The land came first, 5,557 acres of forest purchased two years after the Revolutionary War by a Virginia slaveholder and future congressman.
The mansion came next — a symbol of fortune and power built by enslaved workers, who spent seven years assembling the stately home brick by brick until it was finally finished in 1825.
“It’s been occupied by a Walter Coles and his wife ever since then,” says the latest Walter Coles — the fifth of that name — as he sits in the same parlor his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather all sat in before him, recounting the history of Coles Hill as his predecessors look down from portraits on all four walls.
Coles, 84, is one of countless Americans who still benefit from the wealth accumulated by America’s 18th- and 19th-century slaveholders. And his great-great-grandfather, Walter Coles I, and great-great-great-grandfather, Isaac Coles, helped shape the country’s brutal and lucrative system of slavery: They were among the more than 1,800 slaveholders who served in Congress, writing and passing the laws that allowed them to amass their own fortunes on the backs of others.
More than two centuries later, the descendants of those enslaved at Coles Hill take deep pride in what they’ve achieved in the face of subjugation, segregation and relentless racism. One of them, Carole Coles Henry, a 67-year-old retired administrator for the city of Phoenix, has spent years thinking about the stark differences between the White family with the name Coles and her own Black family with the same name.
“It took 225 years for us to get to the point where we’ve got college graduates who now are owning our own homes, who are successfully giving back to society — I’m talking about being able to amass any kind of equitable resources to begin to move into society in a way where we can have a piece of the pie too,” Henry said. “It’s just now, my generation, where all of us are owning homes and being able to send our kids to college and being able to look back on this history and say: What in the world happened here?”
The story of those disparities isn’t over. Buried beneath the ground of Coles Hill lies one of North America’s largest untapped uranium deposits — worth billions of dollars if it could ever be mined.
The uranium at Coles Hill, which holds the potential to fuel nuclear power plants and rewrite the next chapter of the plantation’s history, remains untouched for now, blocked by Virginia’s state legislature from being extracted because of possible hazards, in a fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But this most modern of minerals ties back to the story of how America’s early lawmakers created a system of entrenched racial and economic hierarchies as durable as the red brick mansion where a Walter Coles has always lived.
The Coles family was one of Virginia’s wealthiest, dating back to pre-revolutionary years when John Coles immigrated from Ireland and bought up more land than almost any other man in the Virginia colony. When he died in 1747, he left his family, including his son Isaac, property in several parts of the colony and about 48 enslaved people whose unpaid labor would turn those lands into profitable enterprises.
Isaac was a patriot who fought in the Revolution, befriended Thomas Jefferson and was so close with George Washington that the first president wrote in his diary of inviting Coles to a day-after-Christmas dinner in 1789.