Hidden in Plain Sight
From failed land deals to secret wartime hideaways, the ghosts of plantations past have many stories to tell.
At the same time that upper-class landowners were losing their footing, life for the black slaves who worked the sprawling plantations was, in some ways, growing more stable. “African imports had largely stopped by the American Revolution, so Virginia slaves were becoming increasingly American-born, and developing their own culture,” says Douglas Sanford, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “We see more demographic stability. There’s evidence of African-Americans really maintaining family practices, like naming children after grandparents. Their marriages were not considered legal by white society, but black society does recognize all this kinship.”
The dynamics between slave and master were also constantly shifting. In the early days of the American Colonies, “you had Africans of different cultures and languages coming together by force,” Sanford says. “Planters wanted them to learn how to speak English so they could communicate.
But as the enslaved became more Americanized, they [were] able to exploit the weaknesses in the system.” Slaves who knew how to read and write, for example, could portray themselves as free blacks and escape. They could sabotage their masters. They could organize other slaves to revolt.
Nervous legislatures across the South responded by enacting a series of increasingly stringent laws, known as “slave codes” or “black codes.” Educating slaves became illegal, and African-Americans—whether free or slave—were not allowed to gather in groups. Plantation owners who wanted to discipline unruly slaves without personally meting out the punishment could send them away to slave jails, where others handled the brutality.
Meanwhile, some slaves found more-subtle ways to assert themselves. “Slaves [weren’t] the willing partner that they were often portrayed [as],” Sanford says, noting that archaeology continues to reveal new insights into the lives, possessions and finances of slaves. “They found a means of accessing money; they were aware of fashion changes; and in some cases, they were making purchases of items [such as imported porcelain teacups] that were current and expensive.”
Though Alexandria (including the area we now know as Arlington) remained pro-slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War, local landowners realized well before the war that the institution of slavery was bringing them more financial pressure than profit. The market for tobacco (a Virginia lifeline) was dwindling, whereas demand for Southern-grown cotton had skyrocketed with the invention of the cotton gin and the resulting demand for raw materials such as cotton for factory-made goods.
“The dependence on slavery [to produce cash crops such as cotton] was more to the South, so the county was largely pro-Union,” Penrod says. “Custis and Lee didn’t agree with the radical policies of the cotton planters in the South.”
In fact, Lee was in the middle of emancipating all of the Custis slaves—to comply with his father-in-law’s will—just as the Civil War broke out. Freeing them was a major undertaking, given that Custis owned 200 slaves across three properties at the time of his death in 1857. (In addition to Arlington House, he owned two Richmond-area plantations, known as Romancoke and White House.) His will dictated that all of his slaves must be freed by 1862.
Lee’s efforts would soon become irrelevant, however, as his home and other area plantations were seized for wartime use, leaving the landscape forever changed. But we can still glimpse what life was like for these early Virginians, white and black, in the legacies they left behind. The following estates, whether crumbled to ruins or impeccably preserved, shed light on the complex lives of those who came before us.