On Preston avenue A brief history of Thomas L. Preston and the people who were enslaved on the Preston plantation

/ [by Justin Greenlee, PhD candidate in the Joint Graduate Program in Art & Architectural History at the University of Virginia]

/ A few words on the current debate regarding the renaming of Preston Avenue in Charlottesville, VA.

/ Beginning with some background on the issue: The idea for the renaming came from (Dr.) Councilman Wes Bellamy and drew increased attention following a The Daily Progress article by Nolan Stout @nstoutDP, “Bellamy wants Preston Avenue to be renamed” (12/19/18). http://bit.ly/2CZT0Oo

/ Councilman Bellamy's advocacy includes an email to Stout, statements on both his Instagram and Facebook accounts, and an extended discussion that took place at a City Council meeting on 1/7/19. http://bit.ly/2FmAXUk

/ Some work on the namesake for Preston Avenue, Colonel Thomas Preston/ Thomas L. Preston/ Thomas Lewis Preston (hereafter TLP) has already been done by Councilman Bellamy, Stout, Jordy Yager, and Lyle Solla-Yates (among others).

/ This includes a Twitter post from 12/20/18 by Yager @jordyyager where he names 29 African Americans who were enslaved by TLP:

/ "Henry, Pocahontas, Reuben, Creasy, James, Louis, Patience, John, James, Robert, Harriet, Mary, Margaret, Phillip, Delphy, Stephen, Kiah, Matilda, Andy, Pilah, Charles Henry, Charles, Lucy, Charles, Shadrach, Blair, Pamilla, Georgianna, and Dicy." http://bit.ly/2VDwulD

/ You can also see a much earlier post from Yates @LyleSollaYates from 8/9/2018 where he identifies Colonel Thomas L. Preston as a UVA law grad, former rector, member of the VA legislature, and plantation owner. http://bit.ly/2QBnlX0

/ The goal in presenting this resource is to expand on their work, beginning with a biographical sketch of TLP (thanks to information provided by Special Collections staff at Virginia Tech): https://at.virginia.edu/2RGrrSi

/ Their summary reads: “Thomas Lewis Preston, son of Francis and Sarah Buchanan Campbell Preston, was born in Abingdon, Virginia on November 20, 1812. He attended Washington College before graduating with a degree in law from the University of Virginia in 1833.”

/ “In 1842 he settled in Smyth County, Virginia, where he eventually operated the family salt works, served as a director of Abingdon's branch of the Exchange Bank of Virginia, and represented Smyth County in the Virginia General Assembly."

/ “He also served on the governing boards of Emory and Henry College, Mary Washington College and Virginia Military Institute.”

/ “Commissioned a captain at the outbreak of the Civil War, he served as assistant adjutant general under General Joseph E. Johnston. When his commission was revoked by the War Department, he declined a new commission as major.”

/ “Moving to Albemarle County in 1863, Preston served as rector of the University of Virginia from 1864 to 1865. He married twice, first to Elizabeth Breckinridge Watts (ca.1822-1843) and later to Anna Maria Saunders (1825-1911). He died March 20, 1903 in Albemarle County.”

/ Among other works, TLP wrote Historical Sketches and Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (published in Richmond in 1900). While there are few mentions of slave(s) and/or servant(s) in his account, there are several stories that reveal the presence of enslaved peoples. http://bit.ly/2C91gdf

/ For example, he writes that his father, General Francis Preston, once “had a frame building added to the log cabin of Thomas Madison.”

/ “The nails used in the building were made by a colored blacksmith, old Cyrus, a slave of General Preston, and so firm was their hold in the timber that fifty years afterward a chimney-mantlepiece could not be taken down without breaking it into fragments.” http://bit.ly/2M35esg

/ TLP also describes a visit to Philadelphia during which his father bought an immigrant as an indentured servant. He writes, “Colonel Preston was struck by the appearance of a young German, bought him, and brought him to his home.”

