Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Previous Tenants

The old church "manse" where my office can be found is a rickety, porous structure.  Unlike the carefully custom-designed bewindowed ministerial study at my last congregation, my nicely redone current office is the most well-maintained room in a very,"historic" structure.

In the winter, the building feels every one of its one hundred and eighty five years, with white siding and a metal roof that has seen better days and rooms that get real cold real quick if those baseboard heaters aren't clacking and humming away.  That's history, real history.

Back during the Civil War, or rather, what in these here parts would have been called the War of Northern Aggression, the manse was used as an emergency hospital for troops wounded during the nearby Battle of Ball's Bluff.

Those old floorboards really were once stained with the blood of the dying, which is one of the many reasons some church folk are reluctant to come into the manse after dark.  There are some odd creaks and thumps here on occasion, or so the stories go.

But the suffering of those who likely died in this house was not the only difficult memory that may hang around here.   At the back of the house, there's a kitchen, now used as a storage room.  In the kitchen, there are stairs that lead up to a small room with two small windows.  Though next to the house, the room can only be accessed from the kitchen.  It feels like a secret room, and it's typically kept locked up to keep kids in the church from...well...doing what kids do.

As church lore would have it, that room was the living quarters for the slaves owned by the family that lived in the manse.  Poolesville was a strongly Southern-sympathizing town back then, one of the reasons why there were 11,000 troops stationed here during the War.  It would make sense that there might have been slaves in this house, and it adds a peculiar resonance to the building.

The room itself?  It's a little space, maybe twelve by twelve, with sloping ceilings, and I have on occasion gone up into that room to pray and meditate.  What would it have been like to live there, I've wondered.  In my mind's eye, I visualized a woman living alone in that room, separated from the family for whom she would have been property.  What might she have thought or prayed in the dark of that small room?  I've sat in silence, and shared the space with the possibility of that soul's existence.

After a recent conversation with one of the elders of my church about that possible history, that elder showed up having done a bit of research.  The name of the owner had been found, and cross-referencing that with other historical records, it appeared that yes, that family did own slaves.  In 1840, the Census revealed one slave woman in the household, aged between 24 and 35.

But she wasn't alone.  As of the 1840 Census, also in the household were three slave children, two girls and a boy, all under the age of ten.  All of them would have been crammed into that one twelve by twelve room, which now suddenly seems a whole bunch smaller.

Were they a mother and her children?  It seems likely.  What was the fate of the father?  What were their names?   It's not clear.

But it is worth remembering that they were here, sharing this very same space.   They weren't just abstractions.  They were people, no matter what the misbegotten laws of the time may have assumed.  It's important not to forget that they lived, and that they were human beings as worthy of the love of the Creator as any of us.