Part 1 – Finding the House, Looking for the People
At the Telling the History of Slavery conference, the woman I sat next to looked to be about my age, and like most of the attendees, not someone I knew. We introduced ourselves before the speakers began, and at the first break, shared more information. Something about the same way we each dealt with the question “where are you from?” alerted me to listen more carefully. As my neighbor listed the countries she had lived in as a child, “Burma” rang all the bells. “Alice! Alice Cannon! Are you Alice Purnell who lived next door to me in Rangoon?” She is. Our families were next door neighbors when Alice’s and my fathers worked for the American Embassy in Rangoon, Burma, in the early ‘50’s. We were very small then, but we could remember our cats who were siblings, our shared disaster with the bees in the hedge, and our study partnership in Miss Gevney’s one-room American school. Alice is an only child, but she remembered my little brother, too.
Over and over, we asked each other how it came to be that over 50 years later we found each other and discovered a shared interest in the legacies of slavery and the descendants of the enslaved communities linked to our own lives. Since that reunion, we have spent days together, and we are capable of talking about linked legacies way into the night.
One of the most compelling stories I learned from Alice and her husband, Jon, was about what happened when they moved to Virginia and bought an old house in Earlysville. Alice wanted to know more about its past; she had no thought about the enslaved people who lived there. She hadn’t grown up with a family legacy of slave-owning in any case.
But she wanted to find out about the place. What she learned was that Dr. James B. Rogers bought Bleak House plantation from the heirs of William Michie in 1836. The house in which Alice and Jon live today was built in 1854 and occupied by James and Margaret Rogers by 1857. James and Margaret Rogers’ descendants were defeated by the Civil War, and moved to Kentucky. Alice has contacted them and let them know they have kin among the descendants of their ancestors’ enslaved people, but they so far have no interest in the information or in making connections.
A neighboring farmer, Mr. Garrison, told Alice that the previous owner of Bleak House had researched the property, including the enslaved people, up to 1863. Garrison gave Alice a little book listing the names of the enslaved people of Bleak House. It took her breath away. Like a flash of lightning, the whole story of enslavement and injustice descended on Alice, and she decided as the current owner of Bleak House and a steward of its land, she must make a commitment to find and connect with the families and descendants of the people listed on that paper.
Through years of work, Alice has put together diagrams of the enslaved families’ connections, has located descendants in Virginia, Washington, DC, West Virginia and Ohio, and has accumulated photos of family members past and present. Two family reunions have been held at Bleak House, and Alice has shown the families to the ancestral graveyard for one of their lines. Books of family information and reunion photos have been created, and Alice has been working with the Central Virginia Historical Researchers and has put the story and the family information from Bleak House on their African American Families Database
Alice has also become a font of information about local area enslaved families and helps people researching their connections to those families make progress in their quest. Her work includes a guide to researching African American family lines from slavery to freedom, using a real example and images of the relevant documents, as well as a description of the questions to ask oneself in making connections from an inventory to a census record to the Personal Property Tax List. Another member of the Researchers organization, Lynn Rainville, has assembled African American Research Resources (Albemarle County)
What Alice Cannon found out about the enslaved community of Bleak House Plantation, and how its descendants have reconnected to the property will be described in Parts 2 and 3, to be published November 22 and December 8.