Slabtown; A Community that Gave Its Existence for the United States

It’s easy to appreciate sacrifice at Yorktown Battlefield, where Americans secured their independence. Visitors there find historic fortifications, artillery and cemeteries containing the remains of hundreds of soldiers who fought and died for a cause. But sometimes folks render service to their country in less visible ways, and in an out-of-the-way quarter of the battlefield, a neglected road leads to what’s left of a different kind of sacrifice.

“Representatives of my staff have previously been in contact with you regarding the necessity of inspecting your property,” wrote a National Park Service regional director to Sherman Hill, a resident of Slabtown, Virginia, in November 1976. “The purpose of the inspection of your property is to prepare an appraisal to be used in negotiating with you for the acquisition of your property by the Government.”

At issue was that Park Service officials wanted to remove Slabtown, a tight grid of streets tucked into 115 acres of the sprawling battlefield, ahead of Yorktown’s bicentennial. Congress had authorized the government to acquire the home and lot of the Hill family and scores of others who lived in the old, working-class neighborhood and to help them with resettlement efforts.

Slabtown      Slabtown 8

Left: Marl Pit Rd, Slabtown’s Main Street; Right: The intersection of Marl Pit Rd and Union Rd, Slabtown

The idea behind relocating Slabtown’s residents was that the National Park Service could present a landscape that more closely approximated the Yorktown of two hundred years earlier–a core colonial town surrounded by acres and acres of open fields. That seemed sensible enough justification, but in the process of destroying Slabtown, the government was also erasing a feature that was as much a part of the battlefield as all the trenches and guns there.

The story of Slabtown begins in the turbulent days of the Civil War. As in the Revolutionary War, Yorktown was the scene of warring armies, only this time between Union and Confederate forces instead of British, American and French. In 1862 when General George B. McClellan marched his army up Virginia’s lower peninsula, slaves from plantations far and wide fled to Union lines hoping the rumors that they’d be given their freedom were true.

Indeed, so many slaves sought protection–12,000 according to the Union general in charge there–that officers ordered the construction of a village to house a portion of the overwhelming number of refugees. All the able-bodied males among the freedmen built the homes themselves. The exterior of the two-room cabins were typically made of slabs, or the outermost cuttings of tree trunks, lumber that is rounded on one side flat on the other. Although some people later referred this village as Uniontown, the original name–Slabtown–stuck.

Slabtown 3    Slabtown 5

Left: Daffodils emerging on an empty lot at Slabtown; Right: Vacant fields where rows of houses once stood

Slabtown flourished for more than a hundred years after the Civil War, and eventually included a seminary and church, school building, Freemason’s hall, corner store, scores of homes, even a couple juke joints. The inhabitants were virtually all African American. Most of them descended from the original slaves who sought protection from the Union army.

But in the 1970s, Park Service officials insisted that Slabtown was in the way. The neighborhood didn’t fit with the long term plan for the battlefield’s preservation. Some of the homes didn’t have indoor plumbing. The aging buildings there were too far removed from the original, noble settlement that sprung up behind Union lines.

The government agreed to pay fair market value for Slabtown property. A handful of people who lived on the fringes of Slabtown proper were offered so-called life rights, allowing them to stay in their homes until they died, even though they’d no longer own the property. But most people in Slabtown itself were bought out. Many sold their property willingly, others were reluctant to go and officials began condemnation proceedings. Within several years, this village founded by Americans fleeing slavery during the nation’s greatest crisis no longer existed.

 Slabtown 7      Slabtown 6 Slabtown 4

Scenes from abandoned Slabtown

Shiloh Baptist Church was established at Slabtown in 1863 although the building has since moved just outside the boundary of the battlefield. On a recent July afternoon, the congregation celebrated their 150th anniversary. In Shiloh Baptist’s parish hall, Park Service officials hosted a symposium on the history of Slabtown and African Americans in the Civil War.

The following day, after a stirring homecoming service, Shiloh Baptist’s parishioners, some of whom lived in Slabtown, walked the mile and change from their current church building to the site of one built in 1898 and torn down by the Park Service in the 1970s. It was a moving march with the congregation singing spirituals and gesturing to the roadside foliage, recalling where this or that family lived, where they went to school, got their hair done.

After brief services at the site of the old church and the national cemetery, Park Service officials unveiled waysides, or informational signs, about Shiloh Baptist and Slabtown. Not exactly absolution for destroying Slabtown but good step toward the recognizing the village that gave its existence for Yorktown Battlefield.

Slabtown 10      Slabtown 9

Left: Shiloh Baptist’s congregation marches to their old church site. Right: Parishioners acknowledging their history.

