Sara in Colonial Virginia

A first-year student majoring in English and public relations, Sara is a Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program. During spring 2014, she is enrolled in the Honors history class “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” The class traveled to Virginia during spring break, with visits to Alexandria, Colonial Williamsburg, Washington, Charlottesville and the plantations of George Washington (Mount Vernon), Thomas Jefferson (Monticello), and James Madison (Montpelier).

Many of the photos on this blog were taken by Lucy, a first-year Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program who is majoring in biology.

Seeing the sights in DC

White House

At the White House

The next morning Lucy and I woke up for breakfast with some of our classmates. She was more than a little disgruntled, though, because the hot water in our hotel room didn’t seem to be working!

The Tabard Inn continental breakfast was somewhat unconventional, compared to the other hotels at which we stayed. We walked into the restaurant, sat down, and ordered off a menu — but the food was still complimentary until after 9:30! Lucy and I barely made it in time — at 9:20, we joined the guys, Kelly, and Hope at their table. After we had ordered, I sat back and observed my classmates. All were relatively cheerful, despite the previous late night. But I could also see the shell-shocked look mirroring the grumpy expression Lucy had. As this clicked in my mind, everyone else at the table realized they had all awoken to cold showers that morning! The other hotel guests must have used all of it before we awoke. I burst into laughter, and couldn’t help but tease them. They shouldn’t have waited!!

After breakfast, a few of us decided to try and find Dr. Doyle’s bookstore. We would have just enough time, and we felt that it was a necessary quest! I had spoken briefly with Dr. Doyle, who gave me directions, which weren’t as helpful as I had anticipated, a predicament that we discovered when I tried to repeat them. Regardless, we ventured out into the city, determined to make the best of the directions. Unfortunately, we never did find Dr. Doyle’s bookstore. But Kelly was the only one in our group with the presence of mind to stop a local and ask about any local bookstore. While the rest of us raced across a street past a little old lady, Kelly hung back to talk to her. The lady gave directions for a fun store that was just around the corner!

Sheepishly, the rest of us followed her back across the street. We traveled about one block before we saw a red overhang labeled Kramer Books. Underneath that was another sign that exclaimed, “Café and Grill.” Turns out, the restaurant led into the bookstore! Amused, we shuffled through the tables of food to a back room full of books. The rest of our hour passed swiftly as we found old favorites and read blurbs from newer novels. Eventually, we made our way back to the hotel to meet our private bus for the final tour of Washington, D.C.

The first stop was the White House. Though everyone in our class had already been by the iconic building, we decided to hop off and take a class picture. Walking back to the bus, we saw a massive crowd of red, green, black, and white. It was a protest! Apparently, they really want the United States to help out in Syria. Tourists that we were, we snapped several photos before twisting our way through the crowd to the giant black and gold bus that awaited us.

The next stop had two destinations: the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial. We couldn’t get very close because of construction, but some of us managed a group picture. We also had some time to pass by the WWII memorial and take pictures there.

We spent a lot more time at our next destination, mostly because there were so many different memorials and monuments around. As a class, we walked to the Lincoln Memorial. It was absolutely beautiful, made of solid white stone. The imposing columns guarded Abe’s sanctuary, dwarfing all of us as we climbed the dozens of steps. Finally, we reached the monument itself. Inside, the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural address bordered the side walls, while the enormous figure of Abraham Lincoln filled the center of the room. He stared out at the people below: black, white, and every color in between. Somehow, I felt like his impassive face would actually be smiling if he were truly in the room. Regardless, the structure looked impressive.

DC Vietnam Memorial Relative Name ShadingWhen we had taken our fill of photos, we scattered around on the steps of the memorial. Dr. Doyle and Ms. Spaniolo told us we had a little over an hour to explore the surrounding memorials before meeting back up at the MLK Memorial. The group I was with chose to see the Vietnam War memorial. It was beautiful, but I think what made it really special was Hope. The rest of us wandered through respectfully, listening to the tour guides and looking at the names of dead or missing soldiers. But Hope actually had someone to look for. Her mother’s uncle was declared missing during the war, and Hope wanted to find his name to get an etching of it.

I watched her for a bit, before walking over to ask her where the name of her uncle was engraved. She pointed it out, telling me that she was trying to get a pencil for the etching. Together, we got a tour guide’s attention, and she offered to do the job for Hope. I snapped a few pictures, but I also stopped just to savor the moment. I thought it was wonderful of Hope to do something like that, and it was incredible to watch. It made the memorial much more important — and more real.

DC MLK Memorial

The MLK Memorial

We rejoined the group, and moved on to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It is relatively new, so I was pretty excited to see it. Others have criticized it, but I think the design was very well done. White stone shaped an opening engraved with one of King’s quotes, and an enormous statue of him stood above visitors. The whole area was bordered by the Potomac River and a ring of black granite engraved with various quotes. It seemed really simple, but I thought that spoke more than any fanfare they could have come up with.

Our class reunited at the bus, which then took us to the Jefferson Memorial. In true Jeffersonian style, the monument was large and dome-shaped, hiding a larger-than-life statue of good old TJ, as well as engravings of his writings. We spent quite a bit of time there (we had, after all, read three entire biographies on the man!), before we trooped back to the bus.

Our final destination was the Capitol. We really only had time to get out and take a few pictures, but I certainly noticed how pretty the day was. It may have been the stark contrast between the white Capitol building and the bright blue sky, but I thought it was beautiful!


At the Capitol

Finally, it was time to make our way to the airport. Our driver took us by the Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial, but we couldn’t stop to take pictures. We didn’t mind though — the week had finally caught up with everyone, and I think we were looking forward to a leisurely afternoon at the airport.

We arrived at the Washington Regan National Airport with several hours to spare before our flight. After passing through security, everyone went their own way for lunch and final relaxation time before the flight. At last, we were lining up to board. I checked my bag and made my way to my seat by Ms. Spaniolo. She and I chatted for a while, and I killed my second pen while writing in my journal. A little over three hours later, our plane landed.

