Virginia Tech® home

Plantation Histories and the University: Rethinking the Past During Virginia Tech's 150th

Loading player for
Category: culture Video duration: Plantation Histories and the University: Rethinking the Past During Virginia Tech's 150th
As Virginia Tech commemorates its 150th anniversary, a distinguished panel discussed the intertwined histories of Solitude, Smithfield, and Virginia Tech — and how those histories are being reimagined during the sesquicentennial.
Okay. Perfect. Thanks. Paul, are you going to kick it off or do you want me to? Want me to? Yeah. I think if you start with your welcome, then I can take over from there. Thanks. Okay. So are we ready to go? How many people do we have? Vickie, we have somewhere more than a 150 registered. Looks like we've got 6, 59 participants so far, so I'm sure some more will trickle in as well. Cool. Thank you. Okay. Are we ready? Yep. All ready. Thanks. Okay. All right. Welcome, everyone. My name is Brett Shadle. I'm the chair of the history department. I'm very excited to welcome everyone here today for the next webinar in a series that we started in June of 2020. If you go to the history department website, you can find information about previous webinars. Very excited today for plantation history in the university. And the university rethinking the past during Virginia Tech's 150th anniversary. I do want to begin with land acknowledgment, which is an improved one over the previous one. So I'll just take a moment here. Virginia Tech acknowledges that we live and work on the Tutelo Monacan people's homeland. We recognize the continued relationships with their lands and waterways. We further acknowledge that legislation and practices like Morrill Act of 1862 enabled the Commonwealth of Virginia to finance and found Virginia Tech. The forced removal of Native nations from their lands both locally and in western territories. We understand that honoring Native people without explicit material commitment falls short of our institutional responsibilities through sustained, transparent and meaningful engagement with the Tutelo Monacan people and other Native nations. We commit to changing the trajectory of Virginia Tech's history by increasing indigenous students, staff and faculty recruitment and retention, diversifying course offerings, and meeting the growing needs of all Virginia tribes and supporting their sovereignty. We must also recognize the enslaved black people who generated the revenue and resources used and establish Virginia Tech, then were prohibited from attending until 1950 through. With that, I think it's particularly a good time to have this webinar where we reflect on those histories and the intersections and what it means for all of us today who teach or learn or work at Virginia Tech or the surrounding areas. I'd like to now pass it over to Dr. Paul Quigley. Thank you very much and let me add my words of welcome as well. My name is Paul Quigley. I also teach here in the history department at Virginia Tech. My role today is going to be to introduce the speakers and then later on to moderate the Q and A. And I just have a couple of short things to say before we dive into that. I'm really looking forward to our conversation today. It is going to explore, as you heard from Brett Shadle, all the interconnections between the history of Virginia Tech and the history of slavery and plantations. I think it is a very timely subject. On the one hand, we've got a national, even international, conversation that's been going on about how do we do better at remembering and commemorating the history of enslaved peoples, indigenous peoples, enslavements, settler colonialism, and so on. But in addition to those broader conversations, it also happens to be the 150th anniversary of Virginia Tech this year, 2022. Because its precursor institution, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, was founded in 1872. So I sometimes think anniversaries are overrated a bit, but they do, they do give us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the past and the meaning of these organizations that have survived all these years and that shape our experiences today. So it gives us a good chance to think about how Virginia Tech ties into these broader histories that are being reconsidered at the moment. And there are two plantation buildings at Virginia Tech. One of them is actually on the campus, Solitude, the oldest building on campus. The other is Smithfield. Outside campus boundaries, but very close by. And Smithfield operates as a museum at the moment. And as you're going ahead, both of these organizations are working very actively at the moment to try and tell, follow histories of the peoples who lived here. And that includes indigenous people, enslaved black people, as well as white elites and non-elites as well. So it's going to be a great conversation. I'm going to stop talking soon and allow the conversation to begin. Just a couple of quick housekeeping notes. First of all, closed captions are available. We have a closed captioner who is typing away and correcting the automated captions so they should be high-quality. You can turn them on with the SCC bucks in your Zoom interface. And