The House

Front of Gunston Hall Manor, 2017

Photograph of Gunston Hall. Although this house was built with the labor of unfree people, enslaved people were not permitted to use the front door. 

The master's house was typically a special site for enslaved individuals.  In Gunston Hall severe social limitations were placed on workers who entered corridors, rooms and staircases. Prominent members of the colonial Virginia elite such as George Mason IV restricted the movement of enslaved people as a way to control black bodies, especially in the more intimate manor.[1] As historian Stephanie Camp argues, "the disciplining uses of space and time did more than maximize efficiency; they reminded black and white plantation residents of the racial etiquette that governed their world.”[2] This racial etiquette determined the ways in which Gunston Hall functioned.  The free white inhabitants of this property and their visitors used two front doors to enter and exit Mason's home.  By contrast, enslaved people knew to use a side door to step into and out of Gunston Hall. The white people of George Mason IV's class could use the main staircase to access the second floor while enslaved people had to climb a concealed and cramped staircase in darkness, balancing items for the plantation master and his family.[3] 

Side Door of Gunston Hall Manor, 2017

This photograph depicts the side door of Gunston Hall manor. The entrance pictured was used by enslaved people. Although some bondsmen, like George Mason IV's personal servant James, were tasked with answering the big front door and letting guests in, he would never have been allowed to use this grand entrance himself. 

Manor Staircase Used by Enslaved People of Gunston Hall, 2017

Image of the cramped staircase that enslaved people had to use

Hiding enslaved people in plain sight was considered an accomplishment of Virginia planters.  Many of Gunston Hall's slave quarters, for example, could not be seen from the main house. Mason’s bedroom and his study faced away from the working and living areas of the people he owned. The community called "Logtown," where dozens of enslaved families resided, was probably clustered behind a thick tree line--way beyond the master's view.[4] This settlement might have enabled the bondspeople of Gunston Hall to carve out "a ‘rival geography’--alternative ways of knowing and using plantation . . .  space that conflicted with planters’ . . . demands."[6] Logtown could have represented the outer frontier of subjugation, and a reachable horizon line of greater, if perilous freedom.  An enslaved man named Dick, who worked at Gunston Hall, might well have passed through Logtown on his way to escaping Mason's bondage.  A "waiting man" who served meals, Dick might have learned the best routes to walk when leaving Gunston Hall from his master's guests who spoke to their host about the direction of local roads and movement of policing slave patrols. Perhaps Dick shared the knowledge he learned while waiting on Mason's table with other bondspeople. Dick ran away in 1784  with another enslaved person called Clem. 

Wider View of Service Staircase, 2017

Another photograph of the dark stairway that bondsmen and bondswomen working in Gunston Hall would have had to use. 

Finally, it is important to consider that George Mason IV, who regarded the institution of slavery as a “slow Poison,” probably felt the need to protect the privileges of white Virginians from the sight of his human property.  If this is so, an interesting question remains unanswered. Why did Mason allow for Logtown to exist, if it probably came to signify the possibility of greater autonomy for Gunston Hall's enslaved community?[5]


[1] Stephanie Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2004), 27.

[2] Ibid, 27

[3] The spatial and temporal restrictions that plantation owners created in their colonial Virginia manors are examined in Clifton Coxe Ellis. “Building Berry Hill: Plantation Houses and Landscapes in Antebellum Virginia” (PhD Thesis, University of Virginia, 2000), 115 (https://search-proquest-com.mutex.gmu.edu/docview/304635246?accountid=14541).

[4] Terry K. Dunn, The Recollections of John Mason: George Mason’s Son Remembers His Father and Life at Gunston Hall (Mason Neck, VA: Gunston Hall, 2012), 59.

[5] "George Mason’s Views on Slavery." http://www.gunstonhall.org/georgemason/slavery/views_on_slavery.html, accessed July 18, 2017. 

[6] Ibid., 

Creator: Ayman Fatima