YORKTOWN, Va. (AP) - Take the old colonial road from Yorktown to Hampton and - even before you drive a quarter mile - you’ll travel back in time to the Revolution.
First you pass the massive earthworks where the British army made its stand in 1781, then the siege line that American and French troops threw up to draw their noose still tighter.
Just past that is the spot where Lord Gen. Cornwallis’ aides surrendered their humiliated commander’s sword, followed by the Grand French Battery that helped batter the redcoats into submission.
As recently as 1977, however, the heart of this historic landscape was occupied by an African-American neighborhood founded during the Civil War.
Aerial photos from the 1931 anniversary celebration show not just the festival grounds but also - stretching through the trees in the background - the modest, mostly working-class houses of a black enclave known as Slabtown.
Hundreds of residents lived here in its heyday - most of them descended from refugee slaves who had flocked to Yorktown.
But when the National Park Service began expanding the battlefield after World War II, the little town shifted into decline, with the last houses being razed in preparation for the 1981 bicentennial of Washington’s triumph.
Nearly 40 years after it was graded over, however, the neighborhood that lasted more than 110 years is still remembered vividly by its last surviving residents, their descendants and the historic church the first freedmen founded.
“This was a neighborhood where we all looked out for each other - and where just about everybody was related,” says Ethel Curtis, who grew up in a large two-story house that overlooked the siege lines. “So when we had to move, it was not a very easy time for people who had put down such strong roots.”
Flooded with refugee slaves after the Confederate retreat in early May 1862, the fields outside the Union garrison at Yorktown quickly became the scene of a black encampment so large it rivaled - then surpassed - the giant villages near Fort Monroe in Hampton.
By June 1863, more than 12,000 people had massed there for asylum.
“Colored people for miles around flocked to Yorktown as soon as (it was) occupied by our troops … The old and young, male and female, came in, bringing all their earthly possessions,” wrote Lt. Eugene Nash of the 44th New York, according to documents maintained by the National Park Service.
“They were extremely happy and hopeful … They sang, they danced, they prayed … The dawn of a new life had come. No person who witnessed that scene can forget it.”
No one could forget the squalor and chaos, either - until Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wister ordered the construction of a sprawling village about three-quarters of a mile from the fort.
Well-built and tidy, the slab-wood cabins occupied nearly 20 blocks of land and included a church, seminary and cemetery, as well as schools, Capt. James A. Moore noted in a 1866 map of newly founded Yorktown National Cemetery and the surrounding region.
Though many inhabitants moved away following the war’s end, others stayed on, building a neighborhood that boasted nearly as many houses in 1881 as nearby Yorktown.
Most residents became farmers, while others worked as watermen, providing a self-sufficient economy that lasted into the mid-1900s.
“Unlike a lot of early African-American settlements, the people in Slabtown seemed to get along without much government assistance,” retired Colonial National Historical Park Ranger Diane Depew says.
Later residents worked for the naval mine depot during World War I, while others took jobs with the Park Service after Colonial National Monument was established in 1930.
As late as the 1960s, the little town reigned as one of the most important centers of black life in the region, especially because of its close links to historic Shiloh Baptist Church and the county’s black high school.
“The watermen there worked out of Wormley Creek - and we hauled out their boats,” says Tim Smith, whose family’s nearby marine railway served Slabtown for generations.
“Our railway would let them pay as they were making money when the season started. They always paid their bills. Our family thought the world of the watermen they knew.”
For former residents such as Pauline Carter, who was born in Slabtown and baptized at Shiloh, the memories of the old neighborhood are golden.
“It was a good place to live and a good place to raise your children,” she says. “Everybody just knew everybody - and they all looked after us.”
As early as 1946, however, the Park Service began surveying the neighborhood, too, determined to complete the acquisitions it had deferred when it ran out of money in the Depression.
Though funding remained tight - delaying the purchase of such critically located properties as the church - a newly authorized land-swap program accelerated the pace in the 1950s, enabling park officials to thwart new development “in the heart of the battlefield and on Surrender Field,” a superintendent reported.
Still, the acquisition of the land where the Grand French Battery once stood remained particularly “urgent” - especially after the opening of a trailer park.
When the Park Service decided to make Yorktown the Revolution’s equivalent of the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg in 1965, the efforts to acquire such obtrusive “in-holdings” became still more concerted if not always fully funded.
But with the approach of the 1976 bicentennial and the 200th anniversary of Washington’s victory in 1981, Congress approved the money needed to purchase what remained of Slabtown.
“Slabtown literally sat in the heart of the battlefield. So how did you interpret it with all those modern intrusions?” Depew says. “It’s a tough question when you’ve got in-holdings right on top of the Grand French Battery.”
Working with independent appraisers, the threat of condemnation and a new bankroll that provided up to $15,000 in relocation expenses, the Park Service acquired and razed the surviving Slabtown properties in the mid-1970s.
Among the very last of about 20 homes listed in a 1977 logbook was that owned by Carter’s mother.
“I was born here - right down that lane. I was reared here, had my grandchildren here,” Hettie Hill told the Daily Press for a March 20, 1977, front-page story. “(But) after all these years you realize that nobody owns the land that he’s paid for.”
Curtis’ mother, Arlena, was among the mostly older remaining residents who tried to hold out, too.
But she finally agreed to sell when the Park Service raised its offer for her aging 1920s house and acre of land off Marl Pit Road to $28,000, then helped her move to a new neighborhood being built with government aid a couple of miles away to accommodate the refugees of Slabtown.
“People did not want to go. They did not want to move. This was their home,” Curtis recalls. “But to tell you the truth, that old house was so big we were kind of glad when she left. And once she settled in, she was happy because all her old friends and neighbors were there, too.”
For most of the nearly 40 years since Slabtown disappeared, the memories of its residents and their descendants have reflected the pain of being uprooted.
“The houses are gone. But we know where we came from - and it’s still home,” Carter says. “It’s just a shame that we can’t go back.”
Some of those wounds began to heal, however, when the Park Service embraced the history of the church and its neighborhood as part of its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Yorktown’s role in the Civil War.
In July 2013, it staged a daylong symposium exploring that long-neglected legacy, Depew says.
It also dedicated a trio of wayside markers celebrating the historic roles of old Shiloh and the refugee slave town that gave it birth.
Despite the heat, most of the church’s congregation paraded from their new sanctuary to the old site for the ceremony, Phillips says.
Among those who watched was African-American photojournalist and blogger Brian Palmer, who later described the emotional moment as “an amazing example of hatchet-burying and cooperation.”
“People were thrilled to see Shiloh and Slabtown recognized in this way. It made all their memories real,” Phillips adds. “And they came away crying because they felt they had reconnected with something they had lost.”
Information from: Daily Press, https://www.dailypress.com/
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