After finding the old photos I had taken there seven years ago, I went back to Hampton for more images.
I found myself pondering the notion of material things purchased with wealth only possible because of slave labor.
In my earliest exploration here I came to understand that the halls of Hampton did not hold a positive story of inspiration and entrepreneurship in the earliest days of the American dream. The multiple streets named after the Ridgelys and their accomplishments are but propaganda that whitewashes crimes against humanity. And we are talking about crimes against humanity here. This family enslaved of thousands of African people, forcing them to labor in all seasons in their miserable and dangerous ironworks.
At first, I resented that as the mansion gradually fell to ruin after the slaves were freed, so many resources and so much money had been dedicated to rebuilding it. I believed that it should have been allowed to die with the immoral laws that built and sustained it before the Civil War.
Why should we ensure that this false monument to false stories of white achievement not only still stood strong but continued to reflect the lavish lifestyles of the slave owners? Couldn’t that money have been better spent?
No. On these grounds we find this powerful illustration of excess juxtaposed with the abject poverty and suffering that purchased it. Purchased, not for the enjoyment and well being of those who labored, but for those who thought themselves entitled to appropriate the precious time that others had to spend on this Earth, and to make that time a living Hell.
The preservation of slaveholders’ mansions allows us to be physically and mentally immersed in the true story of America. If we can open our minds just a little, we can feel the truth wash over us when we pass through their opulent doors.
To deeply feel the emptiness of ill-gotten ephemera is a gift. Inside the immaculately preserved mansions we must remember that everything falls to ruin eventually. Even if our material things persist for hundreds or thousands of years, they are still ephemera in the end.
As we are ourselves ephemeral. Nothing is worth the price of deliberately inflicting suffering on other human beings, and as a society we still haven’t quite learned.