Roland Barthes wrote of how a photograph contains a “punctum”, an element that strikes the viewer to the spiritual core, something that provokes a visceral emotional reaction in them. I believe life has moments of punctum – the origins of this project, for me, was an experience that ran through me like a lightning bolt. I was taking a Civil War history tour through the Smithsonian one late summer afternoon. I was standing on the lawn of L’Hermitage, a farm just outside Frederick, Maryland. I was looking around at the gently rolling hills, trees full of green leaves, puffy white clouds dotting the sky, corn in the adjacent field taller than my head, and listening to the guide talking about the history of the place.
The farm was founded by a family of French emigres from Haiti who had fled the slave uprisings in the 1790s. They re-settled in Frederick, Maryland, and proceeded to attempt to reestablish Haitian-style slavery replete with the same degree of brutality they had practiced before. These people were so brutal with their slaves that their neighbors, slave-owners themselves, called the sheriff on them multiple times. In 1810, the importation of new slaves into the United States was made illegal. After that time, if you wanted more slaves, you had to buy them from someone else, or you could breed them. This family ran a stud service with their slaves, treating human beings as breeding stock.
Hearing this, I was struck by the horrific irony of the pastoral idyll of the scene I was viewing being literally soaked in the blood of other human beings who had lived, worked, and died there quite possibly never able to look at that scenery with the innocence I had looked at it until the moment before that revelation. I felt compelled to respond to that epiphany artistically, because I knew from my own experience that all the academic reading in the world does not adequately convey that emotional truth I had experienced.
I grew up with a very specific version of the history of this country – it was built by great men of lofty ideals, who imbued it with a progressive spirit intended to raise up the dignity of all humans. As a child, and into my adulthood, I went to the houses of these great men to see the way they lived and the places that inspired them to deliver the great nation of the United States into being. We went to Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier in Virginia, the Paca house in Annapolis, Maryland, the Carroll estates in Baltimore, and dozens of other colonial-era grand homes – their grandness was signaled as direct proof of their virtue and wisdom.
It was never discussed that they had the wealth and leisure to develop these lofty ideas because they owned in some cases hundreds of their fellow human beings who labored for them to produce that wealth and leisure. Nor was it discussed that these men who wrote so eloquently about the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness saw fit to administer corporal punishment to the people they owned when those people decided that they too were deserving of the same life, liberty and happiness their owners wrote about.
I still go to see those great houses because I am fascinated by the styles and architecture of bygone eras, but now I think about how they were paid for (and often built) with slave labor. It is a metaphoric and literal foundation to this country that we must acknowledge and recognize if we are ever going to make forward progress.
I chose to produce these images the way I have for two reasons. I made them as compact contact prints 2 ¼ by 4 ¼ inches in size to force the viewer to engage very personally with the images, so they cannot hold themselves at arm’s length from the subject. I printed them in an historic photographic process, palladium, because using a noble metal to make jewel-like images that can only be made with extensive manual labor was a metaphorical way of repaying some of the debt to the people who without compensation or recognition built and shaped the landscapes I photographed. I hope that these images will in this way produce moments of punctum for the viewers the way they have for me.
Bachelor’s House, L’Hermitage, Frederick, Maryland
The “bachelor’s house” at L’Hermitage on the Monocacy National Battlefield. This house would have housed the young un-married male members of the family and their personal servants. Four to six people at a time would have lived here. In the field adjacent, just out of the field of view of this photograph, the three slave cabins for L’Hermitage were located. Each of those three cabins were not much bigger than this cottage but held roughly thirty people each.
For a modern-day equivalent, think of the barracks at Auschwitz.
Stone Barn, L’Hermitage, Frederick, Maryland
The stone barn at L’Hermitage. The family that built the estate were originally from northern France, and so built their barn in the style of construction they remembered from their home. This would have housed their animals such as horses and cattle, along with carriages or other farm equipment like plows or threshing equipment for wheat.
Cornfield, L’Hermitage, Frederick, Maryland
The cornfield at L’Hermitage. A typical crop being planted and harvested there by slave labor. This cornfield is also significant in that it is where in 1862 some of General Maclellan’s troops found a copy of General Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders #191 wrapped around a trio of cigars. This document specified the intended march to Antietam, the first major Union victory in the War of the Rebellion and the opportunity for Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Mount Vernon, Virginia
The Mount Vernon mansion. Home to George Washington, first president of the United States, an extraordinarily wealthy man, and whose profits were built almost entirely upon a large slave labor force (over 300 persons) required to manage the agriculture and industry on his 3000+ acres. Look upon this house and remember that this nation was not only founded by slave owners, it was built by slave labor and the profits of slave industry.
Slave Cabin, Mount Vernon, Virginia
This slave cabin at Mount Vernon is a modern-day recreation, built to be historically accurate. There is no solid door, no glass in the window, and the chimney is built of wood and mud brick. The garden plot out front was where the family that lived here would have grown their own food after their sun-up to sun-down jobs on the plantation were complete for the day.
