Around the Island

Year in Review: The women of Sylvester Manor

The Horsford Girls ca. 1872. Clockwise from top left: Mary, Kate, Gertrude, Cornelia, Lilian Horsford, taken in Cambridge Mass.
COURTESY PHOTO The Horsford Girls ca. 1872. Clockwise from top left: Mary, Kate, Gertrude, Cornelia, Lilian Horsford, taken in Cambridge Mass.

Stories abound at the manor of visible — and not-so-visible — female residents.

The voices of women are easily lost to history. Deeds, lawsuits and business interests are the documents of men and what are most often found in archives when one is doing historical research.

But last June, Sylvester Manor Educational Farm opened an intriguing exhibition focusing on the particularly strong matriarchal lineage that dominated the property for centuries.

“Women of the Manor: Portraits from Three Centuries,” was Sylvester Manor’s first in-house exhibition. Assembled by curator and archivist Donnamarie Barnes it included a treasure trove of documentation and imagery related to the women who lived at the manor over the course of 300 years.

There was also a tribute to the enslaved women who lived and worked in the house and on the grounds but left little behind in terms of documentation.

The timing of the exhibition coincided with the 100th anniversary of state voting rights for women. Based on the amount of documentation found in a short amount of time, Ms. Barnes feels there are still many stories to be told about the women of the manor.

“The material has never been categorized,” Ms. Barnes said in an interview last spring. “There were papers and letters everywhere — and when I say everywhere, I’m not exaggerating.”

Papers dating to the 1700s were found in trunks and drawers. Ms. Barnes went from attic to basement and began putting material in archival boxes. What she was found were documents, letters, clothing, paintings and photographs that told in-depth stories of many women over the manor’s long history.

Ms. Barnes also paid homage to the enslaved women of the manor whose stories were not preserved through photos or letters by creating a display on the back stairwell of the manor house. The steep, narrow and curving set of stairs was used solely by the slaves to traverse the floors of the home unseen.

Against the riser of each stair, Ms. Barnes positioned a placard with the first name of a Sylvester Manor female slave written in beautiful calligraphy.

“It’s a way to honor them. They are also the women of the Manor,” Ms. Barnes said. “These unknown women of color, whether they were Native American or African, were responsible for helping to raise the children and be part of the household.

“Though we don’t have their images we have their presence.”

In October, Ms. Barnes traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia to participate in a “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory & The Built Landscape,” symposium at the University of Virginia. In her panel, “New Interpretations at Historic Sites,” Ms. Barnes discussed the history of Sylvester Manor and the open and honest way in which the role of enslaved peoples at the manor is recognized and acknowledged.