I love Labor Day, and not just for the three-day weekend that at this point in my life I'm finally blessed to get. Not everybody gets Labor Day off, as evidenced by the many laboring to sell us last-minute groceries, gas, fast food, and all the other sundries those with days off threw money at on that Monday. I am grateful for a job that affords me ample vacation (don't listen to those college professors who tell you we're always working—we aren't, and that's a good thing), and I know just how lucky that makes me.
I also know that I benefit from the hard work of labor activists who fought for things I take for granted: a 40-hour work week, the concept of "the weekend," safety precautions at the workplace, the idea of "benefits," and so many other things that make my work life very livable. My working conditions are pretty much as shiny as they get, though, and I am intimately aware that the struggle has only just begun for many of us. Labor Day is, for me, a day to honor the achievements of labor activists while remaining critical of the fits-and-starts nature of labor advances that often accrue to the white collar and—often white—working class first. Tithe your local labor movements, people—it's everybody's fight.
But if I'm being real, I also spend Labor Day on vacation. Such privilege. This year's trip took us to Shenandoah for an overnight with a couple of good friends. Three of us love hiking, one of us pretends not to have strong feelings about it but we don't believe he doesn't love it, and none of us were up for a hike in the rain, so we spent our first day outside of the park, in Winchester, Virginia, because that town seemed as good a town as any.
And it was. The ladyfriend and I once spent a Groupon-inspired night in a hotel on Winchester's main drag, but spent much of our romantic vacation outside as police searched the third floor for a gunman. Fortunately no one was hurt, they said when we were allowed back inside. It's a strange turn of phrase when a woman is stalked and threatened with a gun by a man, that "no one was hurt," but I digress.
This weekend was gunman-free, at least for us. We got a late start like you do, headed to Front Royal's entry station before a rain-induced turn got us on the Intercounty Connector, Maryland's most expensive toll road. This was, of course, a field trip all in itself. I mean, who doesn't want to drive for 17 miles on a road that cost over $2.5 billion? This week the thing got celebrated with a special renaming ceremony in honor of former Gov. Bob Ehrlich. What a thing to call a toll road your signature achievement, and to have it renamed in your honor by a governor whose biggest achievement may be his NOT spending that much money to build a public transportation project that would have transformed Baltimore. So much money sunk into connecting roads to more roads to enable more and more sprawl that produces a need for more roads connecting roads to roads, all of us tracked by E-ZPasses that we have to have to drive on these roads we already paid for.
We finally reached Winchester, stopped for a quick lunch, and then headed to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley to learn more about where we were. I'm always up for Civil War history, rain or shine, and I expected to learn about this region's relationship to it and to slavery. I mean, we were in Virginia, home state of Robert E. Lee. Winchester boasts the Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters Museum. Winchester resident Heyward Shepard, a free Black man, was the first casualty of John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, just 30 miles away. His death was used by the South as evidence that Black people were loyal to White people and the Confederacy for decades, from his burial with military honors to his memorial at Harper's Ferry. We were booked at a Holiday Inn off Jubal Early Drive, just up the block from the Best Western Lee-Jackson Hotel and Conference Center. We were definitely in the heart of the Civil War—at least its memory—so I fully expected some Lost Cause bullshit, or maybe even some sorry-about-that-Lost-Cause-bullshit reflection.
I got none of that. Instead I got a traveling art show dedicated to drawings and sculptures of animals, some fancy gardens, and a history of the Shenandoah Valley as told through the Valley's 10 counties and their major industries. Enslaved people were mentioned in a couple exhibits, but were largely absent from the interpretations. One sign about the history of the Valley informed visitors that "Slaves were among Valley residents who did not prosper in the mid-1700s." Pretty sure that's true.
There was one room dedicated to the Civil War that showed a revolving selection of movies about different phases of the war. I learned about the burning of the Valley by Union troops, that Valley residents were, like much of Virginia, ambivalent about secession, but nothing about slavery in the region. I started to wonder if maybe slavery had skipped this part of the South, so I pulled out my phone to do a little research. Turns out there's a popular misconception that slavery didn't really exist in the Valley, that it wasn't essential to the farm economy here. Twenty percent of the people who lived here were enslaved in the 19th century, though. The history of slavery was a very present absence, at least for me, at this museum, just as it is on our Confederate memorializing roads and bridges where the Civil War is just the story of white military heroes, where "we" are all Americans.
The next day we got in a hike, up and down rocks to beautiful views, the luxury to forget again the lives written out so we can have our stories. Happy Labor Day to me.