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Descendants Day Tells a More Complete History of Oatlands

Descendants Day Tells a More Complete History of Oatlands

Written by Heidi Baumstark

To reclaim. It means to retrieve, to recover something previously lost, given, or paid. To transform from a useless state; to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and to adopt a right one. 

That’s the ambition of a program called Reclaim Your Story, an initiative of Oatlands Historic House and Gardens in Leesburg. Since 2015, descendants of the enslaved community at Oatlands have gathered for Descendants Day, which seeks to reclaim and share the history of hundreds who were enslaved at this and neighboring Loudoun County plantations during the 1800s. 

Esteemed Guests

On October 14, 2023, Oatlands hosted its sixth Reclaim Your Story Descendants Day. The program was not held during the COVID-19 pandemic, but resumed in 2022 due to renewed interest to gather again and “to invite not only the descendants of the enslaved, but also the Carter enslavers,” according to the 2023 event booklet. Participants had the opportunity to get to know one another, share information about their families and genealogy, engage in thought-provoking discussions, and learn research tips to unlock family histories. Attendees came from near and far, including some from Maryland, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and California.

Oatlands board member Catrice Vandross is a descendant of the Buchanans, many of whom were enslaved at Oatlands. This year, Vandross welcomed guests and introduced other Buchanans in the room, including John Buchanan, whose great-grandfather was Martin Van Buren Buchanan. John got married here at Oatlands in 2004, “so, this is a homecoming for me,” he added. 

Another guest was Charles Robinson. “My ancestors were slaves here,” he said. “Many of the enslaved were brought to Oatlands from other parts of Virginia like King and Queen County and were sold to [George] Carter.” The Oatlands plantation dates to 1804, and originally the property covered 3,408 acres. In 1798, the land was inherited by George (great-grandson of Robert “King” Carter) and his wife, Elizabeth Carter.  

Elizabeth O. Carter. Photo courtesy of Oatlands.

Darrin Thornton of Brunswick, Maryland, came with his family, including his grandmother and grandfather, who live in the area. His great-great-great-grandfather was Emanuel Day, who was enslaved at Oatlands. Darrin’s grandmother, Marguerite Thornton, said she still has Day’s Bible. After the Civil War, descendants of Day’s were able to purchase land in the nearby community of Gleedsville, established in the 1870s by several men who had once been enslaved at Oatlands.

In addition to descendants of the enslaved, a Carter descendant of Frederick, Maryland, came to the event, noting that she was looking forward to a more complete history of Oatlands being told.

Revolutionizing Research

Lori Kimball, who works in the Historic Records Division for Loudoun County, joined Gayle Jessup White, former journalist and author of “Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy,” to provide insights into research and genealogy, oral history, and DNA evidence.

Kimball explained, “We went through Elizabeth Carter’s diary, which led to creating a database of all the enslaved [people] at Oatlands to give visitors more information about slavery, but more importantly, about the people here.” The goals of Reclaim Your Story include conducting accurate research, making a database of names that would be available to the public, educating visitors about the enslaved at Oatlands via tours and speakers, and identifying and inviting descendants to attend the program. 

Vandross asked the audience if anyone had run into any brick walls while doing genealogy research. She suggested forming a group of those who have done DNA testing so results could be shared and compared. Common surnames related to the Oatlands enslaved community included Buchanan, Robinson, Bryant, Thornton, and Jackson. 

Martin Van Buren Buchanan with his family.

DNA testing, through services like, for example, is just one way to begin your research; another guest suggested 23andMe, which shows patterns of migration. Often wills mention the names of enslaved people moving to surviving family members. Other potential sources are maritime records in Massachusetts of slave ships arriving from Africa. Marriage records, church records, and business records are helpful, too. Vandross suggested a line of questioning such as: Who is doing a lot of the manual labor? Who owns those businesses? Who is building those buildings? The names of the enslaved may be added to documents. “Basically, we need to follow the money,” she summarized.

“Most of the Black folks in this area are kin to each other,” John Buchanan said. “Think about it — there’s no transportation, so your friends were people across the field. For us, our neighbors are our relatives.” After the Civil War, Black communities formed throughout Loudoun, from Gleedsville to Willisville, Howardsville, and St. Louis.

Gayle Jessup White: Descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ Family

As the keynote speaker, Jessup White shared memories of growing up in a nice neighborhood in D.C. “We didn’t talk about slavery, but as a child, I heard stories passed down from my father’s family that we were descendants of Thomas Jefferson,” she remembered. “It didn’t make sense to me since Jefferson was white. My dad would just say, ‘Well, that’s what they say.’”  

For over four decades, the acclaimed journalist and genealogy enthusiast researched her connection to Jefferson to confirm its truth once and for all through DNA testing. But results did not show a relation to Sally Hemings; instead they showed connections to Jefferson and his wife, Martha Jefferson. “They’re my five times removed great-grandparents,” she shared. 

Poring over photos, documents, and pursuing DNA evidence, she learned that not only was she a descendant of Jefferson on his father’s side; she was also the great-great-great-granddaughter of Peter Hemings, Sally Hemings’ brother, reckoning the fact that her ancestors encompass both the enslaver and the enslaved.

“I found my history when, in 2016, I became the first public relations and community engagement officer at Monticello and the first descendant of an enslaver to be paid for it,” Jessup White noted. Her position provides her unique opportunities to share her story and her hopes that lessons learned from our country’s past can guide us in the future. 

She encouraged descendants to “document your family history. Tell the stories and be sure these stories are passed down. Stories of courage and strength, of who they were as human beings.” 

Martin Van Buren Buchanan and his daughter, Deborah Buchanan Fox. Photos courtesy of Catrice Vandross.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

“We need to properly commemorate this space,” said Omar Eaton-Martinez, senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. His colleague, Elon Cook Lee, also spoke, and together, they presented a slideshow of the Trust’s 28 properties open to the public.  

Cook Lee said, “When we remove slavery from the narrative and only focus on the enslaver, we don’t tell the whole story. We want to move from an imagined or idyllic past to portraying the enslaver as a real, complicated person. The vast majority of people who walked these paths were enslaved. By removing slave cabins at most plantations — with only the enslaver’s mansion in sight — it trivializes the enslaved and deflects the truth.” It’s important to tell stories with input from the descendants of the enslaved community so it’s presented more accurately, and to empower descendants to want to be involved in historic sites where their enslaved families lived.

“Clearly, a vision is where it starts,” Eaton-Martinez said. “We have to remind ourselves: What are we doing here? Why are we doing this? The power of truth — the full truth.” When considering how events at historic properties can be meaningful and respectful of the enslaved community, he highlighted the importance of offering educational conferences and programs which align with a historic site’s mission. 

Cook Lee concluded, “It starts with care. Caring about the people who lived and worked here so visitors to historic sites leave with self-actualization: an ‘a-ha’ moment.” 

Looking Forward

Plans for Reclaim Your Story continue to widen the network of descendants and tell Oatlands’ untold history through education and research. By bringing all descendants together, breaking down barriers, and building trust, the hope is that Oatlands — a microcosm of America — will further the process of the nation’s reconciliation with its history of slavery. Every family has a unique story, and it is through Reclaim Your Story that descendants of the formerly enslaved community at Oatlands and Loudoun come together to share theirs and reclaim what was lost or never shared.

The garden and grounds of Oatlands, located at 20850 Oatlands Plantation Lane in Leesburg, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more about Oatlands’ Reclaim Your Story initiative, visit ML

Published in the February 2024 issue of Middleburg Life.

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