By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE – Long before the sounds of gunfire, cadences and military machinery echoed across the landscapes of the installation’s northernmost boundaries, there were planters, farmers, homesteads and a way of life far removed from the familiar.
A large part of Fort Lee’s northern grounds – bordered by Prince George County and the Petersburg federal corrections facility to the north and Interstate 295 and Hopewell to the east – was once land owned by the Gilliam family who emigrated here from England in the 1600s.
Today, the land bears little resemblance to the vast Gilliam property that was home to several generations of the family. However, remnants abound in documents that speak of slavery, the gray areas of freedom as well as artifacts offering such an intimate and detailed look at two Gilliam households visitors could feel as if they were guests sitting in their living rooms.
Renee Patrice Gilliam, a contract instructor at the Education Center here, shares a lineage to the family that once owned part of Fort Lee. Born in Richmond and raised in the City Point area of Hopewell, Gilliam said generations of her family once lived in an area straddling the banks of the Appomattox River.
“I’ve always known my people settled in what is called Broadway’s Landing,” she said of the area located north of the Petersburg correctional complex in Prince George. “That’s in the Anchors Point area (of Hopewell) from Pleasant Point Road all the way to (State Route) 36 and as far up as Colonial Heights.”
Today, the area is mainly comprised of three jurisdictions – Fort Lee, Hopewell and Prince George – where the Gilliams once owned roughly 10,000 acres, said Jeannie Langford, a historian at Appomattox Regional Library in Hopewell.
Gilliam said she learned more about her heritage in 1963 while working on a school project. Her great aunts Octavia and Julia offered a brief description of whence she came.
“I asked them ‘what was my lineage?’” she recalled. “They said, ‘You are French, English, Native American and a dash of negro.’”
Their response seemed to affirm the sketchy family histories of African Americans due to slavery, the lack of official records and oral history traditions.
Gilliam furthered her family knowledge in 2007 during a visit to the Regional Archaeological Facility here. It displayed (and continues to display) artifacts excavated in the late 1980s from two dwellings, one located within the installation boundary at that time.
Amanda Vtipilson, a former RACF curator, said they came from the areas where the houses of Charles Gilliam and his daughter, Susan, once stood. Charles was one of five children born to Rueben Gilliam (born circa 1765-1817) and his slave, Mary Ann. Charles and his siblings were each granted 125 acres of land in the area. He died in 1865 and deeded his property to five children.
Susan (born 1838) died in 1917 and was the last Gilliam to own land in the area. The federal government acquired her property the same year through something similar to imminent domain. It became the official owner in 1921, said Vtipilson.
Excavation of the sites during the construction of I-295 allowed archaeologists to determine what kind of homes stood there. At Charles’ site, the remains of several buildings were found buried in the soil.
“They found three structures that were a part of Charles’ homestead,” said Vtipilson, now the education curator at the Army Women’s Museum. “One was his home, one was a detached kitchen and another one was probably used to house the slaves he owned.”
Charles was, in fact, an African-American who owned slaves. The decision to do so is complicated: he needed help to manage the property and whites were not likely to work for mullatoes, according to Philip Schwarz in his book, “Free Blacks in Prince George County 1820-1917.” Furthermore, the practice was considered a measure of acceptance, and not least, the slaves may have been relatives and ownership may have been a protective measure.
“They were trying to hold families together,” said Renee Gilliam, noting some family members were indentured servants who were never given their freedom.
The excavations also revealed much about the dominant culture and the social norms during the time Charles and Susan lived, said Vtipilson.
“What I think is really interesting about Charles’ site, was his home was really outwardly poor-looking – it was mud and stick,” she said, “but all of the objects found in the ground along with the structures indicated he was more wealthy than his home would have indicated.”
The objects included fine ceramics, copper buttons and other items that could only be purchased by those among the state’s top 30 percent in wealth and income. That begs the question – what was Charles trying to hide? Again, it is complicated.
“The research done by a graduate student and RACF indicates he was trying to blend in with his environment,” said Vtipilson. “He was a free black in southern Virginia, and although he could afford those objects and even a nicer home, he didn’t want to disrupt the social system in place. If he had invited you to his home, you would have known about his wealth, but to the whites who lived around him, he would not have been considered a threat.”
In other words, Charles was a man who was never a slave but was really never free, either. His brother George could attest to the reality. He departed Virginia for Pennsylvania in 1831, passed for white and became a doctor, something he could never achieve in Virginia, according to the RACF and Schwarz. His Virginia-born wife hid her true identity as well and accompanied him.
Charles’ brother Rueben II is listed as having a wife but no name is given. Rueben’s son, William, became one of the first blacks to serve in the state’s House of Delegates in 1871. His picture is displayed there.
Renee Gilliam first visited the RACF in 2007 and browsed through silverware, “china that looked liked it came from England” and the door to a potbellied stove. She marveled at seeing the personal belongings of her distant relatives.
“There were things I could actually touch and say, ‘Gosh, this had once been in the family,’” she recalled.
A teacher by profession, Renee Gilliam said she has been urged by brother Rueben and others to write the family history. In doing so, she would need to include the fact her father Rueben was a longtime employee of the Quartermaster School starting in the 1960s, one of the region’s few black computer programmers and one of the highest-ranking black civilian employees here at the time.
She would undoubtedly need to dedicate a chapter on herself and her brother, Rueben, and their involvement in a landmark desegregation case. They were both litigants in the Renee Patrice GILLIAM et al v. School Board of the City of Hopewell, Virginia, case in which seven African-American children won the right in 1965 to attend the city’s white schools.
Gilliam, who has taught at various local schools, admits she needs to pay more attention to recording her family’s history but seems inclined to focus on the here-and-now than dwell on the past. Her daily farewell to Soldiers in her basic skills class at the Education Center’s Learning Library may serve as a reminder the past can serve as a GPS for the future, but today is more precious than yesterday.
“I always tell them ‘to be safe and go make history,’” she said, noting they tend to respond with “go make history?” Her typical reply is “yes, because you will not be able to relive today, and anything you do today is making history.”
The Gilliam legacy is important to preserve, said Vtipilson, because it sheds light on how it dealt with the social forces that tore many families apart. What Charles and Susan left behind allows a more precise narrative not only about who they were but how they went about living.
“Through archaeology, we finding history that would be lost or would be buried forever, and through people like Charles and his artifacts, we’re able to understand what it could have been like for him,” she said. “We are assuming a lot and coming up with hypotheses, but all of belongings combine to help tell a story that wouldn’t otherwise be told. Prince George County is the way it is today because of people like him. Everyone’s story somehow leads to the present time.”
Indeed, Fort Lee is literally standing on the shoulders of the Gilliam legacy.