This flight had been much longer than the first one, due to wind and a giant storm system over Dallas. Thankfully, we landed easily. It was getting into a gate that was the problem. D/FW had momentarily shut down, which meant that the flights were about one hour behind. Our plane had to wait roughly fifteen minutes for a gate — not exactly the best welcome-home present.

In the midst of everyone’s grumbling, a loud bell rang, and we heard the pilot’s voice again. He informed us that we would be moving into a gate soon, and everyone grinned. It took forever to get all of the passengers off the plane, regroup with the class, get our luggage, and board the shuttle bus that SMU had sent. But we did, and before I knew it, the familiar sight of the Boulevard and Dallas Hall were flashing past my window.

The bus screeched to a halt, and everyone scrambled for their luggage. After shouting our goodbyes, we made our way back to the dorms. I will admit, I didn’t care about placing my luggage neatly in my room upon my arrival. Instead, I just dropped everything at the entrance to deal with later. I was more interested in looking at all of the pictures!!

The last thing I remember from that night is closing my laptop as I promised myself that I would just rest my eyes for five minutes. Sighing, I curled up on my comforter — and remembered no more. It was wonderful to be back.

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From Madison’s home to DC

This day would be our final full day together. The morning was both exciting and bittersweet. The Hampton Inn provided a lovely continental breakfast. One by one, we arrived with our suitcases to grab a quick bite to eat before heading to Montpelier and James Madison’s home.

Madison’s plantation was by far the prettiest of the presidential properties, although Monticello may have given it a run for its money if the flowers and vineyard had been in bloom. Montpelier was situated amidst clear, rolling hills, and the property was tastefully contained by forest green wooden fences. I could almost see the flowers and tobacco plants in my mind’s eye as I soaked in the view of the land, and the mental image took my breath away. Of course, that image was ruined by an imaginary crack of a whip, coming down upon some unfortunate man’s back. I turned away from the fields to listen as Ellen, our guide for the day, introduced herself.

On the porch at Montpelier

On the porch at Montpelier

I was highly impressed by this tour. Just as Madison himself focused on the smaller aspects of everything, Ellen focused our tour on the small details that related to our class. She had obviously been informed that we were studying slavery because she came prepared with anecdotes and various accounts of Madison’s slaves.

The first thing she mentioned, however, was a warning: Montpelier came into historians’ hands only as recently as 2000. Before then, as many as six families had owned it after the Madisons, with each family making drastic changes. The biggest change was by the DuPont family, who decided that painting the house pink would be a bright idea (no pun intended)! I was horrified — but then again, people of their time didn’t have as big of an appreciation for presidential homes as we do now. When historians bought the property, they restored it to its original red brick state, thankfully still buried underneath the pink plaster, and have been working to re-create life as the Madisons knew it. Even as we watched, workers were constructing slave dwellings and various “dependencies,” as Madison called them, according to archeological evidence.

Inside the house, we saw as much as the Foundation had to offer, which definitely wasn’t as much as the others. The dining room and study were set up quite nicely, as were a few bedrooms. One of the bedrooms connected directly to the dining area so that Madison, who couldn’t walk in his later years, could still interact with his visitors. He later died in this room. Ellen told us a story about Madison’s death — recorded by a slave, not his wife or family, like other former presidents. The story goes that Paul Jennings saw that Madison couldn’t swallow his breakfast one morning. In Jennings account, he said that Madison’s niece asked Madison what was wrong, to which Madison replied, “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear,” before his head dropped. How quiet — a simple death. How very Madison.

Here we visited the slave burial grounds and the Madison family cemetery. Just as at Washington’s, we would be seeing the two back-to-back, and I knew the differences would be glaring. The slave burial area was much like the one at Monticello — basically a clearing in the forest. The DuPonts had apparently used the space as a horse path and a trash dump, but we could still see the depressions that marked the graves. Some white stones in the area may have served as markers in the slaves’ time, but they were no longer in their original locations. It was simple, quiet and humble — nothing that the slaves deserved at all!

The Madison cemetery was simple as well, but only in comparison to Jefferson’s or Washington’s. A fence was added after his death, but even during his lifetime the graves were marked with beautiful headstones. Madison’s own grave included a large obelisk, and Dolley’s had a slightly smaller one. Not nearly as impressive as Washington’s tomb, for sure, but certainly better than what the slaves had received.

Charlottesville Montpelier Yard

At Montpelier

After lunch we traveled to our final destination — the Grand Finale of our tour in Washington, D.C. Two and a half hours after leaving Montpelier, we looked out the windshield of the van to see the Capitol looming over us. The most prominent part of the city for me, though, wasn’t the buildings. It was the roads! They were so curvy and twisted, full of roundabouts and diagonal streets that crisscrossed the straight roads. I also noticed the names of the streets — all of states or letters of the alphabet.

Dr. Doyle finally pulled up to a gray, almost Roman-esque building. I tumbled out of the van onto the sidewalk, barely finding the time to make out the words Tabard Inn before I heard Ms. Spaniolo say, “Would someone volunteer to help Dr. Doyle navigate to Enterprise to turn in the van, so I can check everyone else in?” I couldn’t pass up that opportunity, could I? I left my suitcase with my classmates and clambered into the front seat of the van. As Dr. Doyle restarted the engine, I glanced at the map Ms. Spaniolo had given me, and it was all I could do not to groan out loud. Truth be told, I’m not exactly proficient when it comes to reading blurry, broadly detailed maps — and this one fit those qualifications perfectly.

Regardless, I did my best. On our drive, poor Dr. Doyle had to go in approximately four circles, turn around roughly three times, and take one alternate route. The last one happened when I realized (rather belatedly) that we would both be better off if I used the GPS on my phone. Thank goodness I did! We were at Enterprise merely 10 minutes after I pulled out my phone.

