Preservation Virginia Blog


Developing the Work Yard Tour at the John Marshall House

Zoe Brooks at the John Marshall House with the Work Yard Tour signage.

By Zoe Brooks

My name is Zoe Brooks and I am a junior undergraduate student at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where I am majoring in History. I am from Appalachia, Virginia, and I just interned with Preservation Virginia’s John Marshall House during the month of January for Hollins’ “J-Term.” The John Marshall House is the 1790 residence of our fourth Supreme Court Chief Justice, his family, and 8-16 enslaved individuals at any given time until 1835. Marshall helped establish the powers and authorities of the court during his 34 years on the bench. The home itself is the oldest brick structure in Richmond. Operated as a museum since 1913 by Preservation Virginia, more than half of the interior objects and furnishings in the museum were owned by the Marshall family. It is certainly a must-see historic site. The John Marshall House trains its museum educators to interpret Marshall holistically; to embrace all of his varying, and often competing, identities. During his life, John Marshall was a son, scholar, soldier, lawyer, husband, father, Chief Justice, Madeira wine enthusiast, and an enslaver of over 150 people across his Virginia properties.

I focused on these enslaved individuals in my internship project entitled, the John Marshall House Work Yard Tour. This self-guided outdoor tour placed signage in the approximate locations of four of the buildings that once stood on the property: the kitchen, laundry, smoke house, and law office, in addition to the cellar inside the House. The signs contain QR codes that visitors can scan with their phones to access information and narratives about specific enslaved individuals who lived and labored within the buildings. People like Moses, Ben and Rachael. This project helps broaden the interpretation of the enslaved community at the John Marshall House by using primary sources and visual aids to digitally interpret the men, women, children that once lived and labored on the property, in addition to their workspaces. In the kitchen, we focused on a man named Henry, who labored as an enslaved cook. In the laundry, we centered our narrative on mother and daughter, Hannah and Mary. In the smokehouse, we discuss Ned and Oby. In the law office, Robin Spurlock, enslaved butler to Justice Marshall took precedence. Finally, in the home itself, down in the cellar, we focused on Agnes Spurlock, enslaved nursemaid and daughter of Robin Spurlock.

Zoe Brooks at the John Marshall House shadowing a tour with Museum Educator, Haley Barber.

Though an incredibly interesting, important, and rewarding internship project, the Work Yard Tour project presented challenges, too. The first big challenge faced is that although the main house still exists, the outbuildings that once supported it no longer do. There are no physical spaces to walk into. We cannot peek into the loft above the kitchen or the laundry and see where people like Henry, Hannah, Mary, and so many more would have lived in the scant privacy these spaces provided. Not only do the outbuildings fail to stand today, but very little photographic evidence of these buildings exists, either. This lack of visual evidence leaves a lot to the imagination in terms of what these buildings looked like and how enslaved individuals performed their daily tasks. To combat this challenge, I researched kitchen and laundry practices in late 18th and early 19th-century America to understand the interior layout of the buildings. The laundry, for example, would have likely had multiple tubs on the floor, racks along the walls, and a hearth to boil water over. This information provided visual representations for outbuildings where there were none.

Another challenge faced with this project was that the John Marshall House does not currently have connections with a descendant community of those enslaved here to include in this process. The lack of last names for the nearly 150 people John Marshall enslaved throughout his life, in addition to inconsistent sourcing, makes genealogical research extremely difficult. Other historic sites benefit from their descendants’ communities’ input, which can range anywhere from oral history passed on by family members, to ensuring the histories that historians do tell prioritize the humanity of the enslaved, among others. To combat this challenge, we held two focus groups where we talked to experts in the field of public history about our project. These included Peighton Young, a public historian with expertise in Black history and a current PhD candidate at William & Mary; Brandon Dillard, Manager of Historic Interpretation at Monticello; Dr. Lauranett Lee from the University of Richmond; and Dr. John Kneebone, professor from Virginia Commonwealth University, retired. With this group, we covered a wide-variety of topics, but almost always came back to discussing how to talk about this history by emphasizing the people in each narrative. Though this focus group proved enormously helpful, we do have plans to connect with the Descendents Council of Virginia to gain the perspective of the broader Black descendant community regarding the Work Yard Tour.

One more challenge included the lack of definitive knowledge about which specific enslaved people labored in which building or performed which tasks. Though the John Marshall House has a collection of primary sources that inform the culture in the household pertaining to Marshall’s reliance on enslaved labor, architectural reports of the property, and Marshall’s views on slavery, among other items, few of the sources shared specific information about the various enslaved individuals who lived and labored here. This lack of documentation stems primarily from the fact that John Marshall and his family did not consider enslaved histories important to record. 

The month-long parameters of my internship did not allow time for me to conduct new archival research to complete this project, and so I used the existing research, even if in some places understandings and contexts remained thin. However, I took several steps to help offset this challenge. I found it helpful to research various comparable structures and slavery practices from the same time period at other historic sites, including Patrick Henry’s Law Office at Red Hill, and Thomas Everard’s Home at Colonial Williamsburg, among others. Although we do not know for sure what the outbuildings at the John Marshall House looked like, we can look at these other structures and understand more about them, like how large the oven may have been and what the floor space in the laundry may have looked like.

