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Preserving Our Past

by Mary Ann French

When we think of preservation, we think of care and perpetuity, safekeeping or safeguarding, shielding and protecting. When we decide to preserve something we are sanctifying it and setting it aside, outside the range of any casual reach, so that it won't be needlessly, or even unintentionally, harmed by actions that aren't thoroughly thought through.

Preservation is long-range. It's for the ages. Preservation is the making of history. It's how and why we know what happened in our past, and in the past of others. Because we practice preservation, we are able to set sensible goals for the future. It enables us to look back and see what has been tried in the past--what works, what doesn't.

The Madison-Barbour Rural Historic District is a preserve of sorts. Our state determined to protect it for the ages because it is, as one of my neighbors very poignantly put it, "one of the few remaining shards of our nation's historic landscape. It's an imperfect piece, with pits and cracks (clay pits, that is), but it's the best memento we have of a vanished time."

As the Virginia's Department of Historic Resources says, our district is "one of the state's most intact cultural landscapes." That's one of the reasons why the Madison-Barbour Rural Historic District is listed on both the Virginia and national historic landmark registers. It's a treasure.

It's a window to the past, where ancestors of many of the same families who live here today settled before our nation was founded. When we were still a colony of England. When this was the edge of Western civilization. The frontier. When old growth forests were cleared for agriculture. When ancient trade routes that we still use today were first laid down. When freedom was first felt by European adventurers who felt so cramped in the old country, that they willingly boarded boats for destinations unknown, sometimes even selling themselves into temporary but tough-termed bondage to pay for the voyage. Africans and their descendants also quested for freedom here, wrenching themselves from a system that was so devastating that we continue to feel its effects, some 150 years after it was officially abolished.

Those are but a few reasons why we should preserve the plot of land that an Austrian-owned company plans to disfigure with a strip-mine. The land also is but a stone's throw from the stately ruins of one of the few mansions that Thomas Jefferson designed for a private individual -- his friend James Barbour, who was a governor of Virginia and a U.S. senator, during which time he was instrumental in securing the funds for Jefferson to found the University of Virginia.

What kind of community slashes and scars itself so close to such monuments of our nation's past and remnants of its lush landscape?

Let me tell you about one of my most precious treasures: It's an old photo, a small one, of my great-great-grandmother--Winifred Brown--sitting outdoors on the lawn in a wicker chair. Behind her are some gently rolling hills that I'd recognize anywhere. They are sights that cause our hearts to jump when we first glimpse them after we've been away for a while, or after a period of forgetting to look at them, when a particularly stunning sunset won't allow us to see anything else. I've always thought of those hills as wave-like, rippling gently down from the mountains and rolling toward the sea.

General Shale is talking about essentially decapitating those hills. Leveling them. Who knows? Maybe leaving us a parking lot instead. Nice and flat.

Those are some of the reasons why it's important to me as an American to preserve this little spit of land. Because it's an irreplaceable piece of our past, a glance back to the beginnings that continue to guide us all.

But there are also more personal reasons why proposals for strip-mines in Barboursville are fighting words for me. And these reasons are rooted in my skin color, my ethnicity, my African origins. My family has been here for eight generations. Longer, perhaps, if you count the white plantation owners who seeded us personally, making a cash crop out of human beings they enslaved and reproduced for profit.

My family's place, called The Brownland, is one of the properties that would directly abut the mine, should we be shortsighted enough to grant General Shale the special use permit it seeks.

The Brownland is a dream come to life. It is a vision of America and a belief in its principles that people of African descent carried from slavery to freedom. It has been nurtured and sustained through much hard work and against many odds. It was bought in small pieces with money an enslaved man began saving by working at his trade two shifts each day--one for the master of Burlington, who was also his father, and one for his dream. This man--J. Albert Brown--eventually bought his own freedom, and that of his wife, Winifred, who belonged to the nearby Barbours.

We, my family, their descendants, continue to this day to inhabit that dream of a house, and the surrounding farm. We also continue to struggle to protect this land, our small piece of America. Indeed, each generation of my family has kept some folks at home to care for the land, and sent others abroad to make the money that has always been needed, beyond farming, to keep our purchase safe.

There has got to be some better way to bring a handful of jobs to Orange County than by destroying our dream and those of many others whose ancestors were once enslaved on nearby plantations. And if there isn't, at the present time, we may simply have to acknowledge that the price we would pay as a community in order to snag those few jobs, would just be too great.

It's not that we're opposed to brickmaking. It's true--as General Shale has reportedly facetiously argued--that it's a traditional industry for this area. That it's nothing new. We acknowledge that. In fact, fine bricks have been made in this neck of the woods practically ever since it was first settled by Westerners. But the bricks were made by hand, and in cottage industries, and often by enslaved Africans.

It would be too cruel an irony, all these many years later, when we as a nation are still trying to come to terms with the damage done by slavery, that the descendants of the same slaves who made bricks at Barboursville and Burlington should have their property degraded and their lives intruded upon by a commercial clay mine.

Indeed, we maintain that the only tradition that would be perpetuated by granting General Shale a special use permit would be a tradition of African Americans being exploited for the sake of brick production, albeit on a much grander scale.

Mary Ann French is a veteran of journalism and a student of history.


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General Shale/Wienerberger Mine
Modified Monday, 18-Apr-2005 17:20:13 UTC