The drive itself was quite pleasant, aside from getting lost. We passed several statues and monuments, which I enjoyed seeing. Dr. Doyle pointed out different touristy places to visit, and told me about a few of the bookstores he’d visited while here for conferences. I was particularly intrigued by the bookstores, so I asked for directions so that I could drag some of my classmates to one when we returned to the hotel. We turned in the van without a problem and took a short walk to hail a cab for the ride back. I won’t lie — I was more amused than I should have been when the building’s bellhop used a little gold whistle to catch the cabbie’s attention!

Riding back to the Tabard Inn, Dr. Doyle pointed out a few more monuments for me, and told me about the hotel he had chosen for us: “It’s made from three townhouses from the 1800s. The owners connected the townhouses to make a hotel in the 1920s, and the rooms are decorated with a very unique style. I think you will all enjoy it.”

He was right! Back at the hotel, I was met with a maze of corridors, dead ends, and narrow staircases. Finally, I turned a corner to see a naked girl sitting in a bathtub at the foot of some stairs. Don’t be alarmed — she was a plastic mannequin who had no dignity left to lose at that point. Her hand was pointing towards the stairs, so I followed its path up one flight, where I found a sliding door labeled with a simple golden “4.”

I couldn’t help but gush over the room. It was so eclectic! Iron-wrought headboards framed two beds on one half of the room, and a couch and two armchairs surrounded a fireplace on the other. There was even a bookcase against one of the walls, filled to the brim with books for guests to read! The ceiling was just as interesting, painted to look like the underside of a fishbowl. The bathroom was a bit more modern in style, with sandy tiles and an elegant mirror. Needless to say, I took a few minutes to snag some pictures of the room.

With just a few hours before our Last Supper, a group of us decided to wander the city streets. Kelly, Adam, Hope, Andrew, A.J., and I decided to stick together and found a statue down the street from our hotel. He looked important, and we were curious. Turns out, it was Daniel Webster, a man we had just heard about that morning at Montpelier. Apparently, Webster helped free Madison’s slave, Paul Jennings! How funny that his would be the statue we found near our hotel.

The next hour or so passed quickly while we wandered around, counting different embassies and pointing out various stores (Kelly found a Mad Hatter’s Grille, and we decided it would be the headquarters for the group of the same name from SMU!). At last, the street we were following came to a dead end…at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A tall, black fence bordered a perfectly manicured yard, and further back sat (yes, you guessed it) the White House! Naturally, we spent several minutes taking pictures before dodging through a crowd of protestors to find our way back to the hotel.

We decided to take an alternate route, so that we could see different embassies and possibly find the bookstore Dr. Doyle had mentioned. Finding the hotel was more difficult than we originally believed … but we did manage a few more stops on our adventure back. Kelly got to stand by the Embassy of Argentina, her study-abroad home from last semester, and A.J. found Swaziland’s embassy. I, on the other hand, found a building that was more important to me than I thought it would be.

When I first saw the golden cross atop an aging brown building, I believed we had found a pretty church in which we could kill some time taking pictures. I was delighted when the sign outside read St. Matthew’s Cathedral — it was a Catholic church! Several people were walking out; apparently, mass had just ended. Our group mounted the steps and snaked through the crowds to the door. The inside of the church took my breath away. The ceilings soared high above us, and the elegant murals made them look as if they opened straight to the heavens.

Out of lifelong habit, I crossed myself with the water at the entrance and made my way through the chestnut pews, utterly entranced. I even forgot about the rest of the group! I do remember experiencing mixed feelings of envy and relief that I couldn’t attend the church regularly. On one hand, I loved how it felt and looked so sacred. But on the other, I knew that if I was there all the time, it would lose its magic. For that, I am grateful that the cathedral isn’t close to me!

After a few minutes, I shook myself out of my reverie and stood up to leave. As I turned, I noticed that A.J. had wandered up to the front, and he had his phone out. The phone camera clicked, echoing in the quiet chamber and causing him to cringe slightly. He glanced around sheepishly and caught my eye. “Did you see this?” he asked quietly.
Wordlessly, I slid along the pew to the main aisle to see what he was talking about. He pointed to something at the floor, and as I glanced at it, my jaw dropped. There, in the middle of the elegant flooring, lay a simple yet elegant design: a white circle, bordered in green and gold. Inside, carefully painted letters read: Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the requiem mass, November 25, 1964, before their removal to Arlington where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection. Of all the places for us to end up, we chose the church that had incredible historic meaning!

We all reunited in front of the church and moved in the direction of the hotel. It took much longer to find the Tabard Inn than we initially thought — although that might have been because we walked past the street we needed, and it took us several more blocks to realize our mistake.

Back at the hotel, we had 30 minutes to prepare for our final meal. We had been told that it would be held at the hotel in a fancy setting. The automatic chaos that ensued in the girls’ rooms was incredible! Makeup, hair straighteners, and high heels were everywhere— and from what I hear, the guys experienced the male equivalent upstairs. It took every second in those thirty minutes for everyone to pick just the right outfit and make our way to the lobby. When we had all gathered, Dr. Doyle and Ms. Spaniolo led us to the restaurant host, who took our group upstairs to a private dining room. There were exactly 13 seats around the elegantly set square table. When the doors were closed, the room became a quiet, intimate setting — perfect for our final evening together.

In the time it took for our food to come, we were able to go around the table to describe our favorite part of the trip. I knew I had absolutely adored Alexandria, but I was surprised when a majority of my classmates echoed my sentiments. Of course, we all had our own reasoning, but it seemed as though Alexandria had been a perfect first location. Other hot-spots were each of the Presidents’ homes and any restaurant (definitely a unanimous opinion — the food was awesome!).

