We found this photo in Brian's father's massive (and massively disorganized) collection after he passed away in April 2011. Ed Palmer—known to his Southern kin as "Eddie," "Ed Lee," or "Eddie Lee"—stands second from left, next to his sister Ethelyn Springs and behind the headstone of his paternal grandfather, Mat(t)hew Palmer. The other headstone, we have come to believe, is that of his grandmother, Julia Fox Palmer.
Ed/Eddie/Ed Lee was 15 years old in 1943 when the U.S. Navy invoked eminent domain and took his family's land—located in a patchwork of largely African American communities called Magruder—to build Camp Peary. Mat, born a slave in Amelia County, Virginia, and Julia, most likely enslaved in Gloucester County before the Civil War, had come to own that land sometime around the turn of the 20th century. They divided it up and passed it down to their 12 children, many of whom raised their own families on it.
We knew little of this when we first saw the photograph. Brian had heard the name Mat Palmer, but he knew nothing about his great-grandfather. Mat died in 1927, the year before Ed was born, and it seems the family didn't talk much about the past. Ed, who spent much of his life trying to leave Virginia behind, never got over the loss of his family's land—he remained deeply bitter until his death nearly 70 years later.
Camp Peary is now a top-secret military base. It is also a CIA training facility, colloquially known as the Farm. The base is closed to the public except through explicit permission from the powers that be.
Camp Peary, York County, Virginia, circa 1998.
After months of back-and-forth with Camp Peary officials, Brian succeeded in securing permission to visit, along with a small group of family members, the cemetery where his great-grandparents are buried. Camp Peary, Virginia, February 2012.
Mat Palmer's headstone stands among a dozen or so scattered graves in a forest clearing, separated from a firing range by a stand of trees. Old Orchard was one of at least two burial grounds for Magruder's African American community, the majority of the population. At the time we visited, we did not yet know that Mat had served in the Union Army at the tail end of the Civil War. We did not know that he had been enslaved in Goochland County, west of Richmond. We'd only just learned the name of the woman he married, Julia Fox, in the summer of 1873. Who were these people? How did they find their way to this place? What lives had they led? Camp Peary, Virginia, February 2012. Photo: EHP
Old Orchard Cemetery, Camp Peary, Virginia, February 2012. Photo: EHP
York River Presbyterian Church, where Magruder's small white community worshiped. It was immaculate inside and out when we visited—grass freshly mown, hymnals in the pews. We were driven here after visiting Old Orchard, the final resting place of Mat Palmer, Julia Fox Palmer, Patsy Allen, Nelson Stokes, and other members of Magruder's African American community. The contrast—a clearing in the woods on the one hand, a beautifully tended churchyard on the other—was lost on no one. Camp Peary, Virginia, February 2012. Photo: EHP
A view through the polished glass of York River Presbyterian Church, Camp Peary, Virginia, February 2012. Photo: EHP
We have discovered since this journey began how pervasive Confederate nostalgia remains in the "New South." There wouldn't be anything particularly remarkable about this image, therefore—were it not for the fact that it was taken at Camp Peary, a U.S. military base. This shrine to the Unknown Confederate Soldier is neatly tended, along with the church (York River Presbyterian) by which it stands. Not far away, the hand-carved headstone of a Union Army veteran (Mat Palmer) falls to pieces. Another crack had appeared in February 2014, the left arm of the cross threatening to split off at any moment. Camp Peary, Virginia, February 2012. Photo: EHP
We knew when we began this documentary project that we'd be starting more or less from scratch. Few physical traces of Magruder remain, and what little is left is, for all intents and purposes, off-limits. Camp Peary, Virginia, February 2012. Photo: EHP
Old Orchard Cemetery, Camp Peary. If the age chiseled on Mat's headstone is accurate—his birthdate fluctuates over the years, but what's here is consistent with later records—he would have been born in 1840 or 1841, well before the outbreak of the Civil War. When we tell people what we know about Brian's great-grandfather, they often ask, "Do you mean great-great-grandfather?" No, just one great. Mat and Julia had 13 children, 12 of whom survived to adulthood. One of those children, Brian's grandfather Lewis, a.k.a. Big Daddy, was born circa 1884. He and his wife, Amelia Whiting Palmer, had seven children of their own, the last of whom was Brian's father, Ed, born in 1928. Ed was 36 years old when Brian was born. So the link between Brian and a man who was enslaved for the first 20-plus years of his life is a close one.
