In the course of writing a public history textbook, advising museums (and, occasionally, a fictional mouse), putting together syllabi for next year, and all-too-often railing against the demise of a venerable institution, it can become an occupational hazard to lose an appreciation of the humanity of the people of the past who are at the heart of it all, whom we are supposed to work to remember, to attempt to understand, and from whose experiences glean some lessons that matter in the present. Too often curatorial enthusiasm or interpretative malpractice can remove the living and breathing spirit of those who gave meaning to objects and ideas, until they because matters of cloistered connoisseurship or, worse, empty entertainment. And while we public historians, inevitably caught up in the bewildering inanity of our post-factual modern world — such as the daily madness of a president who doesn’t seem to have read the Constitution, much less respect it, or the indecorous implosion of once-vaunted heritage organizations, or constructing academic conference papers on abstruse topics that only a handful of other people will ever read — try to find new, effective ways, through efforts such as History Space, to project and protect that past, the men and women, free and enslaved, who made it, and who inspired many of us to spend a career in pursuit of their worlds in the first place, can quickly and easily become nothing more than content for exhibits, tours, costumed history programs, or daily Tweets. In the end, instead, the stories that once captivated us become twisted into shades of what they really were, and our work has done more harm than good to their memory, thereby violating our implicit vocational charge.
How many of us have that unruly file of notes that contains all of the stories we promise ourselves that we’ll get to just as soon as this evaluation, or chapter, or article, or recommendation is done? How many times have we heard our friends and colleagues tell us “You MUST write that!” after a few pints at the local loosen our tongues enough for us to switch from debating tired paradigms to telling timeless tales, ones made all the more powerful because their facts are not alternative? And why does that file constantly invite us to leaf through its pages when another committee appointment or donor meeting makes us wonder just what those years in graduate school were for because, mostly, those stories speak to us in ways that we find difficult to explain, although we revel — and are renewed — in the telling?
For me, that has always been the best part of being a public historian, as an educator and as a practitioner. If, as Denise Meringolo has trenchantly pointed out, to be a public historian is to be a builder, especially of a relationship among educators, practitioners, and, of course, audiences, than the product of that relationship lies in the nexus of scholarship, interpretation, and imagination, and which begets further inquiry. Whenever I think of the stories in my file, I think of that relationship, of how best to tell those stories in ways that maintain our unwritten contract of authenticity and accuracy (not necessarily the same things), while ensuring a level of engagement with others. It represents, in my view, the best of the work I’ve done at every public history stop on my C.V., from Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg to Newport and Plimoth Plantation–the programs that result from the relationships of teams of skilled people in the present trying to tell powerful, even instructive stories about people in the past, about those who cannot speak for themselves.
Top in my folder is the story of Ryland Randolph and Aggy, a tale at least as compelling as that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but one largely unknown and still mysterious. It all started while I was writing my dissertation on Virginia loyalists, which revolves around that “great cousinry,” the Randolph clan (of which, only incidentally, I am one). Many of them joined the patriot movement, but more of them did not, choosing to fight to remain British or to stay out of the contest until it was all over and the smoke cleared. Much of my argument to explain the choices they made, or left unmade, during the crisis period centers on political culture, and a dominant shift from sense to sensibility. That required a level of prosopographical analysis that bordered, it must be said, on the manic, as I (quite literally) mapped out the relevant individuals and traced their social relationships and cultural influences.
That led me to Ryland.
