Esmont Oral History Project
The Esmont Oral History project grew out of VCDH's commitment to create and distribute a rich digital history archive for African American history. The project examines the era of segregation in one community, Esmont, and explores African American politics, families, schools, businesses, churches, and other institutions to gain perspective on African American history and the culture of the segregated South. Our interest in the Esmont community grew out of our work with the Benjamin F. Yancey collection (online at the Race and Place website). Yancey, an African American educator living during the early part of the 20th century, was an Esmont resident and founder of the Esmont Colored School. In designing the Esmont Oral History project we sought to enhance this collection by gathering personal recollections from former students of the Esmont School (now Yancey Elementary School), and other residents of Esmont during the period. The oral histories were conducted during 2001 and 2002 by Bernie Jones, Sarah Lawrence, and Mieka Brand, three graduate students at the University of Virginia. The interviews took place at the Esmont Senior Center (at the New Green Mountain Baptist Church), or at the home of the interviewee and lasted between one-half hour and two hours.
Named after the former plantation (and today farm) from which the town's lands had been purchased, Esmont is located some seven miles northwest of Scottsville in the southern part of Albemarle County, Virginia. Although records indicate that the area had been populated since the mid-18th century, it was only at the tail-end of the nineteenth century that Esmont's population was large enough to justify the opening of a post office. The rich red soil on which Esmont is situated has provided the principal source of livelihood both for ante-bellum plantation owners, and for the African-American residents that purchased land and settled the area subsequent to the Civil War. Until the mid-twentieth century the majority of Esmont's African-American residents were largely self-subsistent, growing their own vegetables and raising livestock for meat and milk products. In the interviews it is apparent that most men and boys were hired, at least for a period, by local (predominantly white) farmers as farm-hands, while women and girls were employed as domestics. When the opportunity arose, however, Esmont residents took employment in such diverse fields as education, nursing, the military, railroad work, and construction. Esmont's residents recount living in extreme poverty: some families had only old newspapers to insulate their homes during the cold winters, and children rarely owned a pair of shoes. Despite the hardships they faced, the interviewees in this collection describe a rich and vibrant community. As in many rural communities in the area, church served as a spiritual backbone as well as a social center in which residents met (sometimes seven days a week). Children converted empty lots to baseball fields and adventure parks, while parents and grandparent formed a tight social network in which vegetables, baked goods and clothing were exchanged regularly.
As those interviewed here testify, there were many different experiences and memories of segregated life in Esmont and the surrounding communities. Each person's perspective is based on a lifetime of experiences and on different personal sensibilities. While one woman was wary of allowing her children to venture to Scottsville alone because of potential hostilities from whites, another remembered how she and her family had no trouble being served in a white restaurant in Scottsville because they were friends with the owners. This woman experienced a close friendship with the daughter and had had many white friends growing up in the Chestnut-Grove/Esmont area as well. The other, when asked about the racial makeup of Esmont in the 1930s and 1940s, responded, "We lived in a black community per se. . . I mean, everything was black."
Women were slightly more likely to encounter white people in employment because of their concentration in domestic service jobs. During the time period focused on in these interviews, as many as twenty to thirty women and men from Esmont worked on the (white) Van Clief estate as domestic help, gardeners, chauffeurs, or, as in Lorraine Paige's case, as a personal secretary to Mrs. Van Clief. This family is remembered generally as kind, "good people" who always treated their workers well. But when one woman was asked to demarcate Esmont's boundary on that side of town, she clearly established that her community began at the point in the road when the houses got smaller.
For the most part, when residents of Esmont recall examples of segregation and incidents of racial discrimination, they occurred in the nearby towns of Charlottesville and Scottsville. The content of these interviews suggest that major regional and national events like World War II -- in which African Americans from Esmont served on the homefront and the warfront -- the grassroots civil rights activism of the 1950s and 1960s, and the national civil rights legislation that followed, caused Esmonters to gain new perspectives on race relations and take advantage of new opportunities to demand full citizens rights, especially in the field of education