By Sarah Honosky
At Point of Honor, the house tour always has started at the front door.
And why wouldn’t it? A lush green lawn frames the two-story Federal mansion’s main entrance, classic red brick and white trim inviting visitors into the historic Lynchburg home. It’s the way things always have been done, Director of the Lynchburg Museum System Ted Delaney said. Until now.
On Friday night, the Point of Honor house tour did not begin at the restored 1815 main house at all. Instead, visitors stepped into the small kitchen, where Dontavius Williams was waiting for them. Separate from the house, the rectangular brick outbuilding only has two rooms and a small attic space. A fire burned in the hearth, a black cauldron suspended over the flames.
The room smelled inviting, like beef stock and simmering onions, and Williams leaned over the wooden table, coating fatty slices of oxtail in flour. Around him were bowls of spices, sweet potatoes, onions spiked with whole cloves and a heaping pile of greens. He was making beef stew, he explained, something to fend off the late fall chill.
Williams is a part of Point of Honor’s first tour told entirely from the perspective of an enslaved person. This year’s “A Point in History” evening tour follows the food from the hearth to the table, told through the eyes of an enslaved woman named Eliza in the 1840s.
Williams is a living history historian, founder of “The Chronicles of Adam,” who flew in from South Carolina to perform in the tours Friday and this evening and present a one-man-show this afternoon.
Williams has been doing first-person historical interpretations of an enslaved man named Adam for seven years. It’s a long time to live in someone’s shoes, but Williams now travels the country to share his story.
“Somebody has to tell the story; it’s just that simple,” Williams said. “For far too long in this country we have ignored places like these and focused on the house. The houses are important, but it’s these spaces — these outbuildings and the people who worked in these buildings — that made these houses possible.”
He gestured to the brick that lined the main house’s exterior.
“There are fingerprints in those bricks,” Williams said. “Someone had to make those bricks, and they weren’t paid to do it. They were forced to do it ... it is important we tell those stories, because if we don’t, that history gets lost, it gets swept under the rug, and it makes it easier to hate. The more we understand about one another, the harder it is for me to hate you.”
Williams has found that the best way to tell that story is through food.
“Food draws us in and binds us together,” Williams said. “We are more vulnerable when we sit down and eat together, that’s why I do what I do. It helps us break down those barriers.”
Eliza, portrayed by Gloria Robinson Simon, led seven tour groups Friday night. They went from the kitchen — where they stopped to chat with “Adam” — through the house’s basement, up the back staircase, through the master bedchamber and, finally, into the dining room, where the white family was enjoying a meal at a lavish dinner party.
Instead of a tour paraded through the gilded halls of a plantation home, the visitors are offered an immersive look at the untold story behind the hard labor of enslaved people in the 19th-century South. Like Eliza reminded the audience, she never has entered through the front doors, she never has walked up the main staircase. Instead, she is forced to navigate the home through hidden passages and steep, narrow staircases.
“They don’t want to see us,” Eliza said.
At one point in the tour, after stepping into the master bedchamber, Eliza broke down in tears.
“When I got to be in here, taking care of someone else’s children, don’t even know who’s taking care of mine,” Eliza said. “It’s in this room where my soul cries.”
There was palpable anxiety as Eliza ushered the tour group into the room where the family held their dinner party. She shushed them, kept them backed into the corner, offering a very different narrative perspective on the people that often are the focal point of tours such as these.
“It’s not saying it’s the right way to think of it, or the only way to think of that house, and that family, and this history, but it’s one perspective, it’s one voice,” Delaney said. “We have a responsibility to present multiple voices, multiple points of view, of what happened here.”
Laura Macaluso, public history specialist for the Lynchburg Museum System, said this year’s tour was an effort to tell more of the African American perspective.
“We wanted to do a house tour from a completely different perspective,” Macaluso said. “You always go in the front door on a house tour, that’s what people expect. But if you go in through the basement, it’s the idea of doing history from the bottom up. Instead of coming in from the formal white perspective down.”
It’s a difficult story to tell in Central Virginia, she added. It defies the traditional way house tours have been designed, but through this effort, she hopes the museum can continue to build on these stories.
The narrative was created with the help of the work of Kelley Deetz, a local author and food historian whose recent book, “Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine,” was used as a research tool for the tour.
“It’s a little different than anything we’ve done before. It’s a little bit of an experiment,” Delaney said. “We have an obligation and responsibility to tell that story.”
And through food — from the kitchen to the dining room — was the perfect way to do it.
Christian Crouch, assistant curator at the Lynchburg Museum System, called the kitchen the crossroads of those two worlds — of the 19th century black and white experiences.
“Food is so central to our lives, to human history ... it’s a great segue into this history,” Delaney said. “It’s an opening into what life was like here. No matter what race you were, no matter where you stood in the order of the hierarchy here, everybody is connected to food.”
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.