The image above is of a barn on my aunt and uncle’s farm in Nokesville, Virginia. They live in an old plantation home that they purchased in the 70’s after they were married out of high school. As part of one the oldest properties in their county, only this barn and the original home where they live (not pictured) are part of the original plantation. They have since built two new homes (for their two grown children’s families), a swimming pool, and wildlife reserve/pond. The home has been featured in several local publications for all of the work they have done to it.
What many people do not know (including a few of my cousins who have actually lived in the house) is that the home is the site of a horrible massacre of an entire family. My mother showed me the newspaper article when I was in high school, but told me to never tell my younger cousins who it would impact most. The home was owned by a man who lived there with his wife and five children (and I can’t remember the years, so please forgive me!), and they had about 7-8 slaves. One night, while the family slept, there was an uprising amongst the slaves, and they brutally killed the entire family and fled. Only 3 or 4 were ever caught. This story reminds me a lot of the erasure of history that we have been discussing in both relation to photography and memory. Images do not give us any more information than what we can plainly see, but the one time my mother showed me the article about the uprising has been burned into my memory.
What if I told you this was the door to the slave quarters that no one else knew about? This is where the men and women lived who killed the couple who oppressed them and their innocent children. The door is locked. No one has the key. No one has ever entered the home, and no one knows what is in it. Would there be answers to where the slaves who escaped ended up? Would there be clues to how hard they had it, to the point where they would kill an entire family?
There would not. This is a door of one of the small cottages at Vanderbilt we visited on our tour, built to house undergraduate students during the early years of the University. By prescribing meaning to an image, we give it life, and we give it meaning. We have the power to create history and deepen memory. The power of imagery is profound, and it’s immediate relationship to history shows how possible it is to completely change our perception of what really happened in a certain place.