Over 20 years after an archaeological excavation uncovered a record of nearly a century of Black families who were enslaved on the Wilton House tobacco plantation in Henrico County, the home’s museum is finally telling the story.
Nearly 100 years since the home’s relocation, the story of its existence is coming to light in a new exhibit this February filled with artifacts and art renderings: “Wilton Uncovered: Archaeology Illuminates an Enslaved Community.”
Originally built in 1753 for the prominent Randolph family, the 2,000-acre tobacco population was at one point home to the largest enslaved population in Henrico, located in the Varina District on the north bank of the James River.
Hired in 2017 to rewrite the narrative for the Wilton House tours, Katie Watkins, the museum’s education director, stumbled upon an archaeological report and collection that had gone straight into storage once completed. Watkins immediately asked to see the artifacts.
“They [the archaeologists] wrote a fantastic archaeological report and then it pretty much got forgotten about,” Watkins said. “No one here at Wilton ever requested to see them, and they were never accessed by anyone that I could tell.”
In 1998, archaeologists from the College of William & Mary returned to the original site to conduct a dig at the request of the Virginia Department of Transportation, which was planning for the state Route 895 toll road.
Five slave quarters were found and thousands of artifacts, including brick rubble, shards of pottery and animal remains.
The only written records for those who lived at Wilton House exist in tax documents, which list numbers and three family wills with first names only, Watkins said. There is no written record of the enslaved families who lived at Wilton — only one document that states all enslaved people were sold and the property was abandoned by the Randolph family in 1846, she said.
In the 1930s, the National Society of Colonial Dames in the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased the home after the land it sat on was selected for rezoning by the industrial expansion of Richmond. After being dismantled in Henrico, the home was rebuilt in Richmond, located at 215 South Wilton Road.
In its new location, the Colonial Dames transformed the Wilton House into a decorative arts and architecture museum, filled with items that did not belong to the original home.
“They didn’t have any of the original furniture from the house, they just filled it with stuff and talked about the stuff. They sort of ignored the context of Wilton, which was that it was the headquarters for the slave labor camp that constituted the largest enslaved community in Henrico County,” Watkins said.
Over the years, the museum fell stagnant, with limited resources and little interest in telling the actual story of the Wilton House, she said.
“We are [now] trying to tell a more honest story,” Watkins said. “This is a tone-changing exhibit for the house as a whole.”
After going through nearly 28 boxes of artifacts, she whittled the collection down to everyday items, such as ceramics, wine bottles and cooking materials.
From there, the museum decided to have artistic renderings made to showcase what the objects would be like in real life. Local artist Dennis Winston created four scenes out of woodblock prints to depict slaves’ lives on the plantation.
Winston, a retired Richmond Public Schools art teacher who has depicted African American experiences and history in various art mediums, has a personal connection to all of his pieces.
“In most of the work that I do, I want it to be something that reflects my values and the things that I believe and things that I value, and especially the ones where I kind of focused on the human condition,” he said.
When creating the prints, Winston said he “had to fight my way through some emotional stress and strain in terms of the subject matters that I was working with, thinking in terms of the history of my ancestors and America.”
He worked on the pieces as the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor spurred protests in Richmond and across the country that called for racial justice and police reforms; and as Confederate statues were removed in Richmond.
In one, called “A Family Meal,” Winston has an enslaved family of five — parents and three children — around a table eating dinner. Plates, utensils and food are on the table with a candle burning behind the mother’s head.
When creating the dinner scene, Winston factored in how the house would have limited light, either from a window or candle, and the different textures of the table, food, floor, clothing and facial expressions.
The remaining three prints feature enslaved people working in a field, two young boys and a woman outside a slave quarter as a man on horseback approaches them, and a couple waiting at the docks near the home.
To make the prints, Winston first drew the scenes on surface paper before transitioning the image onto a block of wood with a black marker. Then using little knives and chisels, Winston painstakingly cut into the wood, cutting out his drawing. Once completed, Winston rolled ink onto the woodblock, then put paper over the wood to transfer to image.
An advisory panel was formed to help see the exhibit through, including scholars and Richmond-area community leaders, which as a result turned the project “into more of a celebration of the persistence of these families over generations,” Watkins said.
High school seniors from the Collegiate School are assisting the museum with its marketing and social media rollout for the exhibit.
Part of a senior capstone class, the students worked virtually with the museum to create graphics to be posted on various social media sites.
Collegiate’s Jere Williams, who primarily teaches in the art department as well as the senior capstone, said that despite his students not being able to spend time at the Wilton House because of the pandemic, the project turned out well.
While the Wilton House artifacts are owned by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the museum has them on loan for two years. The exhibit is on the second floor of the historic home. A permanent exhibit will come online in the next year or so, thanks to a grant from Virginia Humanities and the Jessie Ball duPont Fund.
“I don’t think this exhibit is radical in any way, shape or form, it says that these people lived here, they loved here, they died here and they had no choice in the matter, and that seems to me to be a kind of a basic 101 of Virginian slavery, but it’s something that we don’t see very often, emphasized in historic house museums, especially those that were home to plantations,” Watkins said.
The museum’s virtual lecture on Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. will discuss “Wilton Uncovered.”