then regarding questions at the end, I invite you to type in your questions to the Q and A box, and you can actually do that whenever you like, either during the talks, after the talks, whenever you like, and we'll get to as many as we possibly can. If you have a question, I see somebody raised their hand. You can type that directly into the Q&A box as well and we'll try to deal with those questions as they come up. So I'm going to briefly introduce the speakers one by one. Actually, I feel with a webinar, people are dropping in and out. I want to make sure everyone knows what's going on. So I'll just do the introductions one at a time. Each speaker will speak. We ask them between seven and 10 minutes, and I'm planning to set an alarm on my phone which may go off at some point. So if you hear some kind of alarm that's just as a reminder to the speaker to wrap up. So they'll, they'll each give a presentation. We'll have time for questions and discussions at the end, and we'll wrap up around 1:30 eastern time today. So our first speaker is Victoria Ferguson, who is Director of Solitude, and that's one of the former plantations I just mentioned, the one that's on-campus. Ferguson is a graduate Marshall University, an enrolled member of the American Indian Nation of Virginia, and an accomplished public historian with all kinds of experience and expertise in presenting Eastern Siouan population's history up through the early European colonization period. So thank you so much for joining us. It's over to you. Oh, you're on mute, Vicky. Yeah. Thank you. And good afternoon everyone. So as a person who works at Solitude, but is also Indigenous, I chose to say that as we talk, we start this conversation on plantations. That it all starts with land. Indian land. The land we're talking about, the land we are sitting on, on the main campus of Virginia Tech, was once under the stewardship of the Eastern Siouan speakers, like the Monacans, Tutelos, and centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, this area was occupied. Now when the Europeans arrived, they started to explore the land beyond the coastal plains. So 200 years before what we are commemorating as the founding of Virginia Tech, there were Europeans already exploring this region, batch and film along with their Indian guide, Barracute, went onto That's the great water, what we today call the New River. And they may have been among the first land speculators in this region, but they were not the last. Another explorer we often read about named Letterer actually used the word plantation to describe the first Monacan town above the fall lines. And he stayed at the Monacan plantation, extended for three miles along the river. And when I read that, I thought the use of the word plantation was not really what I expected. And I thought about it. It may have been considered an estate which was cultivated by resident labors. But I still couldn't get the term we accept today out of my mind. Today, we tend to think of the resident laborers on plantations as enslaved people who lived in forced labor camps. And generally, that would also mean people of African descent. So that started me thinking about the natives contribution to plantation life. We can mention that in the early period of colonization, natives were enslaved. We could look at the domesticated crops grown by native people prior to colonization. And how many of those became cash crops for the owners of plantations. But I decided to look at the basic tie for Native Americans to plantations. And that is the land. By the time this region is settled by Europeans, most of the natives had been pushed out of the region by the Iroquois from the North or the Europeans from the East. And new immigrants are starting to move into the region. The great road, which began in Pennsylvania and continued through present day Roanoke, and then extended further south and west. And then after the Treaty of Lancaster was signed in 1744, James Patton, uncle of William Preston, who built Smithfield. He was charged with laying out the road through the Shenandoah Valley, and that had to be a fantastic way to speculate land. The roads extended to what is today Montgomery County and his Indian trails were widened to allow horses and wagons to travel, carrying caravans of new immigrants further into the wilderness. Very often they were encroaching upon Indian land. The cabins that the settlers built replace the wigwam of the original inhabitants and the immigrants raised domesticated animals for foods that reduced the need of huge tracts of forested lands for hunting. The improved land pushed into territories not seeded to England. And then in an attempt to prevent westward expansion and protect their own land rights, Indians began to raid the frontier settlements. So in 1755, a party of Shawnee warriors, at the behest of the French, raided settlements up and down the frontier, including homesteads. And what is today Montgomery County. Men like James Patton, women and children were not spared, and a few captives were taken back into Shawnee land, along the spell of ACP, which is the Ohio River. Land speculators saw the potential and all this land. James Patton, of course, and then