Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Youngkin’s revamped executive mansion tour doesn’t mention slavery

Gov. Glenn Youngkin and first lady Suzanne Youngkin welcome people to a tour of the executive mansion
Crixell Matthews
Gov. Glenn Youngkin and first lady Suzanne Youngkin welcome people to a tour of the executive mansion. The new tour did not feature adaptations planned by former Gov. Ralph Northam and first lady Pamela Northam. (Photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

For the first time in more than two years, members of the public can enter Virginia’s executive mansion. Public tours resumed on Friday featuring paintings, silver and rugs intended to present the story of the country’s oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence.

But in a shift from a multiyear effort to tell a more complete history of the mansion, visitors won’t be taken to a building next to the mansion where enslaved workers once slept and toiled. And in two tours on Friday, docents made no mention of slavery at all.

Enslaved laborers were involved in most major construction projects of the era — including the state Capitol and the White House. Though there hasn’t been a deep dive into the mansion’s construction, it is clear that enslaved workers lived and worked in it for more than 50 years.

In a brief interview on Friday, first lady Suzanne Youngkin, who oversaw the redesign of the mansion’s artwork, said the former slave dwelling wasn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. She said a committee that oversees the mansion’s decor was working on a virtual tour that will include the former slave dwelling and tell a more complete history of the site. Younkgin said she hoped to eventually install a path to allow visitors to see the building during special events.

“We would like to next spring embark on that pathway project and make sure that at occasions like [Virginia] Garden Week ... we can get as many people cycling through there to understand its importance as is feasible and safe,” the first lady said.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin ran on a platform arguing that liberals were trying to “ indoctrinate our kids” with critical race theory, a graduate-level framework that does not appear in Virginia curricula. At the same time, he vowed to teach “all of history — the good and the bad.”

Like previous occupants, the governor and first lady have made the mansion their own, decorating their new home with 47 new pieces of art from across the commonwealth. They range from an abstract painting by Virginia painter Charles W. Smith to a painting by Adele Clark, a leader of Virginia’s suffrage movement.

There have also been other changes. Some artwork came down, including a portrait of Virginia and civil rights leader Barbara Johns that’s been hanging since 2016, though there’s a sketch of Johns hanging in a different room. Under the Youngkins, the office of an archeologist and historian who’d worked to reimagine the tours was slated as of January to become an exercise room coated in yoga mats, according to emails obtained by VPM News through a public records request.

Youngkin’s office did not respond to questions related to what’s currently in the former slave quarters, more often called the carriage house. A tour guide on Friday said it houses guest rooms and offices.

The reopened tours follow a similar script to ones given before the pandemic, which focused heavily on the building’s historic decor. Volunteer tour guides take visitors through the building’s first floor with a series of anecdotes on previous governors, their families and the iconic objects sprinkled throughout.

That’s a shift in plans hatched under Youngkin’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam, to reopen the tours with a new curricula that spotlights slavery and its influence in the building. Enslaved people traveled across the state to serve governors in the building. Letters from workers from the era — mounted on plaques in a garden under former Gov. Terry McAuliffe — shed light on the hardship they endured. The new tour doesn’t mention them.

Historian Joseph McGill argued these people should be front and center. He spent the night in the carriage house last year as part of his work as director of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill also serves as a history consultant for Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. McGill argued Youngkin was attempting to whitewash history by halting a project that had already been in motion.

“The missed opportunity is telling the stories of the people who made all that possible, the people whose labor was stolen for all of that to exist, the people who built that place physically,” McGill said in an interview. “You can call it racism, you could call it white supremacy.”

Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth), the Democratic leader in the House of Delegates, connected the decision not to tour the former slave quarters to Youngkin’s broader politics, including his push to ban “divisive concepts” from the classroom and controversial appointments. He noted Youngkin is slated to campaign for Maine gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage, who has repeatedly made racist comments. But Scott said Youngkin would be gone in less than four years.

“You can't bury it, it'll come back,” Scott said. “Someone who has a stronger constitution, who is not a snowflake around talking about American history, will bring those concepts back.”

Plans for a remade tour

Many recent governors, including Northam, used the former slave dwelling to exercise, house guests, store items or entertain family. In the aftermath of a scandal involving a racist photo that appeared on Northam’s medical-school yearbook page, former first lady Pam Northam accelerated efforts that had been underway for nearly a decade to give a better sense of the space’s original purpose: a place where enslaved people slept, worked, did laundry and dined.

