A Visit to Maymont

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. 

6 thoughts on “A Visit to Maymont

  • July 19, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    I don’t know quite how this lack of awareness to the workers of the home came across to you when the entire downstairs of the mansion is specifically dedicated to just this. While waiting for a tour, guests are told to explore the exhibit and after. As a Richmond native, as most other Richmonders will agree with, Maymont is a precious piece of Richmond community. I know that the park is only funded by the government for 10% of its operation costs. So it is the people who are choosing to continue this legacy. I find your criticism lacking any real vigor as an entire floor of the mansion is dedicated to exactly the topic you are trying to highlight.

    • July 21, 2017 at 10:33 am

      Thank you for writing in and seeking to engage our summer fellow as she makes sense of her experience visiting Maymont. This is a project, at its core, about promoting dialogue, and we are pleased to see dialogue here. Maymont is, as you note, an important piece of Richmond history and community memory. This is precisely why we (mentors) encouraged our students to visit different sites throughout the city and to think critically about how the past is represented. Because a site is important doesn’t mean it can’t be subjected to scrutiny. In fact, I would argue, this significance makes it especially important to analyze as we consider historic and contemporary structures of power and oppression. When Jennifer asks why the house is guided but the downstairs is not, she is thinking about how this decision on the part of the site reflects dynamics of power — whose stories are privileged and whose may or may not be encountered (depending on whether you spend the time to go downstairs). I hope this is part of an ongoing dialogue, as we seek to be part of a continuing conversation. Thank you again for reading and sharing your thoughts. I hope you will continue to do so. – Nicole Maurantonio, Coordinator & Mentor, Race & Racism at UR Project

  • July 20, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Jennifer – you should return and visit the rather extensive section downstairs dedicated to the workers of Maymont. It is well-done and I don’t think you can have a balanced view of Maymont without seeing it.

  • July 21, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    Dear Jennifer,

    Thank you so much for taking time to describe your experience at the Maymont Mansion. I wish that you had explored the domestic service exhibition “In Service and Beyond: Domestic Work and Life in a Gilded Age Mansion.” It’s available to all who enter the museum between 12:00 and 4:30, Tuesday – Sunday. Guests can choose to see the self-guided exhibit before or after their upstairs tour. The domestic service exhibition is quite extensive. With eight rooms of exhibits (3,000 square feet) and a video that explore the African American experience in domestic service during the Jim Crow era, it is nearly one half of the total mansion experience. It’s visited by nearly 40,000 people annually.

    To create the exhibition, we had a team of scholars –including several specializing in African American history, among them Dr. Norrece Jones, Dr. Tera Hunter, and Dr. Lauranett Lee– working with the Maymont Mansion curatorial staff and guest curator Dr. Elizabeth O’Leary over nearly 10 years developing the interpretive panels and restoring the rooms that you missed seeing. You only saw the opening panel with the quote from a book, In the Kitchen, written in 1883 by Elizabeth Miller. The next quote on the sign was from the granddaughter of Maymont’s African American butler, one of about 40 descendants of the people employed here during the Dooleys’ time who participated in development of the background for the exhibition. There were many others throughout the community who gave input for the interpretation. The concluding paragraph on that same opening panel states: “Domestic employees at Maymont were more than the sum and substance of their duties. They were individuals with their own goals and challenges. Beyond Maymont’s gates, they took their pride, skills, and modest wages into the community to support their families, businesses, and churches, and to help build today’s Richmond.” I’m sorry that you didn’t get to see the video shown in the exhibit, which has clips from oral history interviews with descendants of Maymont domestic staff.

    Jennifer Putsz, the Curator of Historic New England and author of Voices from the Backstairs (Northern Illinois University Press, 2010) comments in her book that Maymont’s domestic service interpretation is “one of the most complete interpretations of domestic service in the country.” I also refer you to the excellent book by guest curator of the exhibition Dr. Elizabeth O’Leary In Service and Beyond: Domestic Service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age (University of Virginia Press, 2003).

    Your experience also points out one of the pitfalls of guided tours in any house museum – so much hinges on the nuances of personal presentation and oral communication. That’s one reason why we chose to have the domestic service exhibit self-guided so that the sensitive telling of the history does not rely upon the tour guides, as often oral communications can be flawed and sometimes misunderstood. Yes, our tour guides have to cover a lot of information – architecture, decorative arts, life at Maymont in the 1890s—in 30-40 minutes–and often, as you experienced, the additional information addressing one of our seasonal themes – this year WWI. They have a lot of information that they have to study and keep in their heads! One article that all tour guides were given in preparation for their tours this summer was “African Americans, World War I, and the Great Migration” by Chad Williams, now Chairman of African American Studies at Brandeis University.

    It’s important to know that Maymont is operated and maintained by a nonprofit organization, Maymont Foundation, which is largely funded by individual donors. Only a small fraction is contributed by the City of Richmond. It’s also important to know that we have more than 40 volunteers who donate their time giving tours of the mansion.

    I’d love to have the opportunity to show you through the mansion myself. Also, I’d love for you to meet the granddaughter of the head cook, who served on the Maymont board of directors. I’m sure she would enjoy telling you about all that she and many others did to ensure that the story of African Americans working in service at Maymont was told with honesty and dignity. Please contact me if you would like to arrange a time to come and tour the exhibit with us. Or you might want to arrange for one of your UR classes to join you this fall, which Kathy Alcaine, the Maymont Tour and Interpretation Manager can coordinate.

    I regret that your Maymont experience was not positive. I would appreciate the opportunity to give you a personal tour of the Maymont Mansion.

    Best regards,

    Dale Wheary
    Curator/Director, Historical Collections & Programs
    804-358-7166 ext. 331

  • July 21, 2017 at 11:24 pm

    I’m so sorry that the volunteers who introduced you to Maymont did such a poor job of introducing you to one of Richmond’s great treasures. Maymont is a public park because it was donated to the city by the Dooleys, white upper class Richmonders who were just one generation removed from Irish immigrants and whose other gifts to the city included Children’s Hospital and the Richmond Public Library. The city employees who took possession of Maymont in the 1920s did not think the public would want to see the “downstairs” service areas of the mansion, so they gutted the basement and it remained as a storage area until fairly recently, when the service areas were recreated along with interpretive signs and video explaining the service employees who ran a Victorian estate. Family members of the original staff were interviewed and Doris Walker Woodson, the granddaughter of Francis Walker, the Maymont cook, remained on the board of Maymont. Because only the basement has its own interpretation, no tour guide is needed. However, the upstairs is similar to the way it would have been in the Dooleys’ time and benefits from a tour guide for informational and security purposes.

  • July 23, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    The Maymont Belowstairs Exhibit is filled with fascinating information about the people who worked there from 1893-1925. A notebook on display has a page (and often a photo) about each of the Dooley’s employees. The kitchen includes a photo and biographical information about the Walker family, many of whom were employed there. A video with the descendants of Mr. Dillworth, the butler, is very informative, as it shares their recollections and family history. Maymont also offers a guided tour called, “The Secret Life of a Victorian House” which shows the house from the perspective of a maid. It allows guests to go up the backstairs, spend time in the butler’s pantry, and imagine what it was like to work at the Mansion.
    I’m sorry Ms. Munnings was so dismissive of her 99-year-old tour guide. We should all be so lucky to live that long! Just imagine being born in 1918 – yes, his life perspective and experiences would be quite different from yours.

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