At the end of our “show-and-tell” session, Hope spoke up. “We wanted to say thank you for taking us on this trip, organizing everything, and helping us learn more about the material from the class!” She pulled out two cards that our class had signed earlier that evening. We passed them along the table to Dr. Doyle and Ms. Spaniolo, who smiled and took them. As they read, our food arrived, and the conversation turned to the delicious plates that we had all ordered. Then came the best part — dessert!

Everyone finished their meals around 10, and we were free for the rest of the night. Emily and Morgan decided to go on a midnight monument tour. Morgan had done it with her father before, and it sounded like a fun idea! They would return around midnight, and I thought their pictures looked great! I had fun going through and comparing the nighttime pictures to those from the daytime. The rest of us hung around the hotel to play card games and enjoy the evening of relaxation. By 1 a.m. we decided that it was time for us to make our way downstairs to sleep.

Although I wasn’t aware of it, this point in the trip would show me the value of decision making — I had decided to shower that evening. The shower handles themselves were extremely confusing, but I finally managed to figure out how to get to the warm water. I didn’t think much of it; I just wanted to sleep! I gathered my blanket and pillow, opting to curl up on the couch instead of sharing a bed to sleep (which was quite comfortable!).

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Contrasts between liberty and slavery at Monticello

The next morning started bright and early as we left for our tour of Monticello. I was especially excited for this tour. After all, we had read three (enormous) books about the Master of the Mountain and the contrast between his ideas on liberty and slavery. Going to Monticello would be a journey into the heart of the issue. A dive into Jefferson’s own mind. I will say, though, that before the trip, I had forgotten everything else that Jefferson did in his lifetime. I was so caught up in his hypocrisy! I didn’t know it at the time, but Monticello would serve as a reminder of what an incredible man Jefferson was.

On the mountain we watched a short introductory movie before a shuttle arrived to take us to the mansion. We were one of the first tours of the day, and our group had a special back-stage pass that would enable us to go up to the second and third floors. As a result, we had our own personal tour guide, unlike the emotionless shuffle-through at Mount Vernon.  Jefferson’s home had so many nooks and crannies and gadgets that I couldn’t hardly keep track of them!

I’ll try to list a few as best as I can:

  • The clockander: When Jefferson built Monticello II, he included a clock in the front entryway that was clearly meant to impress. Not only did it tell time, it also used a weight system to inform viewers of the day of the week!
  • Automatic Doors: In the formal parlor, the doors were automatic, in that if you pulled one closed, the other would follow. How fancy!
  • Dining Room: Jefferson’s dining room was so bright and open. He had several open rooms with many windows, and the walls were painted a blinding gold-yellow color. In the corners, he had dumb waiters, in which he could fit a bottle of wine, close the door, open it again, and have a new one to share with guests. A similar turning cabinet sat around the corner, used for meals. The irony behind the magic was the multitude of slaves that made everything work, replacing food and wine as Jefferson needed.
  • The Grave: Obviously not inside the house, but the grave was certainly noteworthy. In true Jeffersonian style, it was certainly large and impressive. What was shocking was the list of accomplishments he asked to have included: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Religious Freedom, and founder of University of Virginia. Nothing else. I wasn’t sure if that was a pretense of modesty or not, but for that to be his final footprint on the world … well, that says a lot about what he cared for the most.
In the Dome Room at Monticello

In the Dome Room at Monticello

Before we left the mountain, Ms. Spaniolo and Hope had asked a guide to point us in the direction of the slave burial site. I was rather miffed (to say the least) that we had to even ask — I thought Americans had accepted slavery and were committed to honoring the sacrifice of the thousands of black slaves who died in this terrible institution. Regardless, we tramped through the parking lot to a clump of trees we had seen. Here, my annoyance rose to frustration. They made the parking lot go around this area?! Did it not occur to the Foundation that by doing this, they were diminishing the importance of the slave graveyard?

The site itself was quite unimpressive, which made its impact all the more powerful. The family who had owned Monticello after Jefferson’s death didn’t pay much attention to it, and it obviously wasn’t an enormous deal before that. The trees and stones contrasted sharply with Jefferson’s elaborate obelisk, and it struck me how little the slaves mattered to their owners. Even a pet dog would be buried with more dignity.

We returned from the Mountain with just a few hours to spare before we caught dinner and the movie Twelve Years a Slave. I think we were all fairly exhausted — the traveling was finally catching up with us — so the rest was quite welcome. I was determined to take advantage of the free time to write in my journal (I was quite stubbornly insisting that I wasn’t tired). I ventured down to the lobby with the intention of writing, but I never quite achieved my goal. The wind and walking at Monticello, coupled with the week of travel, finally caught up with me. I decided I could afford five minutes to close my eyes…yeah, right. Forty minutes later, I awoke to see that it was time for dinner! At least I wasn’t the only one who fell asleep.

Dinner was relaxing (another burger joint), and before we knew it, we were in a local downtown theater, the lights fading in preparation for the movie. From the beginning, we were struck silent. I completely understand why the movie received so many awards. The cinematography was striking, and the acting was phenomenal. The plotline itself covered every aspect of slavery that our class had touched upon: white women’s roles as slave owners, kind versus cruel owners, kidnapping, rape, physical violence, the contradiction of religion, economics, forging papers, abolitionists, separation of families, and politics. There were several scenes that many of us just couldn’t watch — the whipping scenes especially. I was absolutely appalled — more so because I knew exactly how accurate the movie was.

After the movie we gathered in the lobby, still quiet. There wasn’t much to say, really. What can you do when you have just watched the stories you’ve read about become reality? It’s one thing to read about slavery, but it’s quite another to have it played out, to real people and real faces, before your very eyes. And to think that these people went through that, just based on the color of their skin. Even on film, Solomon’s blood was the same shade as the white man’s. They had families, friends, and things that they loved, and yet their “owners” treated them worse than the horses they rode. My classmates had similar reactions. We were sickened, although watching the movie at the peak of our trip was just what we needed. That didn’t change the fact that we declared a desperate need for cheerful conversation before bed. We trooped out of the theater’s lobby and back to the hotel, where we played cards and goofed off before going to sleep.

