What is: The parish house of Grace Episcopal Church, Bremo Bluff, Virginia
What was: The Bremo Plantation estate covers more than 1,500 acres in Fluvanna County, Virginia. Overlooking the James River, it is a rare property of its era, still owned by the family that built it in 1745. The chapel was built in 1835 for the slaves as part of the vast plantation of General John Hartwell Cocke.
It is the state’s only known slave chapel and represents Cocke’s deep concern for the religious and moral edification of slaves. He had his slaves taught to read and decided that it was his Christian duty to provide them with religious instruction. Cocke was determined that his slaves should have their own house of worship and thus had the board-and-batten structure built on what became know as Chapel Field.
In total 246 people were enslaved here from 1781 – the earliest date on record – until 1865. However, enslaved men also cleared the land and built a structure (which still stands) to claim the land grant in 1725. Bremo Plantation required numerous hands to keep the plantation running, and nearly all of this work fell onto the enslaved.
Despite the Cocke’s interest in education and religion for the slaves, according to Fluvanna Historical Society Representative Tricia Johnson, “The last few years before his death, Cocke wrote that enslavement was the natural order of things and it wouldn’t be possible to end the practice.”
Cocke’s need to make Bremo Plantation as self-supporting as possible forced his slaves to do almost all of the work in keeping Cocke’s idea of self-supporting. When the enslaved failed to do so they had to endure physical punishments such as whippings and starvation. He had no qualms against separating families if it meant his plantation was more efficient.