The quiet Tidewater Highway passed wide fields, crossed shallow creeks, wound through meditative views of the Rappahannock River and dimly lit towns down the Virginia Peninsula on route to Hampton. Between teaching, I planned to explore the lands that Piper, a ficitonal character I’ve been writing about, might have traveled on his journey to freedom, and I hoped to learn something more about my own Virginia roots.
I spent the year mapping historic waterside communities and living on Buckroe Beach. Buckroe Beach where African Americans cooled off at the Bay Shore Beach and Resort during hot days of Jim Crow, when racist segregation laws posted white-only signs on the Atlantic Ocean beaches and a fence separated Buckroe with whites on one side and African Americans on the Bay Shore side. The Bay Shore boasted an inn, amusement park, and concerts, which my aunt and uncle remembered fondly. I relaxed feet dug in the sand reading poetry, memoir, letters, song lyrics, and merchant lists. Reading slave narratives, histories, adventure tales, long ago newspapers, pamphlets, and medical practices of Civil War doctors. On walks and the rare occasions I drove a car, I frequently pulled off the road and jotted observations and facts from historical markers, as I came with the idea of discovering more about a character who knew much about nature and applied his knowledge of the earth to tobacco seedlings.
History guided me toward tales the porch-talk storytellers in my family never finished. Curious about the beginnings of things, fiction allowed me to explore little-known lives and histories of marginalised people: neglected women and girls, bruised black and brown bodies, lost and stolen lands, and secrets from the past. Men and women like Piper and Dearly, a healer and teacher he met on his path, struck me as the most under-imagined people. Enslaved and poor. They had no positions authority respected. Yet, all around were remnants of their service; they were observant, aware, and wise. They filled the landscape with polyvocal narratives from the seeding and carving work of their hands and petitions. Yet, plaques and markers omitted their names in the telling of the way things were.
In antique stores and museum shops, I purchased postcards or photographed displays of men, women, and children positioned outside of clapboard structures or tents. A few photographs copied from my grandmother’s albums recorded faces so much like these. Deep-set eyes penetrated the camera lens with no real care to what happened to the photograph afterward. Their bodies seemed choreographed. They stood straight, their hands still, their mouths closed. They rarely leaned against another body. They hid their attachments, and I wanted to touch behind their gaze.
All around were remnants of their service.
From those images, I sketched portraits, porches, and gardens penciling their pattern and texture. Then I walked around establishing relationships in the places. The first visit to Fort Monroe startled me with two complex histories. A historical marker read “First Africans in Virginia…Twenty and odd African men and women.” The language struck me as peculiar. A few steps further another sign read: “Freedom Fort.”
Days later, I waited on the beach as a black sky awakened, and the sun stretched purple and orange along the horizon. I continued my notes imagining the 1619 arrival of White Lion to Old Point Comfort. I pondered the thoughts of the more than twenty Africans as they disembarked, their bellies empty, their eyes squinting, their horror at the strange white people gathered. The captain of White Lion offered the Governor and a merchant to trade flesh for vittles. The colony obliged the hungry seamen with foodstuffs for their journey.
America’s colonial origin myth has long centered on Jamestown, some 50 miles from Old Point Comfort. Another lore, America’s foundation of freedom began with 102 pilgrims on the shores of Plymouth Rock in 1620. When the American freedom narrative began, had the settlers heard of the kidnapping, selling, abusing, raping, maiming, and buying down in Virginia?
There is silence between the years 1619-1620.
Neat rows of headstones every so many bus stops. I exited the bus at the edge of Phoebus in front of a cemetery that reminded me of the manicured greens of Arlington Cemetery. The sign posted at the gate warned, “No guns.” When classes ended, I returned home by first walking to the transit center because buses were unreliable. I walked across the bridge from the campus, over a spread of Hampton River, and through a small downtown of brick colonial buildings trimmed in bright white paint. The bus was late, or I was early, so the transit center had no waiting passengers.
Across the street was a brewery with a spacious parking lot. Next to it was a well-weeded cemetery and historical marker. Seeing the empty bus lanes, I went to the cemetery to get as close as possible. Weeds swiped my knees, and even though I saw no one around, I knew someone watched.
They hid their attachments, and I wanted to touch behind their gaze.
Mary Smith Kelsey Peake’s story covered the historical marker that tilted like a picnic table set too high. Hired by the American Missionary Association in 1861. Taught contrabands (so Union General Benjamin Butler designated the people who sought refuge among the fort) to read and write under the limbs of a live oak near Phoebus. Peake beautifully photographed on a fine settee. Earrings dipped to her delicate neck, a jewelry pin looped the ribbon at her collarbone, a fine lace shawl graced her shoulders, a bracelet of florals adorned each wrist. The teacher relaxed as if she entertained guests. Peake was born on an unspecified date in 1823 and died on February 22, 1862. A year cheated her from witnessing President Lincoln’s proclamation read under the wide limbs of the live oak near Phoebus.
