Family visits home dedicated to once enslaved relatives
July 26, 2019
Valarie Johnson McCullar felt mixed emotions during her recent homecoming in Blacksburg.
“I was expecting to feel more triumphant than enraged,” said the Minnesota resident. “I’m both.”
In June, McCullar was one of a handful of descendants to visit, for the first time, the land and structures her family, the Fractions, helped cultivate while enslaved there in the 19th century. The family members toured the Solitude plantation house beside the Duck Pond and saw the restored nearby outbuilding that was recently set aside to honor the enslaved families who once lived there and in similar dwellings on the plantation.
“It’s all cleaned up now, but there were probably 20 or 30 people functioning in there at a minimum, laying end to end to end,” said McCullar, imagining the harsh conditions of the time. “So, it’s heartbreaking, but on the other hand, I’m here, so we survived.”
In April, Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors memorialized the tiny three-room building with a unanimous motion to name it the Fraction Family House at Solitude. The approved resolution was “in acknowledgement of the contributions of the Fraction Family in the creation and emergence of Virginia Tech as a major land-grant university, and in accordance with the university’s efforts to transform an historic location into a site for the interpretation of the African-American experience on campus and the region.”
Historical records indicate that the McNorton, Saunders, and Fraction families all resided on the site at some point, with the Fractions being the most numerous. The house is meant to acknowledge all three of the families.
The now-dedicated house ends the invisibility of enslaved persons and their descendants in the foundation of the university and adds visibility to the Prestons’ role in the enslavement of others, said Ellington Graves, assistant provost for Diversity and Inclusion.
“This increases the likelihood that we don’t simply celebrate the Prestons without acknowledging their culpability in slaveholding,” Graves said. “These shifts in perspective highlight the salience of race in discussions about the foundation of the university and its traditions, contrary to the tendency to treat racial justice as a recent and tangential issue.”
The official acknowledgment and the reunion of the Fraction family descendants with the region came about three years after their relative Kerri Moseley-Hobbs first reached out to the university community to further research her 4x-great grandfather, Thomas Fraction, who was once enslaved there.
“I called Smithfield [Planation], told them who I was, and they were like, we would love to have you down,” said Moseley-Hobbs, who still lives in her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. “When I went to Smithfield and Virginia Tech for the first time, there was a group of people waiting for me to share information they had because they had been trying for years to figure out what happened to the Fractions and where we went.”
Daniel Thorp, associate professor of history, has spent the majority of the last decade researching African-Americans in and around Montgomery County. He said he had zero leads on Fraction ancestors prior to the visit, but Moseley-Hobbs paved the way to connect the past with the present.
“Kerri was the first descendant that I met,” said Thorp, who is also an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “The families are spread literally all over the country and these are literally the people who built Smithfield Plantation.”
For Moseley-Hobbs, connecting with the university introduced her to a group of people seeking to preserve her own undiscovered history there.
“They had been maintaining our family tradition when we didn’t even know it was there, so we have a deep gratitude for them,” she said.
And the official naming of the Fraction Family House solidified her ancestors’ return to the area they once worked and longed to stay on, but were violently cast off from.
“It feels like the naming was a spiritual homecoming for all of them who actually wanted to build their homes there,” Moseley-Hobbs said. “It’s like vindication. You were right, you have a right to be there, and now you get to go home.”
The Fraction Family
For most of her life, Moseley-Hobbs thought her family had always lived in Baltimore, Maryland.
That changed when she began to research the family’s lineage with her grandmother, whose mother Isabelle was the granddaughter of Thomas Fraction.
“Then, 30 days later she passed away and it was like, I’m going to keep doing this because it was a project we started together,” Moseley-Hobbs said. “It didn’t take long looking at census records to find out we were only two generations into being Baltimoreans.”
Thorp estimated that Smithfield Plantation, owned by the Preston family, was home to between 200 and 250 enslaved people from 1774 to 1865. An 1843 “inventory” reveals there were 91 people enslaved at Smithfield, and 13 of whom had the name Fraction. That was the year James Preston died and the land and enslaved people were reallocated among four of his children.
James Preston’s son, Robert Preston, took over the Solitude Plantation in about 1833. When the father died, the son inherited several enslaved Fractions. In 1872, the Robert Preston sold about 250 acres, the house, and several farm buildings to the newly formed Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College for $21,250.
Moseley-Hobbs has spent hours researching her family and getting to know her most distant relatives through historic records.
“Them and a lot of slaves in the area didn’t fit the stereotypical story that we get about enslaved individuals,” said Moseley-Hobbs of her findings. “They seemed to be intelligent, well spoken, and a little bit outspoken as far as the trouble they used to get into.”
As her research grew, so did the interest in hearing Moseley-Hobbs tell her family’s story. Eventually, after hearing his mother recount the story many times over, Moseley-Hobbs’ son, Anthony Hobbs, suggested she write a book.
“It was basically a journey we were going on together,” said Anthony Hobbs, now 14, about researching their family.
Published in 2017, "More than a Fraction" details the journey of brothers Thomas and Othello Fraction from being enslaved in Blacksburg to joining the Union Army during the Civil War and then attempting to return to Solitude.
Though officially labeled historical fiction, Thorp said there is plenty in the book that’s documented. That includes the brothers’ service records and an altercation between the Fractions and Robert Preston that resulted in Preston shooting Thomas Fraction in the leg.