Ryland Randolph, the master of the family seat of Turkey Island on the James River, was an eccentric member of an eccentric family. Almost nothing but the barest of geneological facts was known of him (Thanks, Gerald Cowden). Born about 1734, the son of Richard Randolph and Jane Bolling, and therefore a descendant of Rebecca Rolfe (the story of Ryland’s portrait of “Pocahontas,” which hung in the main hall at Turkey Island, is another one in my file), he, like many of his brothers and cousins, went to school in England, attended Trinity Hall at Cambridge and Middle Temple in the 1750s, went on a tour of the American northeast and Canada in the 1760s, traveled back to England, and then returned to Virginia in 1770 to live, seemingly alone amongst his enslaved community, on his vast plantation. He was described by a contemporary as “a fine classical scholar, a master of the French and Italian languages, an eloquent speaker and most accomplished gentleman.” He died, unmarried, in 1784. As far as the history books were concerned, that was pretty much all there was to Ryland Randolph, and all that remains above ground of him, given that the house at Turkey Island is today nothing but lumps and bumps in the landscape near the family graveyard, is an obelisk that he erected to mark “The Great Fresh” of 1771 and honor his parents, but even that is now eroding and buried in the middle of a forest that the Virginia Tidewater’s tick population defends like their last bastion. A fitting metaphor for Ryland — only the quite serious need venture closer to the core. In the end, his story for most of the last 200 years was just another one of those tired, ubiquitous tales of the Virginia privileged class, who only existed to enjoy their privileges.
But there was one book that had one tantalizing mention of him that suggested his story was something else. Phil Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint, the seminal work on the lived experience of enslaved men and women in the Chesapeake and Carolinas, suggested in a footnote that an enslaved woman named Aggy might have lived in the manor house at Turkey Island as Ryland’s wife, along with their two children, Sylvia and Philip Alexander, and were set free by Ryland in his will, with provision that they leave Virginia for England, where funds were deposited for their welfare. But the will was challenged by his brother and, it seemed, the provisions not enforced.
Of course, that begged the situation of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and the other “open and notorious” interracial associations that were obvious to observers throughout late colonial Virginia. As “no uncommon spectacle,” in the words of Thomas Gwatkin, they were, quite literally, unremarkable. Yet Ryland appeared to have taken the extra steps, given Virginia’s legal and economic constraints to manumission, to ensure the security and liberty of his family, unlike so many of his contemporaries. Ryland, then, at least to me, seemed to have deserved a closer look.
And, as every historian worth her or his salt knows, you start seeing things just when you begin to look for them, and not a moment before. Ryland was not just Jefferson’s cousin, he was his close friend. It was with Ryland whom Jefferson would often stay on his trips between Charlottesville and Williamsburg. It was Ryland whom Jefferson consulted about architecture and landscaping. It was Ryland from whom Jefferson borrowed books and ideas, and suggested that others do the same. It was Ryland whom Jefferson asked to draft the first rendering of the Virginia State Capitol (now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society). As for Ryland himself, he rebuilt the main house at Turkey Island in a style that gave it the nickname “The Bird Cage.” He reveled in his library and his own mixed race ancestry. And he adopted as his motto, Fari Quae Sentiet — “To Say What One One Feels” (from Horace). And he did, indeed, do just that in his will in 1785, when he not only gave Aggy and her children their freedom, but also left her all of his “household furniture of every kind including gold and silver” and arranged for their transport to England, along with a trust fund of £3000 (the modern equivalent of almost $500,000), to be administered for them by close friends of his in London (one of them a senior member of the British Treasury).
His brother, Richard, however, strongly opposed the will. He encouraged its executors to refuse to serve and he challenged it in court. Richard claimed that the generosity to Aggy showed that Ryland was not of sound mind and, something closer to the Henrico County Court justices’ hearts and minds, Ryland owed money to Richard that must be accounted for first. Of course, Richard had no proof of those debts, but the justices would certainly take his word for it, as a matter among gentlemen. And they did, declaring the will void and granting administration of Ryland’s estate to Richard.
That’s where things stood when I got to Colonial Williamsburg and the story I told to my partner in program development, Bill Weldon, one night at our favorite watering hole (I should have had my mail delivered to Second Street). I was hired by then-Vice President Jim Horn to ensure sound scholarship as the foundation of public programming, and it was his charge to Bill, as creative director, and me to develop new programming that would push our guests’ boundaries and challenge conventional notions of the Revolutionary generation that made America. So one of my first thoughts was of Ryland and Aggy, and its interpretative potential gripped Bill’s imagination as much as it did mine. But how could we effectively tell that story?