Brian was granted permission for another quick visit to Old Orchard several months after we visited as a group. It would be another year and a half before we were allowed back on base—this time without cameras.
Camp Peary, Virginia, July 2012. Photo: BP
The cornerstone is all that remains today of Mt. Gilead Baptist Church, one of Magruder's black churches. After the eviction in 1943, the congregation reestablished itself in Grove, an unincorporated community outside of Williamsburg, where a previous wave of displaced African Americans had settled in the early 1920s. Grove became a thriving community during the height of Jim Crow segregation, in many ways a world unto itself. "Excluded from the white world, black Southerners drew inward and constructed their own society, with its own institutions and separate social and cultural life" (Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow). Many older black Virginians we've spoken with believe integration drove a fatal stake into the wider black community. Camp Peary, Virginia, July 2012. Photo: BP
During Thanksgiving weekend, 2012, we visited Snowden, in Goochland County, a relatively modest plantation home perched on a hill. The James River lies to the south, just out of view. Snowden was the home of Alexander Maben Hobson, whom Mat Palmer lists as his last owner in his Union pension application. Maben Hobson's uncle, David Maben, lived in Amelia County and may well have been Mat's original master. Among the possessions listed in David Maben's estate inventory are the people he owned, including "Winney & child William," appraised at $500, and "Lewis No. 2," valued at $550. (By comparison, "Lewis No. 1" was worth $1,000, and a woman named Sally, $850.) We know from marriage records in York County that Mat's mother and father were named Winney/Winnie and Lewis; we also know that Mat had a brother named William, who settled in Surry County after the war and married a woman named Nettie Hines. According to marriage records in the Surry County Court House, "Palmer, William, 22, col., b. Amelia Co., s/o L. and W. Palmer, m. Antoinette Hines, 22, col., d/o A. Hines" on November 15, 1877. Snowden, Goochland County, Virginia, November 2012. Photo: BP
According to family lore, and a number of historical documents, the Palmer family migrated east from Amelia County after the Civil War. Where the Palmer name comes from, however, remains a mystery. So far, we have found no connections to white, slaveowning Palmers. Amelia County Court House, Virginia, March 2013. Photo: EHP
Across the South during the Civil War, thousands of enslaved African Americans sought freedom behind Union lines. It was here, at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, that Union General Benjamin Butler refused to return three escaped men to their Confederate master, shrewdly claiming them as “contraband of war.” Wartime law allowed Butler to seize the “property” of those rebelling against the United States, and that’s precisely what Confederates considered their slaves to be.
On this freezing winter's day more than 150 years later, the fort was not an especially hospitable place. Of course, it was not especially hospitable to the thousands of freedom seekers who fled there, either. According to the late historian Robert Engs, "The hostility exhibited by many Union army troops toward escaping slaves was [a] precursor of generalized Northern antipathy toward blacks that became more apparent during Reconstruction. The army's first concern was always control of, rather than assistance to, blacks. Blacks were deemed incompetent, unfit to determine their own best interests. Though some Northerners tempered this attitude with paternalistic concern for black well-being, the underlying belief of incompetency remained" (Freedom's First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861–1890).
Fort Monroe, Hampton, Virginia, January 2013. Photo: EHP
Brian's great-grandmother, Julia Fox Palmer, was born circa 1853 in Gloucester County, across the York River from York County, where she and Mat would marry in July 1873 and eventually settle. Her parents were Samuel and Elsie Fox—that's as far back as we can go—and she had at least two siblings: an older brother, Moses, and a younger sister, Martha. Where precisely she was born, and who might have owned her, remains a mystery—one that we are working to solve. It is possible that she was enslaved by a descendant of Captain John Fox, who died in 1785 at Greenwich, his plantation home in Petsworth Parish, Gloucester County.
