“If it wasn’t for Bed & Breakfast people, I wouldn’t know much of anything.”Posted: June 10, 2011
or, “Zachary’s Psychedelic Breakfast, Part 1”
As promised, an interview with Ridgely, the 74-year-old wife of George Forbes Copland II with whom I stayed at North Bend Plantation in Charles City, VA. “It’s just like the good lord sends all these people that we’d never have the opportunity to meet,” she tells me about her experience operating a Bed & Breakfast on the plantation once owned by her husband’s ancestors, family of founding father Benjamin Harrison and President William Henry Harrison. “We’ve met people from all over the world.”
Above, Ridgely speaks in great detail about the plantation’s history (“in 1864 there were 30,000 Union troops here,” nbd), her family connection to Edmund Ruffin (I guess we’re kin too, now that we’ve sorta shared a bed), her husband’s staggering English lineage (“George’s ancestors are in the Book of the Dead in England. . . . He’s kin to Charlemagne and the First Lord of Windsor in England”), and her own family history (“there were two people that were knighted, which is kinda fun”).
Forgive me the terrible video quality: my camera’s video files are stoopidly ginormous, so I converted this to an MPEG simply so I could upload it in under two hours, which turns Ridgely into a pixelated phantom of a plantation grandma. And yes, those are breakfast sound effects: I was being fed fresh eggs, bacon, orange slices, melon, grape juice, and—what else?—buttered biscuits, at the same table where William Henry Harrison and his sister Sarah once sat. Clearly, the audio is a tribute to Pink Floyd’s “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.”
In the guest book I found this note to Ridgely, which seems deeply emblematic of the experiences guests have at North Bend and the profound ancestral pride Ridgely and her home foster. Here’s the gist of it:
As we searched Bed & Breakfast’s [sic] to come to for our 25th wedding anniversary, it truly was God who led us to yours. The shared family ancestry with your husband George made it especially meaningful staying here! We truly cherish the stories you shared. My extended “Harrison” family will really enjoy hearing the stories and the connections we made with you! Thank you, and may the Lord continue to bless you!
Confession: yes, I am a dirty Yankee, and yes, references to the Lord’s blessing in conjunction with a majestic slave plantation and its “shared family ancestry” make me squirm inside. Recall: there were slaves here. Slaves built this place. This is where slavery happened. Where white people enslaved black people. For 200 years. Where herrenvolk democracy was built and cherished and fought and lost. This is something that really happened. Here. Where Edmund Ruffin, fire-eater father of the Lost Cause, once slept.
And that’s a blessing from the Lord?
No matter how much I’ve read about slavery (kinda maybe a lot), there’s something shocking and raw about the sheer tangibility of the plantation site, its unchanged veneer, how the landscapes and architecture and and storybook images of the Old South have somehow hardened into two centuries of permanence. Maybe it’s because my understanding of slave life has been more shaped by Beloved or Kindred, or, you know, Frederick Douglass’s autobiography than Gone With The Wind. Maybe I’m just an outsider.
And Ridgely and George? How, or to what extent, do they think about slavery? Where does ancestral pride end and inter-generational remorse begin? It’s one thing to be a descendant of slaveowners. It’s another to live proudly on their regal plantation.
Neither I nor Ridgely uttered the words “slavery” or “black” during my first sixteen hours or so at North Bend. Something kept me from broaching the subject—maybe southern manners, maybe common sense.
Then Ridgely mentioned that she and George had belonged to a black Liberty Baptist Church. I perked up. She spoke of a church event a few years ago, where she and her husband and children and grandchildren “stood in front of the congregation and asked forgiveness for the sin of slavery in this slavery and on this land.”
“You can’t ask forgiveness for something you did not do,” replied the minister. “But this family as representative of the White European Man has asked for forgiveness and forgiveness has been granted. “
And then something funny happened: the minister and congregation, as descendants of the black slave, asked forgiveness in return—for “all the hatred that’s been harbored through the generations.”
That’s when I get squeamish all over again. The hallmark scene of interracial embrace may well be sincere. But the sudden role reversal—forgiver and forgiven—leaves me confused and cold. Welcome to the plantation south. Still bitter about those centuries of racial subjugation? Line up and say sorry.
Here’s video from that conversation.