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Exploring Virginia's Lost Century in Search of "The Pathway to Freedom”

By Daniel Lovelace

“Americans need to be reminded of the many important social and economic changes that occurred in Virginia between Pocahontas and Patrick Henry because the legacies of these events remain with us to this day.”

Now that the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding has been successfully  commemorated, Virginians are faced with the logical follow-on question --“O.K., what happened next?” This is not a trivial or academic question if one believes that History is a vital force in the culture, politics and society of any nation, and especially contemporary America. Perhaps because of the trauma their region experienced during and after the Civil War, southerners tend to be especially aware of the psychological and emotive power of popular historical awareness. The novelist William Faulkner sensed this fact, and once observed “Do not tell me that the past is history. It is not even past.”

The establishment of an English commercial foothold at Jamestown in 1607 and its official designation as a Crown Colony in 1624 were but prologues to the serious institution-building which took place in Virginia during the next one hundred years. In reality, “What happened next” has had a far more profound influence upon 21st Century America than the original economic ambitions of Jamestown’s founders. And arguably the most historically potent new institution created by Virginians during the last three quarters of the 17th century was that of legally-supported Black Chattel Slavery.

Yet, in a speech given to the Williamsburg Kiwanis Club last year, Rex Ellis, Vice President of the Historic Area at Colonial Williamsburg, noted the increasing difficulty of “…convincing diverse, discerning and increasingly sophisticated audiences that African-American history is part of the American narrative…” In conclusion, he stated “I submit to you that slavery is part of the master narrative of who we are as a nation.To imagine it away would be to denigrate, to discount and to defile the memory of those who were enslaved.” I can understand Mr. Ellis’ frustration, because for the last five years I have been involved with the Historic Green Spring Project, which has sought to raise the public’s awareness of the period 1640 to 1740—a chapter in Virginia’s colonial history that some have characterized as a “lost” or “inconvenient” century.

It is “lost” because its stories are seldom found in public school textbooks or on The History Channel, even though scholarly research continues to illuminate the period. It is “inconvenient” because learning about its major social and economic events makes contemporary Americans uncomfortable—too many issues of racial, class, and cultural conflict must be addressed. Moreover, the period is often dismissed because Virginians in those days were still British colonial subjects, and thus its events are not seen as part of “America’s Story,” which many prefer to believe did not begin until 1775.

As Mr. Ellis pointed out, over the years the major historical interpretive organizations in the Historic Triangle, and especially the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, have repeatedly attempted to address Slavery-related issues. The problem is that their approach to the subject has been episodic, rather than comprehensive. Current “snapshots” of the African-American experience, such as those provided by Colonial Williamsburg’s recreation of daily life on “Great Hopes Plantation” and interpretations of urban slave life at the Peyton Randolph House simply do not provide sufficient historical perspective. It is not enough to focus only on “African-Americans in the Revolution,” or the “Free Black Experience.”  Rather, it is necessary to interpret Slavery’s entire life cycle—how it came into being, evolved over time, was resisted, and eventually destroyed.

Perhaps the full sweep of the American Slavery story will eventually be told by the Slavery Museum that former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder and others plan to build in Fredericksburg, or by a future Museum of African-American History sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. But this prospect should not prevent the Historic Triangle from making its own contributions to this effort, especially when the Williamsburg/James City County area is uniquely positioned to do so.

Located in the heart of James City County, Green Spring is the only mid-17th Century Virginia plantation where the ownership of slaves straddled three centuries. Green Spring plantation was one of the places where African slaves first began to replace European indentured servants in the 1660s, where plantation-based slavery “boomed’ during the 18th Century, and where, in 1803, a young owner’s will emancipated Green Spring’s slaves and provided them with 20-acre Black farmsteads now encompassed by James City County’s “Freedom Park.”

Historic Green Spring represents the “middle” chapter of Virginia’s African-American history that begins with the arrival of the first Blacks at Historic Jamestowne in 1619 and ends with the development of Free Black communities such as the one found at Freedom Park. If these three chapters could somehow be functionally “integrated” to form a linear historical park, this “Pathway to Freedom” would tell the greater story of the historical “road” traveled by the ancestors of many African-Americans, some of whom live in James City County today. It also would enhance the Williamsburg/JCC area’s ability to interpret ALL of Virginia’s history, including the century that produced both a “slave culture” and the political elite that would later organize and lead a successful  rebellion against British Imperial rule.

Americans need to be reminded of the many important social and economic changes that occurred in Virginia between Pocahontas and Patrick Henry because the legacies of these events remain with us to this day. By providing the bridge connecting well established programs highlighting Jamestown’s founding and the Revolutionary War, cooperative efforts to develop and interpret Historic Green Spring would help bring Virginia’s “Lost Century” into sharper focus. Moreover, as part of “The Pathway to Freedom,” Historic Green Spring would help make Tidewater Virginia’s “Historic Triangle” even more diverse, inclusive, and interesting to the public.

Daniel Lovelace is a member of the James City County Historical Commission, and served as President of The Friends of the National Park Service for Green Spring, Inc. during 2003-2006.


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