MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — February may be Black History Month, but it’s not the only time to learn more about slaves in Berkeley County – thanks to an innovative exhibit at the Belle Boyd House.
Berkeley County Historical Society Todd Funkhouser said the museum display – which uses donated items to depict a slave’s quarters – has been popular, but also somewhat controversial since it was originally developed about five years ago.
That’s because many people either don’t know much about the area’s former slave population, while others don’t like items used in the display, he said.
But that’s not a problem because goal is to educate and also shine a light on the society which existed during the local days of slavery and as more slaves gained their freedom, Funkhouser said.
“It started out as the black history room before we re-did the museum, but as we returned the house to more of a heritage type museum we wanted to make it more representative of the slave quarters,” he said.
Slaves versus free blacks
Some people are surprised to learn that Berkeley County – which was still a part of Virginia prior to 1863 – did have slaves, and that fact has been documented in the early U.S. Census numbers, Funkhouser said.
For example, the first federal census was taken in 1790 showed a total population of 19,713 people – including 2,932 slaves (at that time Berkeley County also included the land that later became Jefferson and Morgan counties) and 131 free blacks. The number of slaves decreased over the next 60 years to 1,650 in 1860 while the number of free blacks rose to 286 for the same year.
In the end, however, Jefferson County had the largest amount of slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War because of the farming done there, while Berkeley County had a combination of farming and orchards, Funkhouser said.
Slaves led prescribed lives as per their owner’s requirements and societal expectations – even those who “went with their masters to worship at church didn’t sit with them, because the churches that were here at that time had balconies where the slaves would go because they weren’t allowed on the worship floor.”
Simply put, slaves were possessions and “slavery was an evil institution,” he said.
However, free blacks – individuals either bought their freedom or it was granted by their master – were heads of households, could own property, had access to the court system and paid taxes, Funkhouser said.
“The free black population was less than one percent of the total population in 1790. It grew to 1 1/2 percent in 1810, then it increased to 2 1/2 percent in 1830, and remained just over 2 percent until 1860,” Funkhouser said.
Jacob Bronsman of Back Creek Valley was the first documented free black to own land in Berkeley County, he said.
“There is a large body of research available, but most people still don’t understand that we eventually had a large population of free blacks and a small segment of them – maybe 130 to 150 – owned land. They would also work independently in the orchards, and be paid for that work before returning to their community,” Funkhouser said.
One of those communities was located near Gerrardstown, he said, adding that it was first known as Mount Pleasant and then became known as Mount Olive.
“This was quite a diverse community, and they even had a church with a cemetery. They also educated their children there, and free blacks educated them year round. They took great pride in that,” he said.
There was also a free black community in Little Georgetown complete with free black property owners, as well as a similar community that sprung up around Douglass Grove after the Civil War, Funkhouser said.
He said there was also a black community near Hedgesville (along Cannon Hill Road) while others formed in the villages of Darksville and Bunker Hill.
“These people had a very strong sense of community, and their descendants still reflect that pride when they talk about their family members,” he said.
Exhibit items reflect real lives
“Some people didn’t take it too well when we decided to refer to this as a slave’s quarter, but that’s exactly what it is meant to be – so some people just basically shut down their thought processes because it didn’t turn out to be what they expected. And others also rebuffed it because it didn’t reflect what they thought it should for Berkeley County,” Funkhouser said.
“But when you come in here, it isn’t about me trying to convince you to believe my opinion because this exhibit is all fact based – because history is about learning, not propping up preconceived ideas,” he said.
Overall, the result has been positive.
“We took a very divisive subject and simply said, ‘Here it is. Learn the facts about slavery in Berkeley County,'” Funkhouser said.
A pair of metal leg shackles – that were donated locally – are mounted on a wall, and have drawn some criticism, he said.
But the reality is that leg shackles were used on slaves here, Funkhouser said.
“Not all slaves were shackled, but they are still a part of our history – and they are up there for that reason. But this is the unpleasant side of slavery and people need to understand how they were treated,” he said.
Slaves were not known by their names, Funkhouser said.
“They were just property at that time, and just like people tied up their horses, they also tied up their slaves – mostly at night,” he said.
A basic rope bed, some cooking utensils and other items used for every day life are part of the display.
Getting the display right wasn’t easy, because not a lot was written from the county’s early slave days so society members talked to descendants for oral histories “because it’s their heritage and we tried to capture it as accurately as possible,” he said.
Funkhouser is also proud of the drawings by David Hunter Strother -a nationally-known graphic artist and author who was born in Martinsburg in 1816 – that are on display at the museum, courtesy of the West Virginia University’s West Virginia and Regional History Collection.
Better known by his pen name, Porte Crayon, he prepared illustrated stories for Harper’s Monthly Magazine for more than a quarter of a century, Funkhouser said. Strother also gained national attention from a drawing he did that depicted the aftermath of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry,
The intricate line drawings now featured at the museum show various individuals Strother used as subjects – people from Martinsburg, Berkeley Springs and Charles Town were captured in his sketches, he said.
Strother purchased Norborne Hall in Martinsburg, died in Charles Town and is buried in Green Hill Cemetery, Funkhouser said.
“He definitely had a different way of looking at things from others at the time, but that’s what makes his art so meaningful – and why we think it fits in so well here,” Funkhouser said.
The Berkeley County Museum, 126 E. Race St., Martinsburg, is open Sunday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except holidays). Additional information on exhibits and events is available online at bchs.org/the-belle-boyd-house or call 304-267-4713.
Staff writer Jenni Vincent can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 131, or www.twitter.com/jennivincentwv.