality, still displayed over his desk, and his dependence on enslavement. Still, she gave a mostly admiring tour explaining how his sensibility and genius informed his household arrangements. I pulled her aside after the tour to ask if she knew how the themes and facts of the guide’s presentations had altered with time. She answered that critical presentation was not an enemy to the tours but the Foundation’s goal, to present Jefferson as a remarkable human, a flawed man who spawned a remarkable but flawed new nation. Virginia told me that most guides scrupulously stress the role of enslaved people and use only that term today. That role is mentioned far more frequently today than previous guidebooks she’d studied, which glossed over slavery’s role in Monticello almost as an afterthought. One older visitor who overheard our conversation confirmed that his visit in the 1980s celebrated Jefferson as a patriot and inventor and barely mentioned the vile institution that made his patrimony and inventiveness possible.
George and I discussed how ending our journey at Appomattox and Monticello helped redeem our perception of the South. By having the enlightenment and courage to present the deeper truth about our original sin of slavery, the horrors of Civil War and the racist chaos that followed, Virginia’s historical presentations set a healing example for our entire nation. We gain nothing from a whitewashed version but self-delusion and entropy. From my earlier interview, Virginia Senator McEachin’s words echoed, his hopeful belief that Virginia would lead the US in race relations and advancing civil rights, healed by what Virginia “has already confronted and worked to change.” As George said as we left Monticello, “All these historic sites in North Carolina and Virginia are putting conversations about American realities forward. And they’re doing it knowing the conversation will be difficult, that we can’t go forward without facing the truth.”