Among the Ruins

Published:May 14, 2015 by Brendan Wolfe

Slave Cabins

Coaxing stories from the shadows. That was the title of the last post on the blog—I know, it was a while ago—and that seems to be what we’re still up to here. For instance, I’ve been editing an entry on the underground railroad in Virginia. Talk about something that existed in the shadows! And on this day in 1852, as it happens, that phrase, “underground railroad,” appeared in the New York Times for the first time. It was in the context of a short article datelined Rochester, noting that warrants had been issued for several fugitive slaves. “They are believed,” the paper noted, not disapprovingly, “to have taken a sudden departure by the underground railroad, and there is little prospect of any arrest of either of the parties for whom warrants have been issued.”

Also on this day, in 1864, the Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew wrote in her diary about a daily routine she had with her servant, the freed slave Mary Richards Bowser, who also spied. “When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’ and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence which is wonderful.”

In the meantime, the encyclopedia’s editor, Matthew Gibson; its programmer, Peter Hedlund; and myself were out in the countryside yesterday looking at slave cabins. This is part of our work using Google Street View technology, which you can read about here, or look at here. And it’s also associated with our work on creating a section of content on slavery in Virginia, the start of which you can see here.

Talking about coaxing stories from the shadows!

The media we create—images, Google Street Views, etc.—will accompany an entry on slave dwellings. But the media will also serve to digitally preserve these important historical sites, many of which, like the cabin in the above photos, located near Fredericksburg, are falling down and ready to disappear entirely.

IMAGES: Dennis Pogue, an architectural historian (and, like the author of this post, a proud Iowa native), poses in a nineteenth-century slave cabin near Fredericksburg.