/ “It was soon discovered that he was an educated gentleman, spoke English, and was an accomplished musician. Instead of putting him to menial service, he was installed as music teacher to Colonel Preston’s daughters.” http://bit.ly/2Fmb7zK

/ The Sketches also includes descriptions of the labor involved in the manufacture of salt, if no direct references to the laborers themselves. In describing the process of refining salt, TLP notes how, “The salt was lifted from the kettle by long-handled dippers, and put into baskets of splits over the kettles to drain.”

/ “When sufficiently drained these baskets were carried along the platform and emptied into the salt-house which stood some thirty feet away from the furnace.” http://bit.ly/2TFIuBA

/ The Sketches thus provide a glimpse into slave labor in Smyth County and a set of circumstances that relates to TLP's move to Albemarle and his control over the Preston plantation.

/ When TLP bought the plantation in 1863 the property included 102 ¼ acres and a plantation house called Wyndhurst that stands at 605 Preston Place. https://goo.gl/maps/pPkZ5rogLNq

/ According to the VA Department of Historic Resources nomination form, “Wyndhurst was built ca. 1857 as a single-family residence by Sally Ann McCoy, an early hotel keeper at the University of Virginia.”

/ “Thomas L. Preston purchased the 102-acre farm of Wyndhurst in 1863 and lived there until his death in 1903. Following the death of his widow in 1911, his heirs subdivided the property and subsequently sold it in 1919.” http://bit.ly/2RgVOPT

/ Most discussions of TLP and Preston Avenue on social media and in recent news coverage have focused on Wyndhurst as a plantation house. But we also need emphasis to be placed on the structure only a few feet away at 611 Preston Place. https://goo.gl/maps/fc3frHgHMVv

/ This board and batten house, the so-called “Norris-Preston Cottage,” was built around 1840 and thus pre-dates the Wyndhurst plantation house from c. 1857.

/ The structure is described in a Historical American Buildings Survey (HABS) from 1982 written by Ann V. Swallow, who was then a graduate student in Architectural History at UVA. https://www.loc.gov/item/va1079/

/ According to Swallow, “Tradition has it that Kelly [meaning John Kelly] may have constructed the house for his slaves or tenant farmers, nevertheless, evidence of circular sawmarks in the structural members dates the cottage to c. 1840 at the earliest.”

/ But she also notes that “It is more likely that the Norris family may have built the house as a tenant farmer or slave housing, as they are known to have lived on Court Square in the city.”

/ John Kelly was a local merchant and his ownership of slaves is “evidenced by the sale of farm stock and equipment after his death in 1830. An inventory of the goods sold on November 17, 1830 included slaves, oxen, cows, pigs, and ‘plantation tools.’” https://www.loc.gov/item/va1079/

/ Kelly was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, and the two apparently butted heads over control of the property around the slave quarters. Kelly allegedly said that he would see Jefferson “at the devil before he should have it at any price.” https://www.loc.gov/item/va1079/

/ Kelly would eventually bequeath the land to his daughter, Cynthia T. Norris, at his death in 1830 (a clarifying note: Cynthia Norris was Cynthia Kelly prior to her marriage to Opie Norris and is sometimes identified as “Mrs. Opie”).

/ We also find John Kelly in the Will Book for Albemarle County, 10-33: “I also give to my daughter Cynthia T. Norris, my farm lying above Charlottesville containing four hundred and seventy-five acres… with all its appertanances to her.” https://www.loc.gov/item/va1079/

/ As already noted, the inventory from 1830 proves that John Kelly owned slaves, so it is possible that some of the “appertanances” given to his daughter were actually human beings.

/ It is also important to repeat the fact that John Kelly died in 1830, with the slave quarters built no earlier than 1840. This means that the structure was likely constructed at the request of Cynthia and Opie Norris as a place to house and observe their slaves (and possibly serve as a kitchen, as well).

/ Ann Swallow, the author of the HABS report, also writes: “As a structure of the Norris farm it would appear that the double house arrangement [meaning the slave quarters at #611 and the plantation house at #605] was for housing tenant farmers or slaves.” https://www.loc.gov/item/va1079/

/ We now know quite a bit about the Prestons and their role as slave owners, and beyond that the history of enslavement of human beings on the plot of land that would be Preston plantation.