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Our campus tour at UVA

Our final hours in Williamsburg flew by in a flurry of packing our scattered belongings and rushing to the gift shop for last-minute souvenirs. At 9:30, we shoved our suitcases in the back seat of the van and clambered into our customary seats for a quick two-hour drive to Charlottesville. When we arrived at the hotel, we had just enough time to stash our belongings in Dr. Doyle’s hotel room before we walked over to the University of Virginia campus.

I wasn’t sure what it would be like, visiting another college campus as a tour group. Not only did it feel like I was cheating on SMU, but I also felt like a high school student again. But UVA was Jefferson’s brainchild — he put a lot of work into the school, and I definitely understood the historical significance. So, after a delicious burger for lunch, my classmates and I trooped out to the campus.

The moment I walked up, I understood why Jefferson loved the school so much. Even on a drizzly, cold winter day, the school’s red brick and enormous white columns stood regally over every surrounding building. Ms. Spaniolo led us to the Lawn, which is their equivilant of our Boulevard, and told us a little bit about the school while we took pictures.

At the University of Virginia

At the University of Virginia

“Jefferson’s school was built by slaves, naturally. The labor that the enslaved people put into the buildings would lead to the creation of a birthplace for knowledge. At the head of the lawn would be a library, rather than the customary church, and along the edges would be a mixture of Pavilions, impressive houses for the professors, and exclusive dorm rooms with fireplaces. Even today, the most prestigious students live in those dorms and interact with their professors in the Pavilions.”

We were suitably impressed. It was obvious that UVA had a lot of pride in their Lawn, Library, and Living Areas — the students even received their own firewood! Ms. Spaniolo and Dr. Doyle also explained how, when the school was first opened, some faculty members would bring their slaves, who lived in a hidden, back area. I nodded — of course they would hide the slaves. When everyone had taken their fill of pictures, we moved inside the main Library. It was no longer a library, but a series of exhibits, explaining the history of UVA from a variety of vantage points: political, educational, architectural, and much more. There was even an exhibit that went through the books of different decades!

We had a little bit of time to roam the campus before making our way back to the hotel, where we would be discussing a book we had read while on the trip. The discussion was intellectual, but informal. In other words, we commandeered an enormous table in the hotel lobby and had a wonderful, hour-long discussion about James Madison and slavery. Our class labeled him as the workhorse who made things happen as the Founders tried to create a new government. He paid attention to details, and, with his reserved demeanor, pushed through legislation.

But when it came to slavery, we were stumped. The author was extremely wishy-washy, and we couldn’t quite tell what his opinion was. We did decide that Madison seemed similar to Jefferson — he preferred the idea of colonization in Africa for free blacks, and he never freed his slaves in his will. However, the author did mention that Madison wasn’t known for being particularly brutal to his slaves. So that was an upside to things!

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Meeting Thomas Jefferson

Since we didn’t have to meet as a class until dinner, everyone awoke at various times and met to do different activities. A few of us woke up early to go to an event called “Liberty or Loyalty: In Print.” It sounded like it would provide an interesting take on the Colonial Era. I was actually pleasantly surprised, to tell the truth. As an English major, I was interested, but I wasn’t sure how the information would be presented. But, they had a panel of three actors who read and acted out various readings from newspapers of the time.

One reading in particular that caught my ear was a play on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, basically asking, “to be free or not to be free?” I’m a bit of a Shakespeare buff, so I listened closely to what I heard. The rendition that was reprinted in the Virginia Gazette wasn’t much like the actual speech, but I suppose it was the idea that counted!

All of our ears perked up when the female orator focused on the irony of liberty and slavery. This was, after all, our class subject. Her question to the audience and her fellow panel members was, “Have we thought about them?” But it wasn’t the audience who answered — it was the third panelist. He replied, saying, “I believe we have more important matters at hand than that particularly pressing one.”

Cue my internal cringe. How Jeffersonian of them! The actor portrayed the perfect ideology of his time: yes, slavery is wrong, but gaining the white man’s liberty is more important right now. I wonder, if Britain had remained in control, would American slavery have ended sooner? I suppose we’ll never know.

A group of us met for lunch at the local Cheese Shop, where we had wonderful cheese sandwiches and relaxed for a while. After lunch, we met up with Ms. Spaniolo at a special event in the art museums: Thomas Jefferson was coming to speak! We were all rather excited for this one — it would be the perfect opportunity to use our vast expanse of Jefferson knowledge to grill the actor.

Soon after we sat down in the back of the arena, a hush came over the audience, and I became aware of a tall figure in colonial garb making his way down the stairs of the theater. The man took quite a while to get to the stage, as he kept stopping to shake people’s hands. An eternity passed, but he finally reached the stage. A loud voice came over the speakers, exclaiming, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please help us welcome our honored guest today, George —” There was a pause as the audience cringed. “George Jefferson!” Well, it was a valiant attempt, even if it killed Mr. Jefferson’s regality for a moment. Apparently, the speaker had gotten mixed up with the event from the day before, at which President George Washington had spoken. Ever so charmingly, Mr. Jefferson joked, “Isn’t it nice that a man of my stature and renown can wander around in relative anonymity?” The audience gave a shout of laughter, and the moment passed.

Mr. Jefferson’s manner of speaking captured everyone in the audience. He was the perfect gentleman, well-informed on every topic of importance. He was also the perfect politician, never giving a clear opinion. Whoever this actor was, he knew Jefferson so intimately. My classmates agreed that the information wasn’t very new for us, but it was cool to see someone act out the man we had been studying.