Another mystery: Julia's parents and siblings appear in the extraordinary 1865 "Census of the Colored Population in York County, Virginia," filed among the many invaluable documents of the Freedmen's Bureau. In March of that year, the four Foxes are living on Warren Farm, one of the abandoned properties confiscated by the U.S. government and settled by freedpeople along the York River. Julia, however, is missing. She would have been about 12 years old at the time. Is it possible that she'd been separated from her family when they fled Confederate-held Gloucester County, across the York River, for Union lines at Yorktown? Had the family already been divided by sale? She doesn't reappear in the historical record until 1870, living in York County with her parents and siblings, and a young woman named Lucy Fisher. According to the census, she was working as a servant in a private home. After her marriage in 1873, she vanishes again until the late 1890s. Moses, meanwhile, goes on to be elected constable of Bruton District during Reconstruction's last gasp.
Julia died in 1910 and is buried, we believe, next to her husband of nearly 40 years.
Farys Mill Road, Gloucester County, Virginia, fall 2013. Photo: EHP
On New Year's Day, neither of us was in a mood befitting the first of the year. So we got in the car and crossed the James River, bound for Surry County. We were looking for Poplar Lawn Cemetery, since our research had led us to believe that some of our Surry people might be buried there. We didn't find any family names on the headstones we uncovered, many of which were thickly overgrown and buried in desiccated leaves, but we were invigorated by the search. So many graves are unmarked, and so many are hidden or forgotten — not just here but all over Virginia — that we most likely won't find the ones we went looking for that day. But it's the looking that matters. Poplar Lawn Cemetery, Surry County, Virginia, January 2014.
Moonrise on the south bank of the James River. It's hard not to be lulled by the tranquil beauty of the water, which at this bend in its course stretches out for several miles with barely a ripple. The placidity belies a tragic past. Just upriver, on the other side, is Jamestown—the first permanent English colony in North America, founded in 1607 and now a historical site administered by the National Park Service. Barely ten years after the establishment of the ill-fated outpost, the first enslaved Africans were brought ashore at Old Point Comfort (in today's Hampton) before being shipped to Jamestown. "After the first 1619 shipload, some 100,000 more enslaved Africans would sail upriver . . . Lying in chains in the holds of slave ships, they could not see the land until they were brought up on deck to be sold," writes Edward Baptist in The Half Has Never Been Told. "After the legal Atlantic slave trade to the United States ended in 1807, hundreds of thousands more enslaved people passed [Old Point Comfort]. Now they were going the other way, boarding ships at Richmond, the biggest eastern center of the internal slave trade, to go by sea to the Mississippi Valley."
According to various historical documents, Mat Palmer's brother William and his wife, Nettie, settled in Cobham District after the Civil War. This photo was taken at Cobham Wharf. Surry County, Virginia, January 2014. Photo: EHP
Poring over old photographs with our cousin Ann Palmer Jones one winter afternoon at her home in Lightfoot, on the northern fringe of Williamsburg. Ann saves everything, she says — and she remembers everyone's name, too.
Williamsburg, Virginia, January 2014. Photo: BP
Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church was founded on the second Sunday in July in 1897 by men and women whose descendants are still members of the congregation—Palmers, Harrolds, Druitts, Smiths, Joneses, Ashbys, Barlows. Mat Palmer was a founding member and one of the first deacons. In 1986, this sturdy brick building replaced the original white frame structure that stood on the same land.
Williamsburg, Virginia, August 2014. Photo: BP
Our cousins, Ann Palmer Jones and Dot Palmer Harrold, born a year and a half apart, in 1936 and 1935, respectively. On the fourth Sunday of every month, they sing in one of Mt. Pilgrim's choirs, a group called the Echoes, of which they are founding members. Their mother, Margaret Barlow Palmer, was another founder — in 1954, nearly 60 years ago.
