BLACKSBURG — The sign at Smithfield Plantation reads that the clapboard house was the home of Col. William Preston, a Revolutionary War officer who fostered settlement of western lands.
The house museum holds portraits and possessions of this Scots-Irish family; interpreters tell their stories.
But what about the other 45-100 members of this plantation community, the ones who built the house, cared for children and grew the crops?
Interpreters can point to a rocking chair, a cabinet and other furniture crafted by the hands of enslaved people, but Smithfield has none of their own possessions, no stories and only one surname — Fraction.
On Saturday, Feb. 10, a descendant of the Fraction family will visit Smithfield to share historical stories and artifacts that give a glimpse of slave life at Smithfield and the family’s Nigerian roots. Kerri Moseley-Hobbs, of Baltimore, spent two years researching eight generations of family history, an exploration that led her to Smithfield.
The Smithfield Plantation event, entitled “Heritage & Origins: Exploring the Roots & Culture of the Enslaved at Smithfield” will include a tour of the estate and presentations on the enslaved families’ religion, culture and history.
“My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Jack, came over from Africa on a slave ship, the True Blue. Our family called him ‘Baba’ for father,” Moseley-Hobbs said. “He came from an area that is now southwestern Nigeria, a place adjoining Benin and Togo. Many of Smithfield’s first enslaved people were brought over on that ship and purchased by William Preston.”
Now a member of the Smithfield-Preston Foundation Board that manages Smithfield, Moseley-Hobbs is working to enhance the narrative about Smithfield’s enslaved and indentured servant community.
“I refer to them as ‘enslaved people’ not slaves. Slavery was a condition; it wasn’t their whole identity,” Moseley-Hobbs said. “They were people. They told stories, danced, shared recipes and practiced customs that originated in their native land.”
Moseley-Hobbs will display her collection of African art and musical instruments from the Fractions’ ancestral homeland, a region known as Yorubaland. Her collection will be augmented by African art collected by Robert Miller, owner of Miller Off Main Street Galleries in Blacksburg. Some of these objects were considered sacred, such as the deity jugs for items considered blessed by the gods. Other objects, including masks, were used in ceremonies such as weddings, funerals or initiation rites. Vestiges of the songs and dances from these events survive in other forms in the African-American community today, Moseley-Hobbs says.
On Saturday, Moseley-Hobbs’ cousin will speak on the Yoruba religion, which she has incorporated into her spiritual practices. Both the cousin and Moseley-Hobbs feel a special connection to Smithfield’s Merry Oak, a 350-year-old tree where the enslaved community danced and told stories. The Prestons referred to these events as “merriments.”
“Something meaningful happened here; we can feel it,” Moseley-Hobbs said. “My cousin and I get teary-eyed when we visit the Merry Oak. My cousin does ceremonies here, asking for blessings for the tree and for our ancestors. ”
Moseley-Hobbs, who was also finishing her doctoral dissertation from Walden University, wrote a dramatic, novelized historical book on the life of her great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Fraction. Fraction left Smithfield and served as a Union sergeant in the Civil War. Moseley-Hobbs published the book, “More Than a Fraction,” through her Imagination Lunchbox company last fall (slaves were considered a fraction: 3/5 of a person). In the book, she re-created true events, including Robert Taylor Preston’s shooting of Fraction in the leg and his barring of Fraction from his childhood church.
“Robert Preston was a piece of work,” said Daniel Thorp, Virginia Tech history professor and associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “He stated that he and the Fractions couldn’t worship in the same church and that they couldn’t live in the same town. Preston instigated a series of run-ins with Thomas Fraction, including confronting him at church with a gun.”
Thorp also wrote about these events in his 2017 book, “Facing Freedom: An African-American Community in Virginia from Reconstruction to Jim Crow.”
“Robert Preston seemed obsessed with Thomas Fraction,” Moseley-Hobbs said. “He ordered him to come back to work for him several times, according to the Freedmen’s Bureau. But Thomas wouldn’t. He eventually moved to Salem to work as a railroad brakeman and made decent money for the times. When he died in 1892, his wife joined his daughter and her family in Baltimore.”
The Smithfield event will be held Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is free of charge, but donations for Smithfield will be accepted. A tour will highlight particular slave contributions to the property, including a doll bed, hutch, Chinese fretwork on the staircase and the house itself, which required the skill of enslaved carpenters, masons, painters and roofers.
“This will be the first event focused solely on religion and art of enslaved culture,” said April Danner, museum director of Historic Smithfield. “Last year we introduced the interpretive slave garden to show the intertwining of many different cultures at Smithfield. We’ve participated in Juneteenth many years, and dedicated stones for Aunt Ginny Fraction Capers and two unknown slaves in the Preston graveyard. We included Union Sgt. Thomas Fraction as a new ‘spirit’ in our Halloween hayride this year. Kerri and her son Anthony volunteered at the Independence Day festivities last year, and we’re glad to have them back.”