For another helpful tool to better understand the context of Early Republic Virginia when Marshall and those he enslaved lived, and how other historic sites interpret enslaved workspaces, we visited different historic sites around the Richmond area. The first site we visited was the Wickham House in the Valentine Museum (1812). As a contemporary of the John Marshall House, and set within the same urban setting, the Wickham House provided us with information on how other homes in Richmond may have operated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Also in Richmond, we visited Wilton House (1753)–and though earlier in the time period than the John Marshall House–we had a beneficial visit with the Wilton House Director of Education, Katie Watkins, and a tour of their latest exhibit, “Wilton Uncovered: Archeology Illuminates an Enslaved Community.” Here, we gained helpful insight into centering the enslaved experience in written narratives and tips about web page layout and the importance of visuals therein. 

Another historic site we visited during the month was Stratford Hall, the 1730s ancestral home of Virginia’s Lee Family in Montross, Virginia, about an hour and a half outside of Richmond. Despite Stratford Hall’s more rural setting, we garnered incredible information about interpreting enslaved populations from Director of Collections and Visitor Engagement, Dr. Kelley Deetz, and Curator, Amy Connolly.  We viewed Stratford Hall’s new exhibit, “Stratford at the Crossroads: Atlantic Cultures and the Creation of America,” which discusses the plantation’s residents through the objects they left behind.  

Zoe Brooks at Stratford Hall with Curator, Amy Connolly in “Stratford at the Crossroads”.

This new exhibit allows visitors to engage with Stratford Hall’s past in a way that is both enlightening and innovative. Following, we were the fortunate recipients of a tour of the main house and extant outbuildings with Deetz and Connolly. One of the most impactful takeaways from this visit included hearing a new framework of interpreting outbuildings where the enslaved work as more than just workspaces, but also as living spaces. Often, such living spaces were the only areas in which enslaved people could exert any autonomy in their lives. We found this concept certainly applied to the Work Yard Tour, and helped correct our existing interpretation that the enslaved had no respite from their workspace, casting this lack of separation as a negative aspect of their life. And while the blended nature of these buildings is true, Deetz inspired us to reconsider our discussion of work and sleeping spaces in a way that allowed us to return autonomy to Henry and others from the Marshall property. Come take the Work Yard Tour yourself to learn more.

Stratford Hall External Kitchen

Furthermore, at the John Marshall House, sources do not exist that inform which specific people labored in each space, and it has been a mental challenge for us to place names in these spaces without that understanding. During our visit to Stratford, however, we discussed this challenge with Dr. Deetz. She validated our interpretive choice by adding that we must “people the places,” because otherwise, no names or stories would be included at all. In this, it’s more important to emphasize the meaning of these peoples’ existence over having an exact understanding of who moved about which spaces. In reality, as Deetz noted, enslaved people moved about every space. As a result–with the exception of a definitive understanding that Henry, as Marshall’s enslaved cook, labored and lived in the kitchen; Robin Spurlock as butler served Marshall in the law office; and Agnes Spurlock as nursemaid to the Marshall’s spent time in the Marshall House cellar–we placed names of others enslaved to John Marshall like Hannah and Ned, in the other workspaces and created narratives that featured them.

Following a crash course in graphic and web design, multiple drafts of my narratives for each outbuilding, and a lot of citation editing, we completed this first phase of the Work Yard Tour. This will be an ongoing project for the John Marshall House as either new historical research or interpretive techniques require updates to the content, and I am glad to have contributed to this first step. In all, my experience interning at Preservation Virginia’s John Marshall House was helpful in a variety of ways. Not only did I learn how to take academic historical research and make it accessible to a more general audience, but I also learned more about the history of urban slavery and how historians talk about it.  During this project, I learned that even when primary source information about enslaved people and their lives is limited, one need only shift their perspective in pursuing an understanding of this important topic. The staff of Preservation Virginia’s John Marshall House is dedicated to interpreting the entire history of John Marshall, not only as a Supreme Court Justice or a husband, but also as an enslaver and perpetuator of the institution of slavery in the United States. The Work Yard Tour will help visitors further understand the meaning of slavery on the site. The Work Yard Tour will be free to self-guide beginning in February 2022, and the John Marshall House need not be open for guests to participate. 


This project and experience inspired me to consider a career in public history because the work we accomplished over the course of only a month allowed me to understand how much goes into making largely academic research accessible to the public. The research was academic in nature, including topics anywhere from the way that homes in late 18th century urban Virginia operated and the differences between the concept of public and private in rural and urban spaces. It was our ability to then make this research accessible to more general audiences that made the work so important. This month, I had the opportunity to take history from primary sources and present it in a way that allowed everyone, not only academics, to learn from it. All people can learn from the past, not only through gathering information on random topics but also how to reflect, grow, and empathize as people. The ability to make history accessible and learnable to the general public is important work that I would love to have the opportunity to continue.