Editor’s note: Michael Schuman is a freelance travel writer whose articles, including this one, have been previously published.
HARDY, Va. — Protected under the broad shoulders of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia is the unincorporated village of Hardy. It would be no different from the many otherwise anonymous communities in these parts, save for the fact that one of the country’s first civil rights icons was born into slavery here.
Booker T. Washington was best known as an orator and educator, and was the first African-American to be invited to dinner at the White House. And here in Hardy is a humble log cabin and reproduced plantation representing his birthplace and childhood home.
Booker T. Washington National Monument, more of a historic site than a typical National Park Service national monument, is as much about Virginia plantation life as it is a tribute to the man himself. The home of the slave-owning Burroughs family was the furthest thing from the stereotypical white-pillared mansion. The family, including seven of their 14 children, lived in a modest five-room log cabin called the big house, but it was big only when compared to the one-room log cabin Booker and his family called home.
On small plantations like these, the owners worked side by side with slaves cultivating the cash crop, tobacco, and subsistence crops such as corn, wheat and oats. There was no overseer. Washington later wrote that the slave owners’ and slaves’ families became like members of a big family.
Regardless of how close owners and slaves got, slaves were property. Slaves worked to keep the Burroughs plantation profitable but they had no incentive other than keeping the Burroughs family from selling, trading or beating them.
The visitors center, which like most National Park Service visitors centers is essentially a small museum, offers insights into slave life detailed in the adult Washington’s writings. It was against the law to teach slaves to read, but Washington said they learned about the world outside their insular home by the “grapevine telegraph,” basically listening in on the owner’s family conversations and passing along the information by word of mouth. One of Washington’s tasks was shooing flies from the big house dinner table with a set of paper fans operated by a pulley. He later wrote, “Naturally much of the conversation turned upon the subject of freedom and the war, and I absorbed a good deal of it.”
The walk from the visitors center to the re-created plantation is an easy quarter-mile loop through a grassy slope dotted with buttercups and clover. The Burroughs house is represented by an outline of rocks marking its original location. However, there is an actual reproduction of a log slave cabin. An outside ladder reaches to its upper floor. Inside, a wrought-iron kettle rests by a modest fireplace. It would have seen plenty of use; the slave cabin also doubled as the plantation kitchen. Straw mattresses served as the slaves’ beds. And while some might first think the wooden door cut into the floor fronted a place for slaves to hide, its true purpose was less intriguing; raw potatoes were kept there so they would stay fresh.
Log-crafted outbuildings surround the big house and slave cabin. Tobacco leaves hang on 5-foot-long oak sticks, officially called laths, in the tobacco barn. Chunks of real meat hang from the smoke house ceiling. Vegetable gardens where peas, cucumbers and different kinds of greens are grown and harvested were tended mostly by female slaves. A few resident pigs rest in their pens. Pigs were future food; salted pork was the main meat source for slaves. Walking the plantation, one hears the sounds of chickens, geese, ducks and sheep. Horsepower was a literal thing in Washington’s day. The family’s four horses pulled plows and wagons and of course, provided transportation. Washington remembered riding one to carry sacks of corn to a local mill.
In the spring of 1865, slaves started hearing through the grapevine telegraph that the Civil War had ended and freedom might be coming soon. The rumor was confirmed one day when Washington, his family and the other Burroughs slaves were told to gather in front of the big house. A Union soldier stood there and read the Emancipation Proclamation to his audience of what would soon be former slaves. A sculpture by artist Lloyd Lillie commemorating the event is in the visitors center.
A descriptive marker records Washington’s reaction. “For some minutes there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy. … The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated colored people lasted but for a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and for their children, seemed to take possession of them.”Comment on this story
Washington’s family left the plantation and moved in with his stepfather in Malden, West Virginia, to start a new life. Washington worked in salt and coal mines during the day and in the evening attended school for the first time. He went on to study at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, graduated with honors, and spent several years teaching. On July 4, 1881 he opened the Tuskegee Institute in an old church in Tuskegee, Alabama. By the time of Washington’s death on Nov. 14, 1915, the Tuskegee campus consisted of over 100 buildings, a faculty of 200 and an endowment of $2 million.
If you go ...
What: Booker T. Washington National Monument
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., daily, closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day, and may close due to inclement weather
Where: 12130 Booker T. Washington Highway, Hardy, Virginia
How much: free