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Youngkin’s win may spell changes for project highlighting history of enslaved

Children surround person holding painting
Crixell Matthews
Historian and archeologist Kelley Fanto Deetz gives an unofficial tour of Virginia's Executive Mansion to students from Tuckahoe Elementary School. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Kelley Fanto Deetz believed an educational space in the Executive Mansion had been turned into a family room by Youngkin’s staff. We’ve updated the story with clarification from Youngkin’s spokesperson noting that the space is not used for that purpose. 

Historian and archeologist Kelley Fanto Deetz arrived to work at Virginia’s Executive Mansion last month to find her office had been emptied. Items in a historic kitchen in the building’s annex, which had been reimagined to tell the stories of enslaved workers to visitors, had been shoved aside, she said. A planned educational room for schoolchildren was empty except for a TV, leading Deetz to conclude it had been reconverted into a family room for Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Deetz is unsure whether she still has a job as the mansion’s director of historic interpretation and education.

Deetz’s work updating the mansion’s tours is part of a multiyear project that draws heavily from the experiences of descendents of enslaved workers. It’s not clear where it stands after Youngkin’s Jan. 15 inauguration. Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in a statement that First Lady Suzanne Youngkin and her staff “are in the decision-making process regarding the executive mansion.” She also noted official tours had been suspended for almost two years during the pandemic.

Deetz said she and former First Lady Pam Northam gave dozens of unofficial tours this fall as she and the project’s collaborators finalized the material. Her next step was to begin training volunteer docents on the updated tour so that they could take it over, with school groups scheduled to begin touring in spring. Since Youngkin was inaugurated, Deetz has worked from home. She has traded emails with Colleen Messick, chief of staff for First Lady Suzanne Youngkin. In the emails, Messick asked Deetz to send her CV and explain her role under Pam Northam. Neither Messick nor Porter would answer VPM’s questions on whether Deetz is still employed.

The uncertainty with the project at the Executive Mansion, which has spanned two Democratic administrations, drives home a bigger shift in focus in Virginia’s executive branch. Youngkin has created an email address for parents to report loosely defined “divisive content” taught in classrooms, signed an executive order ordering it rooted out from curricula, and backed legislation banning its teaching. He’s stricken the word “equity” from the title of his new director of diversity, equity and inclusion, replacing it with “opportunity” and pivoting the role to focus on intellectual diversity, economic growth and serving as an “ambassador for the unborn.”

Youngkin has pushed back on accusations he is censoring the teaching of problematic parts of history. In announcing the tipline, Youngkin told talk show host John Fredericks he embraced the teaching of “all history, the good and the bad.” Deetz urged him to connect that work to the project in his backyard.

“I hope that his quote of teaching the good, the bad and the ugly is actually implemented and that we don't shy away from talking about the very important parts of our nation's history,” she said.

Youngkin’s tone on race is also a shift from former Gov. Ralph Northam, who mentioned the word “equity” at every turn in the aftermath of a scandal involving a racist photo in his medical school yearbook. After the scandal, Northam’s wife, former First Lady Pam Northam, accelerated work that began under former Gov. Terry McAuliffe to tell a fuller story of the Executive Mansion, the nation’s oldest purpose-built governor’s mansion.

For decades, the mansion offered guided tours heavy on oil paintings and whimsical gubernatorial anecdotes. A relatively obscure committee led by the first lady – the Citizens' Advisory Council on Furnishing and Interpreting the Executive Mansion – hired two education consultants as well as Deetz to develop a curriculum for school groups to tell the “full history of the mansion,” Deetz says, with input from a group of descendants.

The CAC partnered with Encyclopedia Virginia to create a virtual tour. The group is producing a video featuring descendants that was slated to be included in tours. The effort has drawn national notice from the Slave Dwelling Project, whose founder, Joseph McGill, spent a night in the kitchen in June as part of his effort to shed light on former slave dwellings across the U.S.

The goal of the Executive Mansion project is to update the site’s history to include the history of enslaved workers who helped build and staff the building starting in 1813, and whose contributions have never been comprehensively told. Backers hoped it would one day be told to tens of thousands of students if school groups return to the site in pre-pandemic numbers.

Deetz has done similar work at Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee’s former plantation house, where she was hired after the 2017 white nationalist attacks in Charlottesville to update the site’s tours. Her focus there was bringing in the stories of people enslaved at the plantation as well as women who’d been overlooked.  “My philosophy for this kind of interpretation is not to tear anybody down, but to elevate those who have not had a chance to be part of the story,” Deetz says.

She took a similar approach at the Executive Mansion. In a December tour with a group of Tuckahoe Elementary School 5th graders, the students peppered Deetz with questions: Did the workers eat the same food as the governors? Did they have to wake up early? Were they punished if they made a mistake?

Deetz described how she’d recently learned of a ten-year-old who likely was separated from her parents and sent to Richmond to toil in the kitchen. “This was a reality for children your age that had to deal with that kind of sadness and sorrow,” Deetz said.

Enslaved workers at the mansion likely toiled for 15-16 hours a day many miles away from loved ones, according to Gayle Jessup White, an author who chairs the descendants group of the CAC and also serves as Monticello’s public relations and community engagement officer. White, who believes her own ancestors worked in the kitchen, said the work could help humanize people who’ve been neglected by written histories of the site.

“It's essential that people understand the burden that was placed on these human beings,” White said in an interview before Youngkin’s inauguration.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.