/ We can now turn back to TLP, specifically, in order to trace a history of ownership from Norris to Preston.

/ The boundary of the future Preston plantation took shape in 1854, when Ann Evelina Norris (a descendant of Cynthia Norris, likely her daughter) sold 102 of the original 475 acre plot to William T. McCarty. https://www.loc.gov/item/va1079/

/ Both the land and the slave quarters were then purchased by Sally McCoy in 1857 and by TLP in 1863 (if you are interested in the transfers of 1830, 1854, 1857, and 1863 you can find transcriptions of wills and deeds in the HABS survey).

/ The HABS survey also includes Albemarle County Deed Book (ACDB), City Deed Book (DB), and Will Book (WB) numbers, which future investigators can use to track down relevant documents in the Records Office of the Albemarle County Courthouse and the Charlottesville District Courthouse.

/ Such a endeavor would undoubtedly shine considerable light on the history of the plantation, including additional information regarding enslaved African Americans who may have been included in these exchanges.

/ Some final notes on TLP as a slave owner: he apparently sold the family salt works in Smyth County in 1862, when he moved to Albemarle County and likely brought his slaves with him.

/ A key source involving his ownership of slaves in Albemarle County are the University of Virginia Faculty Minutes from March 1, 1865. http://bit.ly/2D1uOev

/ As recorded in the document, the faculty voted that their chairman, John B. Minor, be put in charge of a committee that would meet the leaders of the Union army when their army arrived at the University of Virginia in the last month of the Civil War.

/ Minor was appointed by his colleagues “to meet the commanding General of any forces that may reach this place and request of him a guard to protect public & private property at the University during the passing by or sojourn of the Federal troops here...”

/ “and that Col Th. L. Preston, the Rector, be requested to cooperate with said Committee in discharging of the duty assigned them.”

/ Additional information can be found in the diary of John B. Minor, also available online as a transcription in the Encyclopedia Virginia. http://bit.ly/2SLKLea

/ In an entry from Saturday, March 4, 1865, Minor notes, “Before 7 I recd a note from Col Preston begging me if possible to get him a guard, that his person had been robbed of watch and money during the night, and his house of many valuables, and he feared a recurrence of insult and outrage.”

/ “The little girl who brought me the note tells me several of his servant boys have gone off and have betrayed all his horses to the enemy.”

/ To paraphrase: Preston’s “servant boys,” meaning his slaves, had emancipated themselves by joining the Union army... and took their former master’s horses with them.

/ In another entry in Minor’s diary from Monday, March 6, 1865, he reflects on the Union occupation of UVA: “Thus we escaped the dangers which threatened, and upon the whole have lost very little. Our hay was taken, and I lost about 8 barrels of corn at Mr. Sinclair's mill, I'm afraid.” http://bit.ly/2SLKLea

/ “Mrs. Prentis lost some meat and a few clothes, Mr. [Prentis] being in the woods. But our poor neighbors suffered terribly, Mr. [Reuben] Maury, Capt Tec [page torn], Col Preston, Mr. [Andrew] Brown, Mr. Harden, Dr. Stephens, Mr. Dabney and many others.”

/ Much more work could and has been done on TLP, the Preston family, and the plantation around what is now Preston Place. But I hope my account makes a few things clear, most importantly TLP’s role as a slave owner and the history of violence against African Americans that took place on the site of Preston's plantation.

/ Moving forward there needs to be more emphasis on the slave quarters at what is now 611 Preston Place, a structure that acts as a material record of enslaved people and their enforced labor.

/ I hope the information I have provided will be a guide to future research, particularly archival work in the Records Office of the Albemarle County Courthouse and the Charlottesville District Courthouse.

/ Additional research in these institutions, as well as the Special Collections library at UVA, could uncover additional names and the experience of slaves held by John Kelly, Cynthia and Opie Norris, their descendant Ana Evelina Norris, William T. McCarty, and Thomas Preston.

/ It is clear, however, that the family of Thomas L. Preston and other landholders built their fortunes on the backs of enslaved people and sustained their way of life through the institution of slavery.

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