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  • Edward A. ChappellAn Appreciation October 16, 1948–July 25, 2020
  • Jeffrey E. Klee (bio)

Ed Chappell was the patron saint of the early VAF. He embodied, to the end of his life, the humanism, the belief in the value of fieldwork, and the pursuit of scholarship in the service of a more just world that members of this organization have always prized. Through his example and his influence, he improved the work of numberless friends and colleagues. To some, in recent years, he seemed to represent an old-fashioned strand of the VAF DNA, a scholar concerned more with the sentimental and the ancient than the pressing concerns of the present, or one focused on details at the expense of larger structural concerns. When Dell Upton articulated the origins of the VAF in antiquarianism, populism, and an affection for the preindustrial, he might have been talking about Ed. But Ed's long-standing and determined focus on the early Anglo-Atlantic was only one part of a larger intellectual effort that saw the material world as a path to understanding social relationships, past and present. For Ed, the careful recording of plans and details from Jamaica to Isle of Wight County was just the beginning of the work, not its end.

A telling detail is buried in a footnote to his 1989 essay in Winterthur Portfolio, "Social Responsibility and the American History Museum." In it, he offers his thanks to many colleagues who helped with the paper, including "Willie Graham, Carl Lounsbury, Vanessa Patrick, Helen Tate, and Mark R. Wenger, five colleagues with whom he has worked on some memorable projects. Wenger was particularly forbearing with latenight review."1

What should we hear in that pair of sentences, other than a customary acknowledgment of scholarly collaborators? First, that Ed's career, even as early as 1989, centered on a series of major projects for Colonial Williamsburg, only a few of which generated peer-reviewed publications but all of which are regularly visited by thousands and all of which were improved by Ed's involvement. Second, that his scholarly output was prodigious, thanks to a work ethic that routinely kept him at the office or the drawing table until well past midnight. And third, that this same dedication to the work of his life sometimes required indulgence on the part of his friends and colleagues. After his marriage to Susan Buck, he occasionally needed to be reminded that good spouses went home for dinner.

Born and raised in Farmville, Virginia, Ed [End Page 1]

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Figure 1.

Ed Chappell recording the milk house at the Barrett site, Southampton County, Virginia, 1982. Photograph by Willie Graham, courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

grew up in the segregated Upper South during the civil rights movement, a part of the country where race relations did not make national headlines in the manner of Alabama and Mississippi but were nonetheless equally unfair and equally entrenched. His home of Prince Edward County was the last bastion of Virginia's spiteful Massive Resistance campaign that closed publicschool systems rather than integrate them. Like the other White children in the county, in fifth grade, he began attending a private academy while his Black neighbors either stayed home or devised ways to attend schools in other places. As a consequence, he carried with him the sorrow that he grew up on the wrong side of a profound injustice. His self-consciousness about this heritage encouraged his sense of the social world as a thing of enormous complexity, one in which people he admired and loved as a child worked actively to sustain what he came to recognize as a larger national evil.

Though he did not then recognize that he was himself living through a critical historical episode, he developed a strong interest in history and material life through avocational explorations of the region around his home. As a teenager, he was captivated by the work of Ivor Noël Hume and had his well-thumbed copy of Here Lies Virginia personally autographed at a public lecture in Richmond. He soon found ways to get involved in architectural surveys for the newly...


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