I wrote quickly, then dashed across the two lane-street back to the bus lane. I noticed figures in baggy dark trousers squatting and leaning in the weeds beyond the bus park area. The quiet-like slouching figures, heads tilting forward, hiding their features. Wandering other lands in their thoughts.
When the bus arrived, I boarded clocking the distance to Buckroe Beach. I enjoyed how the waves licked my feet, whipped pebbles formed perfect discs, and the dolphins played in deep water. With hours of light, I settled in my seat. The bus pulled to the end of the lane, and I noticed the baggy-trousered figures still restful in their leans against tombstones. The bus turned in front of Peake’s marker, and I noticed the bus lane sliced a path between the cemeteries.
Birds quieted where boulders set a barrier between the shallow and deep. The evening cooled and a dolphin, then two, arched and pushed their backs into the water. The sea brought up strange things, I thought. Pale almost translucent crabs darted about, then dove into sand caves.
Histories hid beneath the waters and sands and farms of Hampton.
Wandering other lands in their thoughts.
I returned to the places that haunted me. I observed the waterfront of Fort Monroe, the town of Phoebus, the wide limbs of the live oak called Emancipation Oak, and the cemeteries. I visited early morning as birds scratched driftwood. At that hour, the mass of algae at the bottom of the green-tinted moat like unclaimed bodies. I visited in the hottest part of the day and stroked the stones and the indentations where the joints met. I stood under the arches that connected what is now the Casement Museum to the fort walls. I visited at dusk and the shadows that lingered on the cannon shifted to my shoulders.
After weeks of this relationship-building with place, I went to the markers and copied any names and dates into my notebook. I held my head back and leaned into the wind or reclined on a bended tree and ran my fingertips across the grass. Often, I took slow walks and imagined the people on my lists and those unnamed moving. Once I understood the shape of the place, I imagined private moments such as standing in the heat of the sun; squatting over an ant hole; listening to little-ones spell words and holding the hum of the letters in my mouth; blowing into a horn that evening had come; peeling sweat-stained sleeves from my shoulders; pouring water from a pitcher and bending and extending my fingers in the drizzle.
I thought of public moments when there was no escaping another soul such as unloading cargo from a ship, bandaging wounds in the medic tent, and collecting rations for a march. More questions came to mind. The depth of the waters? The distance a soldier marched in a day? How far away was the sound of cannon fire heard? How long the minutes it took to bleed to death?
The lives summed in the expression “Twenty and odd African men and women” haunted me. What were their names? What were their lives before? What traditions might they have bequeathed us? What were their thoughts as they were handed to another group of strangers and then forced apart? What did they imagine they would tell each other if they ever saw one another again?
The shadows that lingered on the cannon shifted to my shoulders.
When I began research, I collected articles in historical journals and news reports. I discovered that shortly after the White Lion landing, the Treasurer, a second ship brought kidnapped Africans to Virginia. I pieced together a narrative of those first years of selling Africans in the Virginia colony. Anthony and Isabella, possibly captives from the White Lion or Treasurer worked on Captain William Tucker’s farm. Within six years, Anthony and Isabella had a son named William. Records identified an Angelo (perhaps Angela) who came to Virginia aboard the Treasurer and worked for William Pierce in Jamestown.
And then. Then history slumped against the masonry separating the bay and the Hampton Roads rivers: the stones of the fort itself. The fort, a symbol of American military might, guarded the Chesapeake Bay for centuries. A historical display detailed the life of the fort, which began in 1609 when Captain John Smith and settlers constructed Fort Algernourne. Later the site was fortified to a seven-front structure of 10-foot thick masonry walls and an eight-foot deep moat. It was finished in 1834. Plaques noted the number of guns, the number of soldiers, and that Robert E. Lee lived there as an engineer with his young family. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned there. It was one of the most significant forts during the Civil War and was controlled by Union Troops for most of the war.
The histories didn’t mention the names who labored and set the stones in mortar. African Americans aren’t mentioned in the narrative until later when across the river from the fort, a landowner, Charles Mallory, prepared to build an artillery to thwart Union advances. Fred Baker, Shephard Mallory, and James Townsend fled Mallory by rowing a boat to the fortress in 1861 and asked the general for their freedom. Butler’s agreement gave Fort Monroe its history as “Freedom’s Fortress.” Yet, the journeys of the three enslaved men required for me to engage in additional research to piece together their stories.
Perhaps my own tree is rooted in that story. My grandmother’s first husband was a Mallory, but I know little more.
Like the narrative of the first Africans, I found my own root map incomplete. It began in Virginia—and beneath the waters, sands, farms, and stones, the histories of ancestors waited to be claimed.
Image credit: Sunrise Ceremony at Buckroe Beach, via 400 Years Forward, Hampton, Virginia 1619-2019 Commemorative Commission
This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.