"This is the history, beginning in the 1820's, of two plantations – one in Virginia and another in the Florida Territory – connected with two Presidents, two members of Congress, the 4th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the wealthiest man in America, the author of the Star Spangled Banner, a slave ship, slave trading, and the enslaved people and their descendants who worked those plantations."
On July 23, 2019 members of the Monroe family of Albemarle County met a descendant of a family sold by James Monroe to Casa Bianca plantation in Florida in 1828.
Over the course of our research, our objectives morphed several times into broader goals. What began as a project to ascertain whether the enslaved families Monroe sold to Joseph White could be traced in Florida became a determination to locate any living descendants of these families. Upon the realization that many of these descendants still lived near the town of Monticello, it became apparent that this community should be reunited with the descendant community in Albemarle County, Virginia, as these two groups of people lived together at Highland until 1828.
During the discussion portion of our presentation in Monticello, Florida in September 2018, a woman asked whether we had further information on her family line. At that time we didn’t, but eight months later Miranda found the familial connection between the woman and an enslaved family Monroe sold to Florida. Miranda contacted her, and this ultimately led to an event we never envisioned when we began this project – a reunion of the Florida descendants and the Albemarle descendants in 2019, after 191 years of separation from each other.
Audra Burch, an enterprise reporter for the New York Times, along with photographer Miranda Barnes, visited Charlottesville Virginia in August 2018 to learn more about the research behind Take Them in Families.
They stayed for several days meeting with us, and also with Sara Bon-Harper and other Highland staff, and members of the Monroe family, as well as paying several visits to Middle Oak Baptist Church in Blenheim.
Ms. Burch followed our work for almost a year, staying in touch with frequent questions about developments in our research. Her article, which appeared on the front page in the July 8, 2019 edition of the Times (and continued on a full page inside), is the result – an in-depth description of the stories that have come together as our work has progressed: the story of the Casa Bianca plantation in Florida, James Monroe’s Highland in Albemarle County, Virginia, the enslaved at these plantations, and the two churches and communities that were formed by their emancipated survivors.
We were proud to be sponsored by the James Monroe Museum to present our research findings at the University of Mary Washington on February 28th as part of their celebration of Black History Month.
The University of Mary Washington is home to the papers of James Monroe, and administers the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library. More information about the museum can be found at https://jamesmonroemuseum.umw.edu/.
September 5 finally arrived, and we left Virginia for a 12 hour drive to Florida to present our research and information about this website at the Jefferson County Pubic Library in Monticello (yes, you read that right). Beautiful weather all the way down, and even a brief shower right at the state line couldn’t dampen our spirits!
We had a busy day planned for September 6, which began with a drive from where we were staying on the gulf coast south of Tallahassee to Monticello. The big surprise on the way up was the sudden change about half way up in terrain. We crossed an intersection and there was an immediate shift from the flat sandy plain to hills with very different vegetation – pretty dramatic. And a lot of road signs appeared saying, “Hills Block View”…
Our first destination was the Casa Bianca Missionary Baptist Church. Studying the history of the church is one thing, but actually being there really gave us a sense of place books cannot communicate. It is a very pretty church in a pleasant country location. And we didn’t know it when we got there, but our next destination was only a few hundred yards away!
Miranda taking photos, and some church history-
A major goal was to try to find the location of the Casa Bianca plantation main house. We knew there were two roads, Casa Bianca Road, and Casa Bianca Ridge Road – likely candidates, and Ridge Road is almost directly across the highway from the church, so we took that first. From the highway the road looks more like a driveway, but after driving in just a few yards we saw that the “driveway” parted into two lanes to go around an old live oak, right in front of it was a bronze marker on a post. It was immediately apparent that this marker commemorated the plantation, and when we walked up to it we saw that it included a familiar image of the plantation house, as well as its exact location 238 yards further along the road. This information was very useful later, during our presentation.
It was time for lunch, and a visit to the village of Monticello. We found a great place to eat, Electric City which is a very Greek small diner, and as soon as we entered the other patrons started volunteering suggestions as what to order- actually just one suggestion; get the chicken salad! And it was great, according to Miranda – I opted for a gyro. After lunch we continued the walking tour we began right after we parked. Monticello is an interesting, and historic village. And with a population of less than 3000, has more interesting things to see than you might expect. For one thing, a 19th century 200 seat opera house, still going strong today! And in the photo below, you can see the county courthouse reflected in its doors.
The courthouse was another destination. The clerk’s office has been very helpful, sending us many copies of documents we needed, but now Miranda would have the opportunity to “browse” the collection, which turned out to be even more valuable than we had hoped (pretty much everything about this trip turned out that way). I had one particular question I wanted to explore, and was fortunate enough to find a relevant document also. All in all a real opportunity for us.
We had spent some time at the library earlier in the day, meeting staff and setting up for the presentation (no starting with a blue screen, please!), and now it was time to head back to finish our preparations. With everything ready, it was time to wait and see if anyone would show up. We heard from one of the librarians that there was a lot of interest, but we still had no idea of what to expect.
Right before 6 people started arriving, and the when we asked the first two who came in how they had heard about our talk we learned that it was through the church, and it turned out almost everyone who came had a church connection. One however was a woman we had met that afternoon on our walk around Monticello. She was a member of the board of the local historical society, and very graciously gave us a tour of their home in the Wirick-Simmons house, although it was closed that day.