By Jennifer Munnings
Maymont, what once was the home of James and Sallie Dooley, is best described as superfluous. As Catherine and I walked through the Japanese and Italian gardens we were struck by the immense beauty of Maymont. There were vibrant flowers all around, and as we explored, the quiet rush of a waterfall played in the background. The Gilded Age mansion was a grand display of wealth, walls were lined with gold, whole rooms were decorated by Tiffany, and there was an ivory vanity made from narwhal instead of elephant tusk.
To schedule our appointment, we walked to the back of the mansion and down some steps to what used to be the service entrance, knocked on the door, and waited to be attended. There was a poster on the wall that announced it as the service entrance. The poster had two pictures of a nameless black domestic worker, one where she is in her work uniform, and another where she is wearing her jewelry. It goes on to tell the story that the Dooley’s wanted the home to seem as if it ran itself. The workers were supposed to be invisible. In her second photo, she is more than her job and becomes humanized by her personal effects. That was the last that we saw and heard about the domestic workers that ran the Dooley mansion. The Maymont mansion highlights the lives of the Dooley’s and ignores the invisible people who ran it, this was made clear throughout the visit by the lack of acknowledgment the domestic workers received.
Our tour guide was a 99-year-old white man who was hard of hearing. Whenever anyone had a question they had to shout and repeat it at least two times for him to hear. At the time of our tour, Maymont was also remembering World War I, and so throughout the mansion there were displays of the war. As we walked through the foyer, the pink room, and the dining room there was no mention of the workers. We did however talk extensively about where certain fabrics and paintings were imported from. We made it upstairs and came upon a WWI display, the tour guide talked about how the war had affected the Dooley’s, and Richmond city. He then nodded at me and said that WWI was very good for black people, and women too. I turned around and noticed I was the only black person on the tour, Catherine and I exchanged eye contact and continued following our guide as we moved throughout the house. When we arrived at Sallie Dooley’s room, the guide walked towards me and quizzed me on the Great Migration and then continued to talk about the swan theme of her room. The tour ended soon after, and I left trying to understand why the city of Richmond maintained the Dooley mansion. I couldn’t understand the story they were trying to tell.
I learned later that there was a section downstairs dedicated to the workers, but it didn’t have a tour guide, and the Maymont staff seemed to want us to wander the garden more than they wanted us to explore the servant’s area. This encouraged me to do some exploring on the Maymont website to find out more about the helpers. James Dooley fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, in his mansion he typically had around seven to ten black domestic workers in the heavily segregated south working for him. These workers were in charge of cleaning the 33 roomed mansion, feeding anywhere from 12 to 100 guests, and attending to the daily needs of the Dooley’s.
The story Maymont tells is a surface level depiction of the 1880’s and early 1920’s from a wealthy white male perspective. It ignores the historical context within which the Dooley’s were living, although they were incredibly privileged, they were the minority. For everyday people like those that worked for the Dooley’s, their lives were dictated by Jim Crow, and racist laws. The mansion, although a great display of Gilded Age wealth, does not really tell a story that extends beyond the opulence of the property.
The Dooley mansion highlights wealth and grandeur over humanity. From my awkward experience with an ignorant tour guide, to spending at least two hours at the Dooley estate and not even knowing about the servant quarters, and learning practically nothing about the invisible people that ran the mansion, it is clear that the Dooley mansion, like other historical sights in Richmond, is still grappling with how to tell stories of oppressed people.
Jennifer Munnings is a rising sophomore, intending to major in Sociology with a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Jennifer is new to the Race and Racism Project, joining in Summer 2017 as a summer fellow.