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common ground

Stewards of the Human Landscape
Spring 2001

Online Archive

*  "A Careful Negotiation of Space": New Discoveries, Interpretations at Booker T. Washington's Plantation Birthplace

(image) Illustration of park constituants.

"Environmental problems create winners and losers . . . Losers suffer from lost resources, health, and livelihood. Their powerlessness is often tied to poverty, ethnicity, or religion. "

Barbara Johnston

by Joseph Flanagan

Investigations at Virginia's Booker T. Washington National Monument, under an agreement between the Park Service and the state's Sweet Briar College, may draw a new picture of the former slave's early years on the 19th century Burroughs plantation, where he was born in 1856. Until recently, archeologists had investigated less than one percent of the 207-acre tobacco plantation—the site of the monument—whose buildings were largely destroyed over the last century.

Plantation life in Washington's time was what Sweet Briar archeologist Amber Moncure calls a "careful negotiation of physical and cultural space." Before the investigations, some doubted the supposed location of the Burroughs house, where what is left of a modest structure stands a mere 30 feet or so away from the remains of slave cabins. According to Moncure, "If it was that close [to the cabins], it is singular in everything I know about southern plantations. They had too much money to live next to slaves. If they did, there is a cultural reasoning for it that is not typical." University of North Carolina ethnographer Willie Baber believes the Burroughs lived on a knoll about two hundred yards away, which he discovered they owned from an 1850 deed. Archeologists working on the knoll, using magnetometers and other forms of remote sensing, found an area of disturbed earth about 60 feet square, which may be a foundation, with stones suggesting the remains of a building.

The site of the modest structure yielded some 19th century artifacts, but nothing conclusive about who lived there. Excavations of the foundation, slated for summer, should reveal more about the inhabitants.

Elsewhere, archeologists discovered where Washington was probably born. The Park Service knew that a cabin reconstructed to memorialize the event was in the wrong place. According to accounts from the Burroughs children, Washington's family moved to that site later, from a cabin that was falling down. NPS archeologists had a general idea of the actual birthplace, but excavators on this project found what their report calls "substantive evidence." The remains of a wooden cabin and artifacts from the 19th century are consistent with those typically found at sites occupied by enslaved African Americans. The report says the former inhabitants "were living on the edge—little food, few material goods [in] a cabin that was by 1860 in considerable disrepair." Investigators are confident this is Washington's real birthplace.

MJB/EJL