Even though Brian is 30 years younger than Ann and Dot, they share one set of great-grandparents. Mat and Julia Palmer raised 12 children, five sons among them, including the thrice-married John Frank Palmer. He had five sons by his first wife; Lieutenant Palmer Sr., Ann and Dot's father, was the youngest of those boys. He passed away in 1974. His father outlived him by 12 years.
Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Virginia, September 2014. Photo: BP
Edna Roberts, born in 1929, is a lifelong resident of Williamsburg. She and Brian's dad, Eddie, went to school together from the sixth grade on, first at James City County Training School and then at Bruton Heights. She would have gone to college if she could have, but she was the oldest of seven children, money was scarce, and the local university—William & Mary, a state school—did not admit African Americans. (W&M remained closed to black undergraduates until 1963. The first African American female students did not begin classes until fall 1967.) Instead, she went to work.
While Edna did not experience the pain of displacement herself, her grandparents did. In a precursor to events in Magruder, a long-standing African American community was evicted by the U.S. government in the years following World War I from land known as the Reservation. The Navy Mine Depot (now Naval Weapons Station–Yorktown) was created in its stead. Many of the families resettled in Grove, an unincorporated area outside Williamsburg where Brian's family resettled two decades later.
Edna was a favorite of her grandmother, who allowed her to sit outside with the elders (provided she kept quiet, of course—"I knew better than to talk when grown folks were talking") under the beechnut tree in the yard while they reminisced about life in the Reservation. Most of the men were oystermen who had worked the York River—but when they lost their land, they lost their livelihood as well.
"They really didn’t want to leave it," Edna recalls. "They worked in the water. When they came over here, they had to become farmers and work for Alex Harwood, who had this big farm. Some of them were lucky and got jobs on the railroad, but they were more or less lost when they got over here. They were very unhappy about leaving what they knew."
Edna Roberts at home in Williamsburg, Virginia, February 2013. Photo: BP
Reenactors representing United States Colored Troops at the 150th anniversary of the battle of New Market Heights overrun Confederate lines. African American troops played a decisive role in the victory, once again challenging racist assumptions that blacks would not fight for their own freedom or for the Union. Close to 200,000 African Americans did precisely that as soldiers and sailors. Another 200,000 black civilians worked to defeat the Confederacy by other means. Without them, the North might very well have lost the war. Henrico County, Virginia, September 2014. Photo: BP
Montpelier was home to James and Dolley Madison. Mr. Madison was the fourth president of the United States, one of the framers of the Constitution, and the architect of the Bill of Rights, which was ratified in 1791. Despite their lofty ideals, neither Madison nor his close friend Thomas Jefferson ever saw fit to emancipate the people they enslaved.
Current stewards of Montpelier have chosen to acknowledge Madison's slave ownership in a very visible way. This wooden skeleton is a partially reconstructed cabin in which an enslaved family might have lived. It is one of a cluster of buildings in progress that stand just steps away from the master's house.
Montpelier, Orange County, Virginia, October 2014. Photo: EHP
Because of the scarcity of documentation—or its absence altogether—part of our journey is necessarily an imaginative one. Here, Brian peers through the slats of a partially reconstructed building in Montpelier's domestic slave quarter, marveling at its proximity to the main house and trying to conjure an 18th-century scene. Orange County, Virginia, October 2014. Photo: EHP
Orange County, Virginia, October 2014. Photo: BP
George Gilmore was born circa 1810 on James Madison's estate. He had been enslaved for more than 50 years by the time of the Civil War. His story does not end there, however. Once freedom came, Gilmore and his family established their own farm not far from Montpelier. By the time of his death in 1905, he owned this small white house and the land it stands on. His descendants occupied the property until the 1930s. Gilmore Cabin, Orange County, Virginia, October 2014. Photo: BP
Farm, rather. We returned to Snowden on an unseasonably warm day in mid-December. This time, Sebastian, the current owner, showed us up to the roof, from which we could look out at the rolling, golden brown fields stretching away in all directions, and at the line of trees marking the course of the James. In the days of Mat Palmer, tobacco was grown in the bottomland, the flat, fertile ground along the river. Sebastian doesn't know for sure where the slave quarters stood but believes they would have been near the main house, to the left of the cluster of smaller buildings in the photograph. He thinks he's found traces of a road that at one time wound slowly up the hill from the bottomland. Goochland County, Virginia, December 2014. Photo: EHP
Lexington, Virginia, was the first stop on our two-week tour of the South in July 2015. We arrived around lunchtime on Independence Day. American flags decorated businesses, homes, and T-shirts. As we walked toward Washington and Lee University, a pickup truck with a large Confederate battle flag planted in its bed rolled by.
