New exhibit features letters written by the enslaved

Descendants of enslaved celebrate its power

Contributed by Tricia Johnson

Around 40 people gathered on Oct. 7, at the Old Stone Jail Museum in Palmyra for a reception hosted by the Fluvanna Historical Society to celebrate a new exhibit, “The Words They Left Behind: Legacies of Bremo.” 

Cool, blustery weather marked the change of seasons and reflected change of another kind – a substantive change in the museum’s approach to Fluvanna’s largest James River Plantation, Bremo; the plantation’s 19th century owner, John Hartwell Cocke; and the men, women, and children enslaved there.  

The new exhibit features letters written by five of those enslaved men and women, alongside artifacts related to their lives. Lucy Skipwith, Kesiah Cocke Moss, Peyton Skipwith, Lucy Nicholas, and Jack Creasy each wrote letters expressing the pain of being separated from family and friends by forced migrations. These letters, featured in the exhibit, also resonate with agency used by the letter writers to advocate for better conditions for members of their family and of the enslaved community. 

Descendants of those letter writers and of other men, women, and children enslaved at Bremo were among those gratefully recognized for their contributions to the project.  Horace Scruggs and Joe Creasy, descended from letter writers Jack Creasy and Peyton Skipwith, were founding members of the group assembled to design the exhibit.

“Taking part in the earlier discussions, planning, creating the digital components, and installing this exhibit was and is a testimony to the ingenuity, resilience, and intelligence of the enslaved and particularly those who were enslaved at Bremo, who are my ancestors,” said Scruggs.  

Other descendants of the people enslaved at Bremo advised the process, loaned family photographs, or were recorded reading aloud the letters of their ancestors as part of their contribution. 

Sam Johnston, the current steward of Bremo and descended from John Hartwell Cocke, not only contributed insight in those meetings, but he also arranged for the loan of artifacts held by the Bremo Trust that provide tangible ways for visitors to relate to the lives of the letter writers. “It’s an honor to be a part of this project,” said Johnston, “which I hope and expect will open the door to further research and contemplation.”

 “The Fluvanna Historical Society’s new exhibition…is a high-impact exhibit sharing the experiences of individuals enslaved at Bremo who left a rich record of their web of family connections that stretched far from Fluvanna County,” Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of Monroe’s Highland said.

Archaeologists Nick Bon-Harper and Susan Palazzo from Rivanna Archaeological Services helped to identify artifacts and clarified their use. Bon-Harper recognized several oblong worked stones as being pocket whetstones and noted that while commonplace in an earlier era, they are “hardly recognizable” today.  “These whetstones would have been nearly constant companions, regularly in the hands or pockets of those enslaved at Bremo,” Bon-Harper observed. Archaeologists from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation authenticated a colonoware cooking vessel and guided thought about its origins and travel to Fluvanna.

Andi Cumbo, noted central Virginia historian and author, who wrote “The Slaves Have Names: Ancestors of my Home” about the community of enslaved people at Bremo, graciously shared her knowledge and her research notes.

Dr. Randall Miller, author of the book “Dear Master: Letters of a Slave Family” which first brought this collection of letters to the public eye, was in attendance as well.  The 1978 publication of his scholarly research in this book helped change public understanding of the literacy of enslaved people. Ultimately, the book inspired the creation of the exhibit itself. “I came away from the exhibit with combinations of admiration, appreciation, and even awe for all the exhibit represents and presents in terms of telling stories of people entangled by and with history but also in making us think about the ways those people’s stories speak to us today,” said Miller. “The exhibit teaches us much about the past but also how to engage that past.”

Chair of the Fluvanna Board of Supervisors Mozell Booker was moved by the new exhibit. “It was emotional for me as I looked at the pictures of people I knew as a child,” Booker observed of the “Faces of Bremo” portion of the exhibit. “The letters written by the enslaved men and women, and read by their descendants, including Joe Creasy and Horace Scruggs, touched my deepest feelings and filled my eyes with tears.”

The Old Stone Jail will reopen to the public on Sunday, Oct.15 at 2 p.m. with The Words They Left Behind: Legacies of Bremo and with three other exhibits. “Historic Palmyra: the Heart of Fluvanna” which celebrates the village that became the county seat; “Through the Years: Fluvanna Family History” which explores daily life in Fluvanna a century ago and “To Arms, Sons of Old Flu” which documents the county’s military history.

The Bremo plantation properties are privately owned and not open to visitors without permission from the respective owners.

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