Sweet Briar College (formerly Sweet Briar Plantation)

Historical Significance

Sweet Briar College is located on the former Sweet Briar Plantation site, home of Elijah Fletcher and his descendants. Elijah Fletcher was born in 1789 in Ludlow, Vermont. In 1810 he traveled to Virginia to teach at New Glasgow Academy, about six miles north of Amherst, but soon left teaching to live in Lynchburg. Over the next two decades Fletcher became a prosperous businessman, newspaper publisher, and mayor of Lynchburg. In 1830 he purchased several thousand acres south of Amherst near his wife Maria Crawford's family home, Tusculum, making him one of Amherst County's largest landowners. In honor of his wife's love of the Sweet Briar rose, Elijah Fletcher named his new plantation "Sweetbriar."

Though in an 1813 letter Fletcher condemned slavery as "a curse on any country," by 1846 he was one of the county's ten major slaveholders, with between 80 and 100 enslaved persons living at Sweet Briar. Fletcher recorded sixty-eight members of this slave population in his 1852 will. Upon his death in 1858, Fletcher's slaves were divided among three of his children, and his daughter Indiana inherited Sweet Briar Plantation.

Following emancipation in 1865, several freed Sweet Briar slaves settled near the plantation, continuing to work for the Fletcher family as paid laborers. For example, Martha Penn Taylor moved to Coolwell and worked as a nursemaid for Indiana's daughter, Daisy. Martha had come to Sweet Briar in 1854 when Fletcher granted her written request to be purchased and thereby reunited with her sister, Mary, who was enslaved on the plantation.

Indiana Fletcher outlived both her daughter Daisy, who died tragically at 16 in 1884, and her husband James Henry Williams, who died in 1889. When Indiana died in 1900 she willed the Sweet Briar land and $40,000 to found a college for women.

Multiple cemeteries containing African-American graves have been located on Sweet Briar property, the largest of which is Sweet Briar Burial Ground. This slave cemetery contains over sixty gravestones and over a dozen unmarked depressions. The gravestones are distributed across a wide area yet appear to be arranged in clusters, perhaps denoting family groupings. A memorial on the site dedicated in 2003 reads: "Sacred resting place of unknown founders who labored to build what has become Sweet Briar College. We are in their debt." Ongoing research at this and other burial sites on Sweet Briar land aims to preserve and protect the property's African-American history and to increase understanding of slave mortuary rituals and cultural traditions. Archaeologists have discovered many artifacts of slave life on the land, and an original slave cabin still stands on the Sweet Briar campus. 

Physical Description

Sweet Briar College is located on 3,250 acres with main campus buildings clustered mostly in the center. Sweet Briar Burial Ground is located on a natural hill above the Lower Lake. A walking path leads from Upper Lake to the cemetery; the walk from the campus bookstore takes about 25 minutes. The Slave Cabin is located about a 15 minute walk from the bookstore, adjacent to the former plantation house.

Geographical and Contact Information

134 Chapel Road
Sweet Briar, Virginia
24595
Phone: 800-381-6142

Images

Historic Sweet Briar House

Historic Sweet Briar House

Source: Creative Commons Flickr user:TATTERH00D View File Details Page

Sweet Briar College Historic District

Sweet Briar College Historic District

Source: Courtesy Virginia Dept. Historic Resources View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Sweet Briar College (formerly Sweet Briar Plantation),” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed November 20, 2017, http://www.aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/417.

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