Today was the first day of the 21st Annual Working Wood in the 18th Century conference in Colonial Williamsburg. This year, the focus is on five different woodworkers who all had different stories and places from which they came. In remembrance of 2019 being the 400th anniversary of the first documented enslaved Africans being brought to the North American British colonies, two of these five makers are enslaved woodworkers: John Hemings, a master joiner and carpenter who was owned by Thomas Jefferson, and Cesar Chelor, a unspeakably gifted hand plane maker who was owned by Francis Nicholson.
Truth be told, the highlighting of these two makers is the main motivation behind my coming. I had considered coming this way for this research anyway, but telling the stories of Hemings and Chelor, even if only in a brief presentation, granted me the desire to make the ten hour drive through the mountain-lined highways of East Tennessee and Virginia. To hear experts make these two men come alive would edify this project and my own constitution, and I knew I could not miss this opportunity.
Admittedly, I also was pining to meet Joshua Klein, the editor-in-chief of Mortise and Tenon magazine, a twice-yearly publication that, in their own words, “seeks to bridge the worlds of furniture maker, conservator, and scholar.” I had connected with him through email a few months ago about this research, and his interest in my inquiry spurred me on to further conversation with Jim McConnell, the content editor of the same publication and the individual with whom Joshua connected me. Their combined fervor for my pursuits gave me an additional push to actually apply for the grant under which I do this research currently.
Little did I know, all personal desires for this conference aside, what the first day would gift me. After a meager bowl of raisin bran for breakfast, I walked the mile and a half from my hotel to Williamsburg Lodge to check in and receive my conference materials. Having received that and having several hours to fill before my next obligation, I set out to Colonial Williamsburg. Before I could even make my way up the steps, though, I saw a man who appeared to be Steve Voigt, the man who would be speaking on Cesar Chelor and an impressive plane maker in his own right. I awaited the conclusion of his previous conversation before introducing myself and asking if I may, at some point in the weekend, have a moment of his time to talk more about Chelor for my research. To my pleasant surprise, he accepted immediately, but cautioned that he may not be able to add much. I encouraged him by responding that any information he may give me would be better than the nearly non-existent information I currently had on Chelor. We then parted ways to meet again later, myself proceeding to Colonial Williamsburg.
Once there, I first paid my respects at the African American Baptist Meetinghouse, a memorial of sorts to First Baptist Church, a Black church that began with brush arbors (or “hush harbors” as I tend to hear down south) in 1776 and still exists today, albeit down the road a few blocks. I then went to find First Baptist, and after initial discouragement from its distance being farther than I thought, I came across it. I asked through a buzzer whether I could come in and take some pictures and find uncover some history for my research, and I was told to see a man named Garson Orange, a Trustee of the church. He happened to be in the parking lot at that moment, and I asked him the same questions, and while he could not meet that day, he gave me his card so that we might communicate and he could set up a time next month with more people to do this research more fully. I thanked him for his time and effort in setting up those meetings, and I proceeded back to Colonial Williamsburg.
I happened upon the house of George Wythe (pronouced “with” as I have been corrected several times today). Proceeding through the home, I learned some facts and then went through the back door to the coopers (those who make barrels). Once there, a skilled young woman by the name of Bonnie Roane allowed me to interrupt her work to ask her about any specific names of coopers from the area. She provided me information about Adam Waterford, a free Black man who was an apparently successful cooper in Williamsburg and later moved to Tennessee and had a legal dispute with someone, all information contained in a paper packet she gave me. Beyond this, much is conjecture, including whether he was born into enslavement or freedom, and whether he may have enslaved people himself. I thanked her for this gold-mine of information (which is no falsehood given I had not heard his name five minutes prior) and I went my way.
After a few blocks I happened upon the carpenter’s yard where much of the sawing took place. Here I met and conversed with Garland Wood. I asked him quite directly who the sawyers would have been, and he, with the same directness, said that it would have been enslaved people. He proceeded to offer even more help that I could have imagined, suggesting that I look into the MESDA Craftsman Database, the runaway enslaved person databases (that link’s combination of sites possible from the work of Dr. Crystal Eddins), the Washington and Jefferson papers for their inventories of enslaved people, and countless other helpful places from which to uncover who built this nation. After frantically writing all of this down, another couple men came up to hear the end of what Garland was saying to me, and upon completion of his sentence, I thanked him and took my leave.
It came upon me to go back to the George Wythe house and upon entering, I encountered Elizabeth Hay who gave me even more information than I received the first visit there. She confirmed that the house was quite close to original, including the handrail along the stairs. She told me of Richard Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver, confusingly), who was the architect behind the house. I asked simply, “Who actually built it?” and she responded honestly that enslaved people did much of the labor. She allowed me to take pictures and I thanked her and made my way out to Bruton Parish Church.
While in the church, a somber respect came over me as often does in historic churches. Something about the buildings lets me know that spirits are present with me, and I can only pray that they are holy in nature. I met a guide named Lynn Clark who told me that while the woodworking in the church was not original, there are records at William and Mary that would tell of the names of who built those first pews. She directed me also to the church’s bookstore for further information. She even answered in the affirmative when I asked if I would be able to partake in the Eucharist in spite of my not being Episcopal. Were it not for the continuation of the talk on Hemings early this upcoming Sunday morning, I would indeed be at the Holy Eucharist service at 7:30 A.M. because of her kindness.
I went back for the evening keynote to open the conference, and after this, I happened to see Joshua Klein and Michael Updegraff, the latter being the editorial assistant of Mortise and Tenon who introduced himself humbly as “Mike.” I told Joshua about the project and informed him of the grant and the plans for work I had so far, and he and Mike both seemed to respond positively. Joshua asked that I email him the website and I told him I would do so. Thanking him, I took my leave to the reception.
At the reception, while standing in line for an unknown meal, Steve Voigt found me and we had our previously agreed upon meeting about Chelor. I first asked him why he chose to focus on Chelor as opposed to any other maker, simply wanting to know why he thought it important to study Chelor. He gave me an answer so pregnant with admiration for this maker, it is impossible to replicate on the written page. He also gave me several names and a publication to seek out, and I was again furiously writing as he told me more and more about this oft-forgotten craftsman. He told me, also, that should I have any questions about his presentation or Chelor more generally, I can reach out to him and he would be happy to help me in any way he can. I thanked him, and he took his leave. I proceeded to the food to discover it was only salad, so I promptly left (no surprise for those who know me personally), walked to the hotel, got a new room key after leaving mine in the room, drove to get a chicken philly cheese steak from Rick’s Cheese Steak Shop, brought it to my hotel, and turned on Parks and Rec and ate dinner. Now I write this, looking back upon this day with fulfillment.
It takes a village to do anything. The idea that we can truly do anything as individuals falls short as we realize our own limitations. Today alone I witnessed the people in the live kitchen needing the cut offs from the coopers for their fire, the coopers needing milled wood from the carpenter’s yard, and the carpenter’s yard needing tools from the blacksmith. For my own sake, I witnessed my own limitations in both knowledge and imagination as I learned about new people and new directions to go to uncover who built this nation. None of this could I have done alone. Today, I had the help of Steve Voigt, Garson Orange, Bonnie Roane, Garland Wood, Elizabeth Hay, Lynn Clark, Joshua Klein, and Michael Updegraff. This does not even count the woman who gave me a new hotel key, the woman who took my philly cheese steak order, the people who prepared that meal, the countless folks making the conference run smoothly, and even more than my imagination will allow me to think of. All of these people, and it is only the end of day one.
May we recognize those who help us this day and every day, past, present, and future. May we praise those who work alongside us. May we honor those who built and build this nation.