Thursday, September 6, 2012

Beneath the surface: hidden histories of place

Letter that James Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the Prosser slave rebellion.
 James Monroe's letter to Thomas Jefferson
told of a slave insurrection near Richmond, Va.
Photo from Library of Congress.
Let me tell you a story about another place and other times. It was the time when I'd just started walking the path that has brought me here, to you.

Almost 30 years ago I was launching my career as a writer. I was in Richmond, Va., a place separated from Philadelphia by distance and culture, yet connected to it by a history that goes back to the Founding Fathers. But my mind wasn't on the past. I was obsessed with my present and future. I was preoccupied with making my rent and building my portfolio. So I took a gig that was fluffy and pretty: an article about a flower festival.

I don't remember the name of the event, but I remember where it was held. It was a beautiful mansion that had been owned by tobacco magnate Lewis Ginter. (If you are a smoker, you are connected to Ginter whenever you draw a puff. He mechanized the production of cigarettes.) I remember getting out of my car on a warm, wet day in spring - I think. The moisture saturated rows of pansies, violets and violas. Their hues tinted the fog that hugged the ground. I conducted my interviews and left with an armload of documents.  I browsed them after work, and discovered where I'd really been.

The online history of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden mentions the Powhatan Indians and Patrick Henry. But the property was part of the Thomas Prosser plantation, and the place where slave Gabriel Prosser organized a massive uprising. The plan was thwarted when a severe storm delayed the revolt, and gave informants an opportunity to betray their compatriots. Still the revolt was unsettling to the ruling class, especially when it learned the insurgents intended to capture then-Gov. James Monroe. He shared the news with Thomas Jefferson in a letter:
"We have had much trouble with the negroes here... the plan of an insurrection has been clearly proved."
The papers I was reading didn't even mention Gabriel. There was just a throwaway line about Thomas Prosser riding down Chamberlayne Avenue in the driving rain to put down a slave rebellion. The line stopped me cold. I lived at 3807 Chamberlayne Ave. I knew about Gabriel Prosser, but I didn't know the entire story. From that day on, I walked down my steps and rode down my street with increased awareness. What history had I ignorantly tread upon? What stories had I blithely overlooked?

If history abides in any place, that place would be Philadelphia. Some landmarks are obvious, of course. Yet places like the President's House in Philadelphia have histories that are just now emerging. Still, visitors tread heavily and unconsciously, just as I did back on Chamberlayne Avenue.

From now until May, Place Philadelphia will explore notions of time and place; history celebrated and ignored; voices that spoke and those that were silenced. The project pairs noted playwright Ain Gordon and filmmaker Nadine Patterson. Both are asking questions on those themes. Their answers and insights are the fodder for a collaboration that will be presented in next spring.

My name is Afi Scruggs. I'll be blogging, riffing on their questions and sharing my musing in cyberspace and social media.

Join me by sharing your comments in this sphere that transcends physical geography.  Until we meet again, watch your step.