As with the very best in public history programming, success begins and ends with human capital. At the time, Bill and I were reconfiguring the entire “Revolutionary Community” to more accurately reflect, in the people whom our interpreters portrayed, those who were actually there during the years of the Revolution, and more authentic social and racial demographics. Out went figures such as Robert Carter Nicholas, who left Williamsburg in 1776, and composite personas, and in came James Madison, Martha Jefferson, Martin Hemings, and Barber Caesar. And in a remarkably gifted young interpreter — Mary Hardy Carter — we had someone with the capacity and interest to properly build Ryland’s Aggy. It did not matter to us that not much was known about many of these individuals (NOT characters. We refused to use that term to describe people who once lived. Cinderella is a character. Aggy was a person). What did matter was that we knew their relevance, and the power of the stories they could tell, which would generate new scholarship from the research and creative work needed to authentically explore and represent their lives, as a product of that relationship among public history educator, practitioner, and audience. Through that process, we could recover the historical Aggy on her own terms, and learn more about her world.
We were also fortunate to have at that time embarked on a new partnership with Karin Wulf at the College of William & Mary (when CW was still an Omohundro Institute partner), in an innovative project that she and I developed to examine gender in Early America through an explicit connection between American Studies students and CW Actor-Interpreters. Students were charged with working with our interpreters to develop the history and historiography around the historical figures we wanted them to portray. So we had teams of graduate and undergraduate students “adopt” an interpreter and her portrayal as their major class project. And one of them had Mary and Aggy.
It was a tremendously exciting moment for us all, as public and academic historians, as we watched Aggy emerge from the historical ether. That was largely due to the indefatigable research of Alex Finley, a talented — and inspired — William & Mary graduate student, who discovered documents long hidden in Virginia court records. The work of her and her team, combined with my own continued research (and that of my splendid intern, Jenna Simpson), painted a new picture — or, rather, restored a lost portrait — of Aggy that not only led to an effective individual portrayal, but a powerful program, “His Natural Wife,” to tell the story of a remarkable woman.
Through that work we developed new scholarship on both Aggy and on the nature of interracial relationships in early America. At the beginning of the process, the story ended as one expected it might, with the Virginia gentry preserving their ancient hegemony over those who would rebel against it. At the end, and ongoing, we see a much different Virginia, one in which a woman could fight for her rights — and win. That’s a Virginia much more complicated, much more contingent, and much more interesting and diverse than you’ll get out of most books and historical sites.
Aggy did not let Richard’s challenge stand. She fought back, partnering with a neighbor, lawyer Robert Pleasants, to claim her rights under Ryland’s will and demand that Richard produce evidence of Ryland’s supposed debts to him. Richard countered, offering to grant her and her children freedom in his own will if they did not make any claims under Ryland’s, but Aggy refused. She petitioned the various Virginia courts, suing Richard and his successors for unlawful imprisonment, as she was oppressed by them “in more than a common degree” and possessed an “absolute right to freedom.” It took 16 years after the death of Ryland, but Richard never provided the evidence of debts and Aggy’s tenacity won out: On August 18, 1801, Aggy, “who obtained her freedom by suit in your Court,” appeared before the clerk of the Henrico County Court and obtained her legal liberty.
That, however, is where the story ends — for now. What happened to her and her children is, as yet, unknown. There is evidence that Ryland succeeded in setting up the trust for them in London, but not what became of it. Nevertheless, through the synergy created by the relationships at the heart of public history, we know more about the period and its people. And we have new questions. For example, did Aggy’s difficulties with Richard influence Jefferson’s choices about Sally Hemings and their children?
This is one of the stories in my file. It’s also a reminder of the power of public history as a partnership of the sort that History Space is trying to teach, grow, and show. I’m also looking forward to building the process into my forthcoming Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman & Littlefield for the AASLH) and my public history courses at Johns Hopkins, and, of course, continuing with my efforts at the Newport Historical Society. But, on some days, like today’s rainy one in Providence, some stories just need to be told. And Aggy’s would wait no more.