New Belle Grove exhibit focuses on slavery

The slave cemetery at Belle Grove Plantation obtained its own signage last year and ties into a new exhibit focused on slavery at the historical site. Photo courtesy of Kristen Laise

Belle Grove Plantation began showcasing emerging research on slavery during its tours when it opened this spring.

Kristen Laise, Belle Grove’s executive director, said the six new exhibit panels on display in the house are the product of archaeological and archival research performed recently. She said that Belle Grove volunteers received assistance in the spring and summer of 2015 from academics who have chosen to focus on the historic property.

Students from James Madison University have performed non-invasive soil testing of a slave burial ground to detect unmarked or poorly marked graves, and Laise said a Syracuse graduate student uncovered around 500 artifacts from archaeological fieldwork last summer. She said much of that research and work is only part of a multi-year process. Photos of some of the artifacts are displayed on exhibit panels.

Delving into Belle Grove documents, volunteers uncovered all the information they could find about enslaved individuals owned by the Hite family. Compiled records list the names of 276 enslaved persons owned by the Hites from 1783 to 1851.

Sometimes, Laise said the information recorded came from mere scribbles in Isaac Hite’s personal books or brief mentions in family letters.

“Some of the research is extremely difficult to do,” she said. “We could hit dead ends – we could go into dusty archives and paw through every kind of government record we could find…and get nothing.

“That also, to me, is a motivator,” she continued. “There wasn’t a lot of evidence left behind: these people were not people, they were property. So this erasure from history, this not even qualifying to be mentioned in historical documents is only more motivation.”

Hite family records and bookkeeping also show the microeconomy of Belle Grove Plantation and its relation to larger economic trends. Isaac Hite wrote an advertisement to sell 60 slaves around the same time as an economic depression and an increase in slave trade within the U.S.

Laise said Belle Grove is making efforts to become a readily available resource for those wanting to know more about the genealogy and family trees of enslaved people.

Part of the new exhibit explains the story of a free black man named Manual Jackson, who moved to Pennsylvania before returning to purchase his son’s freedom. Laise said Belle Grove discovered other small pieces of information from resources far and wide while trying to patch together entire life stories.

“We have a public obligation to do as much research and then make as much available to the public, so that if they want to know their past, it’s there,” she said.

There are still many questions brought about by the new information in the exhibit that remain unanswered. Laise said the exhibit could be changed and expanded with future research and archaeological surveys later this year. Areas that will be analyzed further include the grounds of a slave cemetery and an area where there were once slave quarters.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com