At the end of the program, he gave the audience a chance to ask questions. Hope and Kelly both had their hands raised, struggling to get Jefferson’s attention. They even recruited A.J. to stand and raise his hand, but due to our placement in the back of the room, Mr. Jefferson still didn’t call on us. We were a little bitter, but our problem was solved when Mr. Jefferson offered “portraits” and discussion at the end of the show. Naturally, we were some of the first in line for portraits!

Williamsburg Jefferson

After our pictures, Hope bounced back over to Mr. Jefferson. Flashing a smile, she asked the question we had been waiting for.

“Based upon your commitment to equality, what is your view on slavery, and what do you plan to do with your personal slaves?”

We knew exactly what the real Jefferson would have answered — he would have stumbled through a noncommittal answer, either avoiding the question or saying just what he thought we wanted to hear. We wondered if Hope’s inquiry, so cheerfully delivered, would stump the actor. But he knew his Founder well, and his response was perfectly Jeffersonian: “I have always considered myself to be a lifelong abolitionist. I have not sold a slave but to satisfy my creditors. No one can accuse me of being silent on the subject, and I believe that the greatest way to solve this issue is to do exactly as you have done, which is to offer concern and engage in conversation. Unfortunately, there is no immediate way for me to free my people (for I rarely use the term ‘slave’), as I have accumulated an extensive amount of debt.”

In other words, he was the perfect Jefferson. Even as I rolled my eyes (mentally) at his response, I was extremely impressed. Kudos to you, Mr. Actor — you know what you’re doing!

Later that evening, we went to dinner at the local Kings’ Arms Tavern as a class. They had a lovely turkey dinner prepared for us, and as I tied my napkin around my neck (as was apparently the colonial custom), I noticed that there were no lights — we were eating by candlelight! The meal definitely felt authentic: some of us even ate with our overly-widened knives to complete the colonial feeling.

As we ate, a man in British military garb strolled around the tavern, alternating between playing the pennywhistle and the guitar. The people on my side of the table seemed perturbed that he wasn’t coming to our table, but it wasn’t long before I realized why. You see, it was Andrew’s birthday that day, and we had arranged for a little surprise dessert after dinner! The performer wouldn’t come until we could bring out the cake that Ms. Spaniolo brought and sing to Andrew.

Williamsburg Kings Arms Tavern

Finally, our waiter cleared away dinner. My eyes caught some motion across the table as he laid out extra plates and forks in preparation for the third and final course. Everyone at our table looked up when the Red Coat finally sauntered into our dining area. We watched as he strode to the front of the area, coming to a stop behind Andrew’s chair. I grabbed my camera as he called out, “So, I hear someone has a birthday today?”

A sheepish grin spread across Andrew’s face, and as we all stared at him, he raised his hand. “I do,” he called in his quiet voice.

“How old are you?” the Redcoat asked, and upon Andrew’s response (“19 years old”), he said, “Well, I have good news and bad news for you. Which would you like to hear first?”

Andrew picked the bad news, and with a sly smile, the soldier said, “Well, the bad news is that we can’t sing Happy Birthday to you because it hasn’t been invented yet. The good news is that there is another song we sing that I believe everyone here knows. So if everyone could please join me in singing—”

He strummed the guitar for a moment, then led us all into a chorus of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” while the waiter brought out the Black Forest Cake and homemade ice cream. We all talked and laughed afterwards as we enjoyed dessert. Andrew opened a card from us — and a second one arranged by the restaurant staff! It was a wonderful end of the day and of our time in Williamsburg!

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Learning the minuet and more in Williamsburg

On the road

On the road

The night before, our class drove from Alexandria to Colonial Williamsburg. The drive was … cramped, to say the least, but we made it safely to our destination. This morning, we would have the opportunity to explore the colonial town for the first time. Our first day in Williamsburg didn’t have a lot of structure compared to the other days. We would meet as a class, walk to the town, and split up except for lunch and dinner.

At the Governor's Palace

At the Governor’s Palace

A majority of us met up at the Governor’s Palace, where we walked around the grounds before entering the house. We enjoyed looking at the elaborate set-up, exclaiming over brightly colored fabrics and guns covering the walls of the house. Amidst all of this finery, there was one thing that caught our group’s attention: the rum punch in the dining room! But I think that came from our hunger more than anything. We ended up sneaking out of the house tour early to meet our class for lunch — thank goodness, too!!

After lunch, the re-created Raleigh Tavern offered colonial dance lessons. Not everyone wanted to attend, so we split off into smaller groups to explore the rest of the town. Kelly, Adam, A.J., and I decided to see what the dancing was all about. Inside the tavern, we found an instructor accompanied by two musicians. As we made our way to the back of the room, the instructor called for everyone’s attention. They began by teaching us how to “show honors,” or rather, bow and curtsy. It was so funny to see everyone in jeans and shorts trying to act so formal! Then, the instructor gave people the opportunity to come to the center of the room and learn how to do a Virginia minuet. The version that my classmates and I did was a little bit more complicated than the kids’ version, but it reminded me of the two-step they showed us at Mustang Corral — lots of group circles and “wheels!” But we definitely had a blast with it!! However, I did snicker a little bit when the instructor thanked us for “stepping a country dance” with her. I’m a Texas native, and I have an entirely different perspective when it comes to country dancing!

The Williamsburg Jail

The Williamsburg Jail

Our afternoon was spent exploring Williamsburg, much like the rest of our classmates. We even found an authentic colonial bakery … complete with refrigerators and Coca-Cola! Some of the other students went to a program called the Offering of the Ladies, which sounded incredibly interesting. There were actors portraying Martha Washington, Martha Jefferson, and Elizabeth Randolph. Andrew and Lucy, who were both at the program, said it was interesting to see how they were connected by all of the struggles that ladies faced in their time. Ms. Spaniolo also attended this event, and, like the students, she enjoyed the interesting perspective that the actors gave. She added that it was interesting to see how the women interacted with slavery — it was as if they viewed slaves as the background worker bees (which they were). They acted as if they ran the plantation or traveled completely by themselves, and Martha Jefferson even went so far as to call the slaves “my people,” as opposed to addressing the slaves’ true station in life.