Historic sites across the commonwealth and the country have increasingly focused on slave dwellings and the contributions of people who lived there. At President James Monroe's old home, Highland, for example, a council of descendant advisors has helped reinterpret the site's history. Preservation architect Jobie Hill has gathered information on more than 900 domestic slave buildings as part of the Saving Slave Houses project. McGill sleeps in the former dwellings, which are scattered across the South and beyond, to draw attention to their past.

A committee working on the executive mansion tracked down descendants of enslaved workers and incorporated oral histories into plans for an updated virtual and in-person tour. The group overhauled the building’s historic kitchen to incorporate period pieces and hired a part-time archeologist and historian, Kelley Fanto Deetz, to develop a school curriculum and tour. In December, VPM News accompanied Deetz on a preview of the tour she planned to roll out when the mansion opened to visitors after the pandemic waned.

But Deetz said her position became more tenuous as inauguration day neared. She told VPM News in January that she’d returned to her office to find all of its contents removed and items from the historic kitchen cast aside. She said the planned educational space held only a TV, and other mansion staff told her the Youngkins planned on turning it into a family room.

Emails obtained in a records request by VPM News show much of this work was done by state officials as they rushed to clean and repair the space ahead of the arrival of the new governor. They were also responsible for moving Deetz’s desk; in a Dec. 27, 2021 email, one staffer, Dena Potter, told first lady Suzanne Youngkin that she’d moved Deetz’s items until the Youngkins decided whether to retain the historian on staff. Potter noted she’d neglected to mention that Deetz had an office in the building. In the meantime, the emails indicate staffers moved ahead with converting her old office into an exercise room for the governor. The first lady noted the work should be done by the Jan. 15 inauguration “as Glenn will hit the ground running (no pun intended) and needs an exercise outlet.”  

In a Dec. 20 email, the first lady brought up the fate of the educational room: “We are thinking that in a perfect world we would put [a TV] in the cottage (current teaching room) for purposes of making this a hangout area for our son and another in the soon-to-be-created exercise room(s),” she wrote.

On Jan. 21, after VPM News made several inquiries about the building behind the mansion, Suzanne Youngkin appeared to change her mind. She said after speaking to the governor, she’d decided the downstairs would remain an education space where “we will either house conversation, art, exhibits, etc. No need to flesh that out immediately as we are going to need to ride out this current COVID spike prior to inviting tours or visits,” she wrote.

Deetz ultimately resigned in February. In reporting her departure, VPM News included Deetz’s observation that the educational room seemed to be in the process of becoming a family space. After the article was published, a spokesperson for Youngkin noted that the room had not been converted, and VPM News issued a correction. But by then, Ethan Lynne, a 17-year-old high school student at the time, had already amplified the article on Twitter, racking up thousands of likes. Youngkin’s campaign Twitter account hit back at Lynne, connecting him to the racist photo in Northam’s yearbook photo. Youngkin later said he hadn’t authorized the tweet and he regretted that it had happened.

The new tour

The Youngkins emerged from their home on Friday morning to welcome guests to a crowded first tour since the mansion closed to the general public in March 2020.

“You're gonna see a narrative about life in the commonwealth — what it was like, what it is today, and hopefully little snippets of inspiration with the opportunities that the commonwealth has to offer in our future,” the first lady said. 

The governor dodged a question from VPM News to take photos with guests and slipped away before the tour was over. The first lady, meanwhile, described a few of her favorite paintings that she said had been gathered from museums across the commonwealth, including Virginia Museum of Fine Art, the Taubman in Roanoke and the Fralin in Charlottesville.

The tours terminate outside the former slave dwelling, but the guides on Friday made no mention of slavery or the workers who once inhabited the space.

Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, largely did not respond to specific questions about the updated tour and instead offered a statement: “The tour serves to highlight artistic talents of Virginians from across the Commonwealth. To reach an even broader audience of Virginians and highlight the less accessible areas of the mansion grounds, the Governor and the First Lady are looking forward to unveiling a virtual tour that highlights the history of the mansion including the historic cottage and kitchen.”

Kerri Moseley-Hobbs — a descendant of people who worked at the mansion who was involved in elements of the project — said the internet allowed the history of enslaved workers to be told no matter who occupied the executive mansion.

“It’s 2022: We have access to the world using a simple 20 second video,” she wrote in an email. “We just need to do the work, teach the history in an engaging way, and let the omission look as foolish as it is on its own.”

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