Moseley-Hobbs said her ancestors wanted nothing more after the war than to return to Solitude and that desire extended beyond the common narratives of plantation returns.
“Their attitude wasn’t that this was all they knew and this was safe here,” she said, “Their attitude was almost in the vein of reparations. It was 'I worked this farm, so now that we’re free, I’m going to get my part and you get your part and we live separate lives.'”
Racism and violence eventually drove the family to the Salem, Virginia, area and, following Thomas Fraction’s death, to Baltimore. In a way, the naming of the building has allowed them to finally get their dream.
“It’s like they get to come home, which is what they always thought it was,” Moseley-Hobbs said.
The Fraction Family House
The home likely wouldn’t have the honor of representing the families enslaved if not for work done over the course of two decades by Michael Pulice '00.
“His thesis forms a base of knowledge on which everything else rests,” said Elizabeth Fine, professor emerita of humanities. “He concluded the most probable use of this building was as a dwelling of enslaved people.”
Pulice’s first work at Solitude was in the late 1980s as a part of an undergraduate anthropology course at nearby Radford University. Under the guidance of Radford professor Cliff Boyd, the students recovered more than 9,000 artifacts from the Solitude site.
“The main research question [for the Fraction Family House] was, how old is it and what was its function,” Pulice said. “Really nobody had a clue how old it was at that time. Lots of people thought it was built around 1900, so obviously most people didn’t think it could have anything to do with slavery.”
Following his graduation from Radford, Pulice spent much of the next decade doing archeological field work in the western part of the United States before returning to Virginia Tech to study architectural history. When it came time to select a thesis project, Pulice turned to unanswered questions of the Fraction Family House.
“The field work had been done for eight or nine years, but the lab work had never been completed,” said Pulice. “So, when I came back, there were the boxes waiting for me...It was kind of the perfect project.”
By date-testing the structure’s timbers, Pulice’s 100-page thesis concludes the Fraction Family House was built around 1843, about the same time the land was divided among James Preston’s children. Through an analysis of the artifacts and early photos of the area, he also concluded the most likely use of the building was as a dwelling for people who were enslaved.
“It was clear there was quite of bit of domestic use in the Fraction House,” said Pulice, who is now an architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “There were lots of animals bones, plates, glass, cups … so we knew that people were living in the house.”
The work that Fine and others undertook to fund the restoration of the Fraction Family House, which was completed in 2001, began prior to the development of Pulice’s theory. It was after the establishment of its age, however, the search began for descendants of the enslaved persons.
“It’s amazing to now know there’s not only Kerri, but probably hundreds of descendants,” Fine said. “It’s really wonderful to know that the family has uncovered their history.”
Pulice said seeing the impact of his graduate and undergraduate work has been very gratifying, and also a little surprising.
“It’s amazing to think that what started as a learning experience 20 years ago, that anyone even knows about it now,” he said. “I’m just really glad they dedicated the house and I’m just hoping they’ll continue to protect the site.”
The Fraction Family House was placed on the National Historic Registry, along with the rest of Solitude, in 1989, but a living family connection remained hidden for decades.
“We knew the name [Fraction] around 2000 and that some [Fractions] had probably lived there, but what do you do with that? Who do you contact?” asked Anita Puckett, associate professor of Appalachian studies in the Department of Religion and Culture, who has her office in Solitude.
The Appalachian Studies Program is the primary user of the Solitude plantation house, which is considered to be the oldest building on campus. The program is responsible for the Fraction Family House, which is the second oldest.
Moseley-Hobbs helped make that connection, which led to Puckett penning the memorandum, which was later approved as a resolution, recommending the building honor the families once enslaved there.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Puckett, “That’s certainly been a goal of all of us who have been involved with Solitude.”
The recognition of the Fractions and the other families enslaved is an important step in Virginia Tech maintaining a more complete and truthful history, said Michele Deramo, assistant provost for Diversity Education.
“Acknowledging all dimensions of Virginia Tech history is necessary in order to authentically fulfill the aspirational values set for in our Principles of Community,” Deramo said. “I hope that we as a university can bring the story of the Fraction Family alive so that the little house near the Duck Pond is as notable to future generations of Hokies as Burruss Hall or Lane Stadium.
Among other initiatives to increase the scope of the university’s history, Deramo said it’s been recently enacted for leaders to acknowledge the Blacksburg campus as the traditional lands of the Tutelo and Monacan Nations prior to any large scale program.
Similarly, Puckett commonly refers to Solitude as a “contested space,” citing the multiple groups of people throughout history who have been at odds or fighting over the area, including early settlers abducted or killed in raids and the later conflicts between emancipated workers and former owners. Bringing such critical history of the region to light supplies much of the charge behind the work at Solitude.
“The assumptions that people have about the region and its history are phenomenal and the degree to which I can contribute a more accurate interpretation of history and a prehistory motivates me and gets me up in the morning,” Puckett said.
She believes future archeological digs could greatly add to that history or perhaps even shed light on new untold stories altogether.
Meanwhile, Moseley-Hobbs is prepared to continue digging through records and extending the family tree branches of a story very much still in progress.
“I tell everyone, we’re still in the middle of it,” Moseley-Hobbs said. “We’re still in the middle of the event.”
Written by Travis Williams