eventually William Preston, settled the land and developed large farms, requiring enslaved people to be ushered into the regions. These laborers, mainly of African descent, were forced to improve thousands of acres of land while raising crops, animals and their children. All to help increase the wealth of their owners. The Preston family was all made possible because of the availability of Indian land. Enforced labor. So for at least two things, land and labor, we get to plantations. The process of Indian removal or land becoming known by people of European descent with forced laborers, primarily African descent, would continue. And therein lies the foundation of plantations. Stolen people, stolen land. As we get to Solitude, I think it's important to consider the history behind the house and its connection to the Smithfield plantation. Houses are just that. Houses. But it is people who make them what they become. So Robert Taylor Preston was born on the greater Smithfield property in 1809. He built Solitude in the early 1830s, and added onto the original part of the house, which was a log cabin. And if you ever visit Solitude, you can see some of the logs used to build the original cabin. The house was expanded again in the 1850s, and today remains close to what it looked like then, but with a few, let's say, modern conveniences. Now at the start of the Civil War, Robert Preston began his service with the Confederate States of America. And after the war, Robert Preston, his wife Mary, continued to live in Solitude. So in 1870 they sold the land to the state for the establishment, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, and only conditions that he and his wife could live in the house until their death. So Robert Taylor Preston died in 1881, as did his wife, Mary Preston. So from the humble log cabin of 1804 until the 1850s additions, Solitude was a part of greater Smithfield plantations. And it carried with it wealth and political power associated with the press and family, along with the reputation of working enslaved human beings. And with great wealth comes great responsibility. So as I researched the history of the plantation, I notice there's little information about the people who did the labor and helped increase the wealth of the families, like the ones that own Smithfield, Solitude and other plantations from the reagents. For decades, the names of Monacan, Tutelo was hardly spoken in relation to the land. So generally in Virginia, tribes were written out of history, Justice, their descendants were reclassified. So as we think or as we rethink the past, for some of us, that means actually teaching the parts of history left out of the original telling on past. So the plantation conversation, it is not a comfortable conversation for any of us, but it is a necessary one. By delving a little deeper into the past, we may be able to use the knowledge of what we learn to reshape the future, to be more inclusive by repairing the harm inflicted in the past and doing what we can to prevent the reoccurrence of those actions in the future. And thank you all for inviting me to be able to speak to that today. Thank you so much. That gets us off to a terrific start. Thank you. Our next speaker is Ryan Spencer. He's the executive director at Smithfield, and that's, of course, the second plantation side on the discussion today. Spencer's education includes a master's degree in museum studies from St. Andrews. He worked in various capacities in the past at the Henry Ford in Michigan before coming to Smithfield several years ago. And I think breathing new life into the place is a good way to think about his presence in our community. We really appreciate having him here as Executive Director. And I think in combination with Victoria Ferguson's leadership, Solitude, it's just a really exciting moment for both sites and lots of possibilities for reinterpretation. So Ryan Spencer, over to you. Thank you very much Paul. I'm going to attempt to share my screen here for a, for a slideshow. My Internet connection here has been going in and out, So fingers crossed. I really hope that it continues to work for us. So Smithfield is right adjacent to Virginia Tech. And if you go from Solitude, by the duck pond, if you head over towards the obstacle course, you will come to a T and Smithfield is just sort of beyond a tree line there. A lot of people on campus at Virginia Tech and in the town of Blacksburg who are unaware of Smithfield. And I think one of the reasons for that is that Smithfield for a long time has been a place that has served a very niche group and was very comfortable for serving a niche group. And that niche group where people connected with the Preston family and people connected to the preservation of the legacy of the American Revolution. The former motto for Smithfield was a legacy of American leadership. Recently we've switched more towards four values which are courage, leadership, education, injustice, and for justice, may of course apply that to the enslaved individuals who are here and their descendants, as well as the indigenous peoples who were here before there was a Smithfield. Smithfield is an independent 501C3 with strong ties to Virgini