Morgan and Emily took the afternoon to check out the different shops and buildings along the main street. They seemed to like the apothecary a lot. Morgan said the shopkeeper told them how colonial people used different trees and plants for their ailments, including actual licorice bark! They also got to see the Capitol, where they had a wonderful tour guide. Jessica and Courtney spent their afternoon watching the wig maker and the silversmith, which they enjoyed because they could see how the products were made and had the opportunity to buy the products as well.

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Life at Mount Vernon, with slavery

I don’t think any of us were terribly delighted at the early morning departure, but somehow, my classmates and I managed to be packed and in the hotel lobby by eight o’clock the next morning. We piled into the van, and eventually we found ourselves parked in the back of the Mount Vernon parking lot. The wind whipped through our jackets, causing everyone to huddle together to avoid the cold. At nine, the gates swung aside, and we were swept into the grounds along with the enormous crowd of Washington admirers.

At the entrance to Mount Vernon

At the entrance to Mount Vernon

Inside, the guides shuffled us into the main house, room by room. The guides were extremely robotic, but the house was definitely a sight to see. The tour took us through his elegant first-floor dining area. The tour led us upstairs, where we saw the General’s own bedroom. It was simple, but elegant, and as I stared at the white bedspread, the guide told us how Washington died there and his wife refused to sleep in the room after he passed. It was incredible to be standing where Washington stood — and died.

At Mount Vernon

At Mount Vernon

After touring the house, our class split up to tour the grounds as we pleased. Hope, Kelly, Lucy, the guys and I decided to check out the tomb and the slave memorial. Our first stop would be the tomb itself. Originally, Washington’s family was buried in the Old Tomb, but George and Martha were laid to rest in a new tomb, as per the General’s wishes in his will. It was beautifully constructed, giving off the perfect militaristic aura. Underneath a beautiful brick structure and behind tall iron-wrought gates lay two concrete coffins for both George and Martha.

Right next to the tomb, we saw the path to the slave memorial. It wasn’t much, but there was a circle of bushes around a marble plaque-tower thing commemorating Washington’s slaves. The date on the plaque caught my attention: it was dedicated September 21, 1983. Talk about late! Seeing that plaque really emphasized how little attention slaves received, for the longest time. Even the family of the great George Washington didn’t care to memorialize the people who made his plantation work. We didn’t really spend much time at the slave memorial because there wasn’t much to look at. I will admit, this caught me by surprise, as naive as it sounds. Even all these years later, the subject of slavery is so incredibly taboo-ed. If it’s not forbidden, it’s ignored entirely by most tour guides and historians. How disheartening, I thought!

After lunch, our class split up yet again to see the areas that we had missed. Some of us went down to the re-created blacksmith’s shop, but on our way, we ran into a volunteer dressed in traditional colonial garb. I stopped to talk to her, and Lucy, Andrew, and Hope joined me. She told us that a special guest was on the way, and sure enough, no sooner than the words had left her mouth, we turned to see an elegant older lady ambling up the path — our guest had arrived!

Lady Martha Washington was short, plump, and beautiful, with her crimson dress and matching jewelry that gleamed as brightly as her silver hair. Ever graceful and charming, she carried on light conversation with us, complimenting my earrings and telling us about her daily life while the volunteer fumbled with Lucy’s camera. Of course, she was an actor, but she did such a wonderful job — it felt as if we had traveled back in time!

With Martha Washington

With Martha Washington

We ended our conversation with Lady Washington fairly quickly, as she had to set up for a program for that afternoon, and made our way to the blacksmith shop. Inside, there was a lady who could explain everything, while a (white) man did the actual blacksmithing. I was able to ask her a few questions to gain some insight into Washington’s life:

Me: So, did the slaves do most of the smith-ing, or did Washington hire a white man?
Lady: His first smith was a slave called Peter, and when he needed a new smith, he used a white Dutchman to train two new slaves.

Hmm. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, especially since a white man was portrayed as the blacksmith in the reenactment. Perhaps the people of Mount Vernon simply disregarded the historical aspects of that. Yes, it may be less than “politically correct” to require a black actor to be the blacksmith. But it would have been more historically accurate, and it would have also let visitors see what Washington did, which was have a slave whose main purpose was to make tools for the plantation. That would have been the historic way to do things.

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Walking tour of Alexandria

The next morning was extremely hectic, and it took some time for everyone to get breakfast and meet in the lobby for our walking tour of Alexandria. When all eleven of the students were sitting in the lobby, Ms. Spaniolo and Dr. Doyle explained that we would be walking to a house just down the street. There, we would meet a tour guide, go on a walking tour, and experience Alexandria for the first time.

They took us down the street to a colonial house labeled “The Visitor’s Center” to meet our tour guide for the morning. It was absolutely charming — and our tour guide was certainly a unique individual! She was a boisterous woman with an impressive wealth of knowledge, especially regarding Virginia. She was originally from Texas, but she had lived in Virginia for twenty-eight years. Her stories about the area were fascinating! I found myself caught between being captivated and trying to find the frame of mind to take pictures. Somehow, I managed to do both, as well as record our “hotspots.”

Our walking tour of Alexandria

Our walking tour of Alexandria

The Farmer’s Market: There was a farmer’s market right outside our hotel. Some of us had gone there for breakfast that morning, but we didn’t think anything of it. Turns out, the market has been around since Alexandria was founded! I enjoyed learning about this, since by going there in the morning, I had been a part of history without even knowing it!