Slave Graveyard, Mount Vernon, Virginia
This is the slave graveyard at Mount Vernon. There are believed to be between 50-75 people to be buried here. Not a single one of their graves has even a headstone to mark their final rest, and in the Mount Vernon records, many of the slaves buried there are recorded by just a first name. No records of who was buried where in the plot exist, so it is impossible to say which graves belong to which individuals.
Washington Family Crypt, Mount Vernon, Virginia
The Washington Family Crypt at Mount Vernon. This brick and marble mausoleum was built to house and memorialize two specific people – George and Martha Washington. Some twenty-seven other family members are also interred within.
Patuxent River Landing, Sotterly Plantation, Hollywood, Maryland
The landing from the Patuxent River at Sotterly Plantation, in southern Maryland near St. Mary’s City. At this location in 1720, a cargo of 218 people were delivered to the owner of Sotterly, George Plater, to be transported overland to St. Mary’s City where they would be auctioned off and he would receive a commission from the sale. 270 were loaded on the ship at its departure from the Gold Coast of Africa, and 52 died in transit. This is one of five documented “Middle Passage” sites in Maryland and the first to have a memorial marker.
Slave Cabin, Sotterly Plantation, Hollywood, Maryland
This is an original slave cabin from the 1840s at Sotterly. It is built using traditional West African construction techniques, where the support posts for the walls are on the outside of the structure, rather than on the inside as would be more typical of European-influenced construction.
Slave Cabin Interior, Sotterly Plantation, Hollywood, Maryland
The hearth dominates the room on the main floor of the cabin. The structure has two levels – the main room where cooking, eating, laundry, and all other household tasks would have been accomplished, and the sleeping loft was up the ladder on the left, where the entire family (or perhaps two families) would have slept. The sleeping loft had no windows, no ventilation, and the only source of heat would have been radiant energy from the chimney. It would have been insufferably hot in the summer and bitterly drafty in the winter.
Sotterly Plantation, Hollywood, Maryland
The plantation home at Sotterly. The oldest portion of the house, the right-hand most section of the structure you see today, dates back to 1699, making it one of the oldest plantation homes in the mid-Atlantic region. The foundations of the oldest section are post-in-ground construction (where they took timbers and drove them into the soil like pilings, forming the foundations) and remarkably, when they did some archaeological excavations, they determined that the posts were the original ones from 1699, and were largely in excellent condition due to the anoxic conditions of the clay-like soil.
Stratford Hall, Virginia
This is the main house at Stratford Hall. It was constructed in the late 1730s from materials sourced on-site. All the timber and brick used in its construction were harvested and made on-site. The entire house is built using Flemish bond style construction, a materials and labor intensive method of laying brick, and the exterior walls are up to two feet thick. Over 200,000 bricks were used in its construction. The main house has eighteen rooms.
Grand Staircase, Stratford Hall, Virginia.
The grand staircase at Stratford Hall – this is one of a pair, on the river and landward sides of the house. It was designed to be formal, dramatic, and showcase the wealth, power and sophistication of the builders.
Great Hall, Stratford Hall, Virginia
A view out the doorway at Stratford Hall, in what has been described as “one of the most beautiful rooms in America”. This is the great hall at Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee’s childhood home, and one of many residences of the Lee Family. Although their fortunes did not last, for various reasons, the Lees of Virginia would have been equivalents of Rockefellers or Vanderbilts at the peak of their wealth. They owned thousands of acres all across Virginia. Stratford Hall, Leesylvania, Arlington House, and Sully Plantation were just a few of their properties. They were also related to the Carters who were at one time the wealthiest family in the English colonies. Robert “King” Carter was nicknamed such because it was said he was wealthier than the King of England. The Carter family wealth did survive to this day – the thirteenth generation of the Carter family still lives at their James River plantation, Shirley.
Slave cabin interior, Stratford Hall
Quite the contrast to the Loveliest Room in America. This cabin is a reconstruction based on the memories of a gentleman who worked at Stratford for many years to help preserve the history and landscape of the property. He was a descendant of Stratford Hall slaves, and when offered his choice of memorial commemoration for himself as a thank-you for his decades of service, he said, “I want a slave cabin like the one I was born and raised in”. This, like the other slave cabins depicted, would be typical of the structures in which the field workers lived.
Slave House, Stratford Hall, showing Kitchen Garden
This is a reconstructed slave house at Stratford Hall. The enslaved families that worked in the main house as cooks and butlers would have lived here. If you look carefully, you can see two doors on the structure – this was a two-family home, built with economy in mind because both residences shared a single chimney. The kitchen garden in front was where the enslaved folks raised their own crops and tended their own animals such as chickens – they were required to produce their own food outside of the hours they spent cooking and cleaning for the Lee family.