The Lee Chapel is a simple and stunningly well-preserved building. Mark, a guide, directed our attention to the sculpture of Robert E. Lee, the college’s 11th president, in repose. “He’s sleeping, he’s not dead.” Actually, he is, and we were standing directly atop his crypt, where his wife, his children, and his parents also lie. His horse, Traveller, is interred there, too.
Paeans to the military legend and family man abound. His silk and leather slippers are on display. We did not see what we have learned from Robert Thompson, Eric Foner, and other historians. Lee rented out enslaved people and earned a profit from their labor. And he could be brutal, despite his much-vaunted gentility and supposed philosophical objection to the institution of slavery. We did not patronize the well-stocked gift shop.
Lee Chapel and Museum at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, July 4, 2015. Photo: BP
We'd planned our stay in Asheville, North Carolina, more as a rest (and coffee) stop than a research destination. Fate intervened wonderfully.
At Waking Life Espresso, Aaron, the young barista, asked where we were from and what brought us to town. We mentioned our documentary and our interest in old African-American cemeteries. It so happened, he told us, that a team of local folks and professors had been working for years on the preservation of a black cemetery across town. This was the last thing we were expecting to encounter in Appalachia’s “it” city. We had to go see for ourselves.
The South Asheville Cemetery lies on rolling, wooded land behind St. John “A” Baptist Church. Some graves have modern headstones, others are marked with large rocks, and some are not marked at all. Time and human hands, it seems, have degraded and damaged the headstones (some have been toppled), but the cemetery, which predates the Civil War, is obviously well cared for.
South Asheville Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina, July 2015. Photo: BP
Oversize shoe prints evoke the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers who made the 54-mile journey on foot to demand the right to vote for African Americans from segregationist governor George Wallace in early 1965. By the time the marchers reached the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, on March 25, their numbers had swollen to 25,000. It was here that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now iconic "How Long, Not Long" speech.
We climbed to the top of those same steps, where to one side looms a Batman-ish statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, gripping his cape. The monument was presented to the state of Alabama in 1940 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of their ongoing efforts to rewrite the history of the South, slavery, and the Civil War. No marker indicates where Dr. King stood.
Dexter Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama, July 2015. Photo: BP
An unplanned detour on our way south to New Orleans from Montgomery. We drove in the opposite direction of the voting rights march, first crossing the bridge into Selma by car, then crossing back over on foot. It was broiling hot, unlike the day in March 1965 when nonviolent protesters, led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis, were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers and local police as they made their first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. Edmund Pettus, for whom the bridge is named, was a Confederate general and a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama, July 2015. Photo: BP
We drove west from New Orleans along the River Road, which is bordered on one side not by the Mississippi River, at least not visibly, but by the levee. On the other side, the land is divided into long, narrow plantations—former slave labor camps, to use Edward Baptist's language—some still thickly planted with sugarcane.
We had read about the Whitney Plantation in the New York Times months before and had determined to make the trip from Richmond as soon as we could. The Whitney is unique among plantation museums, many of which serve as paeans to a mythologized antebellum past, in that it focuses almost exclusively on the story of the enslaved people who made the place run.
Here, in the Antioch Baptist Church, which was moved to the Whitney from Paulina, Louisiana, in 2001 and restored on-site, life-size sculptures of enslaved children by artist Woodrow Nash add a haunting dimension to the clean, well-lighted space. By age 10, children were considered adults and sent to the cane fields or to the auction block.
Whitney Plantation, Wallace, Louisiana, July 2015. Photo: BP
A cabin once inhabited by enslaved people (on a different plantation), with sugar kettles in the foreground.
