Drumming and Enslaved Communities

Slave Quarters, Louisiana, circa early 1860s

On July 15, 1784, George Mason V, the oldest son of George Mason IV, placed an advertisement in the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser seeking the return of two runaway enslaved men, Dick and Clem.[1] In this notice, Dick was described as a “stout lusty MULATTO FELLOW, about 22 years of age.”[2] He “[beat] a drum pretty well," the newspaper detailed, adding that Dick was "artful and plausible, and well acquainted in most parts of Virginia and Maryland, having formerly waited upon [George Mason V,]” perhaps as a body servant.[3] Characterizing Dick’s so-called mixed racial heritage, the advertisement alluded to the runaway’s proximate whiteness, which probably enabled him to obtain a privileged domestic position in the Mason household and travel with his owner. In summary, Dick’s experiences in different regions of Virginia and Maryland, as well as his age and gender doubtlessly afforded him advantages that made it easier for him to plan and execute his escape from Gunston Hall.[4]

When Dick left the plantation, he departed with his artistic skill and percussive instrument which enlivened music and dance.  These cultural expressions bettered the lives of enslaved individuals. Playing music and dancing were important activities for enslaved individuals. The African-American communities of eighteenth-century Northern Virginia eagerly gathered in woods and abandoned outbuildings to sing, perform, and socialize beyond the gaze of their owner.[5] It is not difficult to imagine enslaved individuals like Dick moving in a procession from Gunston Hall’s “slave settlement” of "Logtown," situated hundreds of yards from the manor, to enact ritual and revelry in forests surrounding the plantation. Indeed, it is entirely plausible that Dick played the drum at these gatherings.[6]

[1] Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser (Richards), Alexandria, July 15, 1784, The Geography of Slavery, http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/gos/search/relatedAd.php?adFile=vg1784.xml&adId=v1784070081, accessed June 30, 2017.


[3] Ibid. For an innovative study of racial slavery and social identity in the American South, which creatively analyzes runaways advertisements, see: Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: the Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

[4]In relation to another enslaved person called Dick (a widely given name), George Mason IV “had firsthand experience with the cruelty involved in keeping people in bondage.”  During the mid-1750s, the master of Gunston Hall had the “ear cut off” of this different Dick “for running away and for stealing, probably a hog.  Dick died during a second escape attempt.” The details of his demise are not known: Jeff Broadwater, George Mason: Forgotten Founder (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 35.

[5]Enslaved individuals were able to meet far from sites of work, where they spoke “in whispers and in code, in hiding and in the dark” enjoying “the rewards of congregation, a moment of release from drudgery and sorrow, and different form of jubilation”: Stephanie Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 61.  For excellent works of scholarship exploring the “invisible” rituals of African Americans in colonial Virginia plantations, see: Lorena Walsh, From Calabar to Carter’s Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997) and Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks.  For a classic study tracing the legacies of enslaved peoples’ cultures over several centuries in the United States, see: Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).  The late-Lawrence Levine once taught in the GMU Department of History and Art History and African American Studies Program, which is now called the African and African American Studies Program.

[5]Similar ritual gatherings are analyzed in Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 586.  Life in Logtown is now a subject of scholarly inquiry: David Shonyo, “Archaeological Investigations at Gunston Hall Plantation: Report on 2012 Activities,” 44FX113, Archaeology Department, Gunston Hall, March 2013, http://www.gunstonhall.org/docs/AnnualReport2012a.pdf, accessed Aug. 7, 2017. 

Creator: Alexis Bracey

Drumming and Enslaved Communities