At the replica of George Washington's Alexandria townhouse

At the replica of George Washington’s Alexandria townhouse

Replica of George Washington’s townhouse: As we walked through the middle of town, we passed a little white house that had the same colonial design as the rest of its neighbors. But our guide pointed out that this one was special — its plaque declared that it was a replica of George Washington’s original home in Alexandria. Because it was privately owned, the house was closed to the public, but we did get to see in the window. Apparently, the owners keep a statue of George Washington in their front window and dress him according to the season. Today, he was all dressed up in his Mardi Gras finery!

Inside Christ Church

Inside Christ Church

Christ Church: The final destination was the church at which Washington worshipped. Our tour guide was also a member of the church, so she had a different perspective on everything.

  • The church was a Union worship center during the Civil War. It was the only church that wasn’t damaged or transformed into a hospital.
  • The tombstones in the churchyard were moved during the Civil War to make room for soldiers’ training. But, when the war was over, no one remembered where the tombstones went. As a result, they placed them back at random — not even at the edges of graves! Only one stayed in place, a large obelisk that was too heavy to move.
In Washington's pew at Christ Church

In Washington’s pew at Christ Church

As the guide finished her story, she and our professors shooed us off so they could “do business.” We respectfully wandered out into the graveyard and examined the graves, attempting to decipher the names. (I, for one, was trying not to think about the many unmarked graves I trod upon!) As a group, my classmates and I rounded a corner to a small patio, where the guys discovered several tempting, untouched piles of snow.

Mature college students that we are, we couldn’t leave the snow alone — that would have been akin to treason! The only natural response was an impromptu snowball fight, of course! We must have been some of the only students from SMU to have a snowball fight on our spring break. Dr. Doyle and Ms. Spaniolo arrived soon after our fight, shaking their heads at us as we brushed off the snowflakes. It was time for lunch!!

After lunch, Ms. Spaniolo and Dr. Doyle led everyone to a little museum of great importance: Alexandria’s Black History Museum. I was kind of surprised by how small and almost incomplete it seemed, but the ladies who worked there filled the room with their enthusiastic renditions of history. The museum was composed of two small rooms, connected by a tiny gift shop and welcome center.

One side specifically focused on a sit-in that led to the creation of the museum, and the second exhibit was a step-by-step explanation of the evolution of slavery in the colonies. The first plaques described the trip from Africa, and they were followed by a series of pictures, figures, and informative explanations regarding life as a slave. This was the exhibit we chose to look at, and the thirteen of us walked quietly around the room, flipping through explanations and taking pictures of those we found particularly striking. When we finished, we gathered into one corner of the room for a final debriefing before we were released until dinner.

Alexandria townhouses

Alexandria townhouses

What to do? I nearly pulled out my phone to Google something, but even as I reached for my backpack, two of the students, A.J. and Lucy, suggested going to the wharf. Several of us wanted to go, so we gathered our belongings and started towards the water. After a quick pit stop by the hotel, we wandered down King Street, the main road of colonial Alexandria, looking at various tourist stores and street musicians. Finally, we saw the river, its beautiful blue water gleaming in the sunlight. There were so many things to do there! We saw a man playing Mozart on cups full of water, a street artist, and a magician. We also managed to make our way to the docks, where we took some beautiful pictures.

When we had seen all we could at the marina, the group trooped back to King Street, where we found a tiny ice cream shop. We all bought our favorite flavors and searched for a bench overlooking the water. What followed was a blur of laughter, conversations, and lots of pictures before we had to go back to the hotel to clean up for dinner.

That evening, we enjoyed a lovely class dinner at an Irish restaurant, where we compared stories with our classmates and professors. Eventually, it was time to get ready to sleep — we had to be packed and ready to go by seven the next morning to leave for Mount Vernon!

At the Wharf

At the Wharf

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Feasting on history

My “Founding Fathers and Slavery” Honors course left for our flight to Virginia this morning. SMU provided a shuttle bus to get us to the airport, and at eleven o’clock sharp, the bus pulled away from the curb: our adventure had begun! The flight itself was simple enough. Dr. Doyle retrieved our tickets from the counter, and we made our way through security to sit at the terminal. On the plane, our class was relatively spread out, so we had to entertain ourselves with methods other than talking to each other. Personally, I slept— although my classmates used everything else from coloring books to chatting with the strangers beside them to pass the time.

Finally, after a long two-and-a-half hour flight, we felt a bump as the plane wheels touched down. My classmates and I looked around, taking in our first view of Virginia: mountains and snow! As the captain gave his final instructions, we stood along with the rest of the passengers to stretch and collect our belongings. After making our way through the maze that was the baggage claim, our entire class found a pre-arranged shuttle, which took us to the Kipton Monaco Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. Once there, we had just enough time to rest and clean up before dinner.

Dinner at Gadsby's Tavern 2At eight o’clock, my classmates and I met Dr. Doyle and Ms. Spaniolo to walk to dinner at Gadsby’s Tavern, which was down the street from our hotel. When we arrived, we saw a plainly elegant old building with an enormous wooden door. Inside, the old floors creaked as we tread on them, and we stared at the paintings that decorated the walls. Ms. Spaniolo spoke to the hostess, and it wasn’t long before we were led to the very back room. Once everyone was seated, Ms. Spaniolo explained the history of Gadsby’s to us.

“This building has been here since before the Revolutionary War. It was well known for delicious food and prestigious visitors. George Washington himself dined here frequently, quite possibly in this very room. Thomas Jefferson also ate here on occasion, including a post-inauguration banquet.”

We were sitting in the middle of history — literally! Even the waiters were dressed in colonial uniform, and a proprietor wandered around, wine in hand and a witty retort always on his lips. As we munched on fresh salad and colonial bread, the proprietor wandered into our private domain to chat. He was a wonderful conversationalist, although his language was so elevated that we had some trouble deciphering his comments. Regardless, we thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. Some of us stayed after dinner to talk to him, and he told us many stories about the colonial era. He even let us take a picture with the “new-fangled” contraption around Lucy’s neck (the camera)!

Dinner at Gadsby's Proprietor

With the Proprietor at Gadsby’s

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