Ben Jackson needs no reminder that slavery existed.
Since he was a young Black student growing up in Marion, the retiree has been drawn to his own ties with the legacy of slavery.
He calls himself a “history nut,” but his latest research is more like that of a detective, uncovering pieces of history that have been in plain view for centuries.
The Woodlawn resident has trained his eye to detect the fingerprints of slaves imprinted in handmade brick produced in Southwest Virginia well over 200 years ago.
Once you start looking, you can’t help but see it — the indentions of fingerprints of enslaved men, women and even children who helped fashion the bricks.
“These prints have been on bricks for hundreds of years and unless you’re looking for them, you don’t pay any attention,” said the historian.
Jackson’s interest in the prints in clay is shared by other people around the region who are fascinated by their discoveries. The fingerprints of slaves have been found in historic brick structures in Charleston, South Carolina. The Blount Mansion built in 1792 in Knoxville, Tennessee, is another site where the impressions of slavery history have been uncovered. The two-story mansion housed governors and many prominent white families.
Before the end of the Civil War, owners of slaves used slave labor to make the bricks for their homes from the soil found on site. It was a labor intensive process that involved digging for clay in the rivers and streams and stomping the soil into clay. Debris was removed from the clay and filled in molds before being placed in kilns to harden. The slaves then had to carry the bricks to the site before construction could begin.
“It was probably during the cooling process of the bricks when the slaves left their prints on the moist material,” said the historian, who believes the fingerprints may have been left on purpose when the slaves pulled the drying bricks from the molds.
Jackson said the slaves may have left their fingerprints on the bricks as a legacy, a way of being remembered one day.
His speculations indicate the slaves “signed” their work on random bricks similar to the way artists marks their authorship on art. “I believe that if a lot of the bricks with fingerprints had been stacked together on the structure, it would have caught the attention of the slave owners. The slaves would have been required to redo the laying of the bricks because it distorted the look of the home,” he said.
For Jackson, each uncovering of the relics stirs in him emotion and intrigue. “My wife says she can always tell when I’ve found something of interest because I act silly,” said Jackson with a laugh. “I get a feeling that’s unexplainable when I’m in a place where I know there’s history.”
He admitted it’s more than the thrill that accelerates his hobby.
The imprinted bricks serve as a reminder of the painful stories of slavery, but more importantly, the bricks give a voice to the enslaved families who made them — stories that were seldom told.
“Most slaves didn’t have names or they had names assigned to them,” he said. “I want to call attention to these lost people — they are part of our history.”
Exploring historic sites
Jackson’s journey to learn more about his roots began when he retired from Southwestern Virginia Training Center in Hillsville, after working there for 41 years. With free time on his hands, Jackson seized the opportunity to trace his own family history by visiting local cemeteries, hoping to find the resting places of slaves whose graves traditionally were only marked by rocks.
Then Jackson’s interest piqued when he learned about the slave fingerprints found on bricks at historic sites in Charleston. “I began wondering if fingerprints could be found on bricks around Southwest Virginia,” he said.
His explorations have taken him to sites from Abingdon to Manassas.
The first place he visited was The Octagon House, an eight-sided brick home built in the 1850s just outside of Marion in the Adwolfe community. According to Jackson, attention was called to the fingerprints on the bricks when a second-grade girl earlier had discovered the impressions while on a field trip. “It was the most fingerprints I had seen at one site,” said Jackson.
The visit was a good place to start, fueling him with excitement to continue his research project.
While visiting Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Jackson attended an interactive tour where tour guides referred to the fingerprints on bricks as impressions.
While on the tour, Jackson delved a little deeper, uncovering additional fingerprints not familiar to the tour guide. Other guests at the tour were so impressed by his knowledge that they wanted to know more. “I feel this should be a vital part of any historic tour that you actually have something from slavery that you can touch,” he said.
He’s also visited the site of the Battle of Bristoe Station in Northern Virginia, where he found fingerprints at the headquarters for the Confederate Army.
Closer to home, he uncovered fingerprints on bricks at Crockett’s Cove Presbyterian Church near Wytheville.
One of his most enlightening trips was to Emory & Henry College, a liberal arts college in Emory where construction started in 1836. Jackson’s study began with an examination of J. Stewart French Alumni House on campus, where he found individual impressions that displayed all five fingerprints. “Usually, we find only two or three fingerprints on a brick,” he said. “That was very exciting for me. I understand there have been handprints found on bricks, but that’s pretty rare.”
Staff members at Emory & Henry were so fascinated by his work that they invited Jackson to return to campus to present his findings to alumni who attended the annual More Than a Vacation event this summer.
“We’re so grateful to Mr. Jackson for telling us about his passion,” said Monica Hoel, alumni director at the college. “I promise you that every one of us is now stopping to pay more attention to old bricks we formerly walked past … and we’re taking time to consider the people who made those handprints.”
‘History you can touch’
Discovering the fingerprints is just one more piece of evidence pointing to the hard truths of American history, Jackson said.
But, for him, those truths shouldn’t be hidden. “Slavery did exist. Let’s bring it out,” he said. “We don’t need to hide it, let’s teach it. I consider this my job to bring this to people’s attention so they also will start looking for the fingerprints. It’s history you can touch.”
The novelty of finding the fingerprints preserved in locally made brick is like a puzzle of his past that Jackson continues to piece together.
“My great-great-grandmother was a slave in Grayson County,” said the historian. “I have found the home where she lived as a slave. She had seven children, three of whom were by her slave master. My great-grandfather was one of them. She was sold to a family in Ashe County, North Carolina, in 1865.”
It’s clear that Jackson is in love with history, especially his own family history.
He’s proud that he comes from a long line of storytellers — family members who pass along the narratives of who they are and where they came from as a way of preserving family history. He said his daughter Whitney will be the next storyteller in the family. “If I get to tell my stories, maybe somebody else will pass them along to somebody else. I will feel my job has been accomplished.”
To learn more about Jackson’s findings, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.