Whitney Plantation, Wallace, Louisiana, July 2015. Photo: EHP
A view of the big house from the slave jail. Metal structures such as this one—also called "hot boxes" because of the high temperatures inside—were used to hold enslaved people before sale. Many hotels in New Orleans—the largest slave market in the country in the decades leading up to the Civil War—had similar jails. We can attest to the heat. It was 96 degrees when we visited, and the walls were hot to the touch.
Whitney Plantation, Wallace, Louisiana, July 2015. Photo: EHP
From the 1780s until the Civil War ended in 1865, nearly a million enslaved people were sold south and west from cities like Richmond and Norfolk, Baltimore and Washington, most of them destined for the cotton frontier. Forced migrants walked hundreds of miles, chained or tied together in coffles, driven for weeks and months by enslavers and their agents. They were among those who beat this path through the wilderness with their feet. The Natchez Trace stretches from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, one of the biggest slave-trading towns in the country between the 1830s and the 1860s. We drove north and east, taking the Trace first to Jackson and then most of the way to Tupelo, in a symbolic reversal of the enslaved migrants' journey.
The Old Trace, somewhere between Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi, July 2015. Photo: BP
On our way to Columbia, South Carolina, from Gadsden, Alabama, we stopped in Rome, Georgia, where Henry Marcus Stripling—Erin's triple-great-grandfather, an illiterate farmer born circa 1829—is buried. His Civil War service stands out in relief atop the gravestone—H. M. STRIPLING CONFEDERATE SOLDIER.
On the eve of the war, according to the census, Henry was living in Carroll County, to the west of Atlanta on the Alabama state line, with his wife and three children; his personal property was valued at $75—not a lot of money, even in 1860. The following year, four months after the outbreak of war, Henry, along with one or more of his brothers, joined a Georgia unit of the Confederate army called Cobb’s Legion and seems to have served in some fashion until the very end, when his name appears on a list of prisoners of war surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865. Two years earlier, Henry had been hospitalized for a time in Richmond, at Chimborazo, the Confederacy’s largest medical facility. We now live just a few blocks away from where the hospital once stood.
It’s unlikely, given his net worth in 1860, that Henry himself owned slaves—we’ve not yet found any evidence that suggests he might have—but he nonetheless fought for years for a “country” that sought to preserve the institution of race-based slavery in perpetuity. There’s no denying this central fact, whatever Henry’s personal motivations might have been. Since he could neither read nor write, these are likely to remain a mystery.
East View Cemetery, Rome, Georgia, July 2015. Photo: BP
Quo Vadis Williams Wright, age 80, at home in Williamsburg, Virginia, March 2016. (She passed away a little over a year later, in May 2017.) Not only did she save everything—when this photograph was taken, she had recently donated a collection of her papers, photographs, and clippings to William & Mary—she remembered everything, or just about. Her late husband, like Brian, was a great-grandson of Mat and Julia Palmer—one of many connections. Photo: BP
Confederate monuments have pride of place in many of Virginia's small country towns. They’re not as grand as Richmond’s, but they usually stand uncontested, fiction fashioned into fact in our common spaces.
In July 2015 we interviewed Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and the author of Just Mercy. (Incidentally, Stevenson's great-grandparents were born into slavery in Bowling Green, Virginia, where this photograph was taken.) We asked him about the ubiquity of what we've come to call Confederections. He said:
"Part of what happened in the mid-19th century was that after the Civil War, we could have and should have dealt with that insurgency, that act of treason, the way we deal with it in other contexts. Because we were uncommitted to the emancipation of people of color and much more worried about accommodating these Southern white interests, we allowed the South to create a new counter-narrative: The Civil War was not about slavery. It was not about anything that would be something you should be ashamed of. It was about states’ rights and local control, and we should be proud of these Confederate heroes and leaders. And slavery was just some inconsequential side issue. This narrative was designed to make people feel comfortable with their racialized hierarchy."
Bowling Green, Virginia, March 2016. Photo: BP