I live on the unmarked graves of human chattel. Nearly all Americans do, in some sense, but in the South it’s literal.
A glance at the history of Prince George’s County, Maryland shows it was one plantation after another. Fairview. Belair. Pleasant Prospect. In the smarmy name department I think my favorite is probably His Lordship’s Kindness: Imagine being a slave and waking up there every morning.
Plantations were like that though, horrible places with saccharine names. In Maryland they grew tobacco, a noxious, addictive weed with little redeeming value. Among its planters was the lawyer Gabriel Duvall:
In 1811, James Madison nominated Duvall to the U.S. Supreme Court. He served for many years, but historians now argue about whether any other justice was less consequential. This is Justice Duvall’s house:
Named “Marietta,” it passed for a mansion in its day. Marietta sits a pleasant five miles from my own house; it’s a good landmark for long-distance runs. It’s also a county museum. In the warm months, Marietta’s front lawn hosts a farmer’s market.
The justice is buried in the back; so is his wife. So is his horse, for that matter. It has a tombstone and everything.
On social media we learn of visitors’ inconvenient questions: Where did the slaves live? What were their lives like? What did they eat? How did they pray? Where are they buried? And many of these questions go unanswered.
Yeah, we already know about the horse. Thanks.
It matters what we make monuments of. It matters what we deliberately set up to admire and commemorate. These things get re-negotiated from time to time, but not, as conservatives sometimes say, because we are trying to erase history.
Something else is happening here. I’m a white guy with relatively few family ties to the South, and even I would much rather know about the slaves’ lives than know the final resting place of the horse of an inconsequential Supreme Court justice.
The story of the past is contested and difficult to tell, not because some mendacious party is out there vigorously changing it, but because multiple completely true stories really are possible to tell from the exact same primary sources. All that needs to vary is the emphasis, and we vary that emphasis ourselves, simply by asking different questions of the past: All across the South there are monuments to a deliberately perpetrated atrocity, done in cold blood, from generation to generation. And plantation life really was sweet, for some.
It is a joke among historians that we ascribe all causality to the rising bourgeoisie. Inconveniently, the bourgeoisie has been rising for a good five thousand years or so, and things that seem to explain everything usually explain nothing. But it is sure interesting being bourgeois, though, on the ruins of slavery. It’s especially interesting when most of your neighbors actually are the black bourgeoisie that your grandparents’ grandparents never thought possible.
This article is eleven years old, but it’s about our neighborhood, the one we share with the grave of Justice Duvall:
“Grandma, who are these old people up there?” Anna Holmes asked when she was a little girl in the 1930s, pointing to the sketch of her great-great-grandparents. It hung in the living room in a gold-colored frame, looking as if Norman Rockwell had channeled Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The man in the picture wore suspenders and a bushy mustache and had a sparkle in his eyes. The woman had on a large apron and a bandanna framing her round face.
“Well, that is my grandmother and grandfather,” Fannie Johnson replied to the girl who always spent summers on Church Road, where tobacco fields once stretched to the horizon. “That is Lizzie and Basil Wood.
“They are buried on the Bowie plantation.”
At 12, Anna was curious but wary. She knew that the Bowie family estate was just down the road, but the black and white children on Church Road rarely mixed.
“I felt like there was an invisible wall,” she would recall many years later.
So her grandmother’s words sank into her mind, like pennies in a fountain.
As a trained historian, I’ve spent a lot of time hearing from conservatives that the profession of history is destroying itself, or destroying the country, or both. I have a hard time imagining anything more wrong than these objections. Stable histories are for static societies. The history of a diverse and growing and changing society — the history of a heterotic society — will itself be heterotic. It will change and grow over time, and various parts will be emphasized more, or less. It is not a sign of our decline, but of our growth, that our histories become more diverse.