Today, Slabtown isn’t part of the battlefield tour, although it’s still possible to walk where this displaced community once thrived. The scant ruins sit at the end of a cracked asphalt road, blanketed beneath wild growth. Nature’s reclamation is nearly complete. Marl Pit Road, Slabtown’s Main Street, is still there, but not much else. The structures where Slabtown residents, the descendants of freedmen, laughed, played and loved are long gone, but the fondness of former residents for the town where they lived is still very much around.

Here is a link to the location of Slabtown on Google Maps.

*Special thanks to Dr. Kelley Deetz, whose work on Slabtown when she was at William and Mary furnished primary sources used for this post.

Slabtown 2

Old graves near Slabtown

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in African Americans, Cemeteries, Ghost towns, Military. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Slabtown; A Community that Gave Its Existence for the United States

  1. Dave Howell says:

    Very interesting. Growing up in Hampton and living in Hampton Roads my entire life, I have over years spent a good deal of time at Yorktown but I was unaware of tne story of Slabtown.

    • Troy Griffin says:

      I am a original family member of Slabtown. I remember playing with my matchbook cars on a crack partially covered concrete slab not knowing it was the tomb of the unknown soldier. The Yorktown Battlefield was my back yard / playground until 1977 when the NATIONAL PARK SERVICE crafted a way to remove us. My mother and father and grandparents are buried there to this day.

      • Cleressa says:

        Hello,
        My name is Cleressa and I attend Hampton University, I was wondering if I could email you some questions about Slabtown history. I currently hold an internship through the park service and I am in charge of gathering information on the reconstruction period of Slabtown. I look forward to hearing from you.

        • Troy Griffin says:

          Hi Cleressa, I am available to answer any questions about Slabtown. I am currently writing a short film on my town. I live in Los Angeles and I am available if anyone has questions or info

  2. Sharon Bliey says:

    Hello, I am a descendent of family who lived in Slabtown in the early 1900s. I have been searching for information on “Uniontown” which they so fondly remember and glad to have stumbled on this site. A blessings to read my family history and to share knowledge with my Elders as they will share wisdom and knowledge with our family, during our upcming family reunion Aug 2015. I thank God for the enlightenment.

    • Troy Griffin says:

      Hi Cleressa, I am available to answer any questions about Slabtown. I am currently writing a short film on my town. I live in Los Angeles and I am available if anyone has questions or info

      • Bob Bembry says:

        Troy
        I will be headed to York County in the Spring. It is my hope to locate Slabtown Rd which is the address on the 1880 Census for my Great Great Grandparents. I would appreciate and insight.

        Thanks, Bob
        Please feef free to contact me via email
        Bembrylaw@aol.com

  3. Troy Griffin says:

    If you need any info on Slabtown, please email

    • Deborah Nash says:

      Hi Troy, I want my Great grand kids to known about Slab Town and Surrender Road. They need to know about where my Great grand parent started after slavery was over. Any information about that special time and place would be great.

  4. Deborah Nash says:

    How can I get in contact with you.

  5. Arthur Robinson says:

    My Grandmother is from Slabtown and buried in the Masonic grave yard on the national park site. Her Fathers name was General Washingon, his wife was Sadie. My grandmother was Lucille and she had several brothers and sisters. One was James Washington who married Alice Cooke. He has passed but Aunt Alice id still alive and lives on Old Wormly Creek.
    I have faint memories of the family home. I have fond memories of Memorial Day trips to tend to the family graves. My email address is artrobinson@hotmail.com. I would love to connect with anyone who knew my family. Oddly enough I googled Union Town while watching a program about Yorktown and the American Revolution. Troy email me and let’s connect.

  6. Bob Bembry says:

    My great great grandfather lived in Slabtown ( 171 Slabtown Rd.) and I believe he is buried at Grafton Baptist Church. Can anyone direct me to the area (Street) and cemetery for Grafton Baptist Church.

    Thank you
    Bob Bembry (bembrylaw@aol.com)

  7. This is exciting. Please visit my website, http://www.nburroughsinfo.org. Nannie Helen Burroughs wrote an hilarious play, entitled: On the Way to the Slabtown Convention. Clearly, after reading all of these comments, I am convinced that this community represented the basis of her play. Given the connection, I plan to investigate the possibility of bringing my Nannie Helen Burroughs Display to the 2017 Hampton University Ministers’ Conference. In 1900, she gave a speech at the National Baptist Convention in Richmond: “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping” and she started Woman’s Day in the Baptist Church in 1907. I would really appreciate hearing from you.

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