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Their fortune sprang from enslavement. There is currently a new fortune underground.

This was a carousel during the era of slavery. The land came first; two years after the Revolutionary War, a Virginia slaveholder and future congressman purchased 5,557 acres of woodland. Then, over the period of seven years, slave laborers constructed the mansion, a symbol of riches and power, until it was finally finished in 1825.

The latest Walter Coles, the fifth of that name, says, “It’s been occupied by a Walter Coles and his wife ever since then,” as he sits in the same parlor his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather all sat in before him, narrating the history of Coles Hill as their portraits gaze down from all four walls.

Coles, 84, is one of the innumerable Americans who still reap the rewards of the wealth amassed by America’s slaveowners in the 18th and 19th centuries. And his great-great-great-grandfather Walter Coles I and great-great-great-grandfather Isaac Coles were among the more than 1,800 slaveholders who served in Congress, writing and passing the laws that permitted them to build their own fortunes on the backs of others. They contributed to the development of the nation’s brutal and lucrative system of slavery.

The descendants of individuals who were held in slavery at Coles Hill today, more than 200 years later, are immensely proud of what they have accomplished in the face of oppression, segregation, and unrelenting bigotry. One of them, Carole Coles Henry, a 67-year-old retired administrator for the city of Phoenix, had spent years contemplating the glaring disparities between her own Black family and the White Coles family.

“It took us 225 years to get to the point where we have college graduates who are now owning our own homes and who are successfully giving back to society,” Henry said. “I’m talking about being able to amass any kind of equitable resources to begin to move into society in a way that we can have a piece of the pie too.” My generation is just now able to look back on this history and ask, “What in the world happened here?” as we all own homes and can afford to send our children to college.

Those discrepancies’ tale is still unfolding. One of North America’s greatest undeveloped uranium reserves, worth billions of dollars if ever exploited, is buried beneath Coles Hill. The uranium at Coles Hill, which has the potential to power nuclear reactors and alter the course of the plantation’s history, is currently untapped because Virginia’s state legislature has prohibited its extraction due to potential risks in a legal battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The history of how America’s founding fathers established a system of firmly established racial and economic hierarchies, as resilient as the red brick mansion where a Walter Coles has always resided, is reflected in this most contemporary of minerals.

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Prior to the American Revolution, when John Coles arrived from Ireland, he acquired more land than virtually any other man in the Virginia colony, making the Coles family one of the wealthiest in the state. He left his family, especially his son Isaac, property in numerous areas of the colony when he passed away in 1747, as well as roughly 48 slaves whose unpaid work would turn those lands into prosperous businesses.

Isaac Coles was a patriot who participated in the Revolution, made friends with Thomas Jefferson, and was so close to George Washington that the first president recorded inviting Coles to a supper the day after Christmas in 1789 in his diary.

30 miles north of the North Carolina border, in southern Virginia, Isaac purchased the property that would later become known as Coles Hill.

A hand-drawn map from 1785, surveying the 5,557 acres Isaac Coles bought that year, is the first framed memento on the wall when Walter Coles welcomes visitors through the front door today.

When the first Congress convened in 1789, Isaac was a member, joining a body in which three out of every five of his fellow representatives owned slaves. Isaac occasionally voted on laws throughout his three terms in the House of Representatives that had an impact on his personal riches, particularly when it came to slavery. A law that would have required foreign-born slaveholders, like Isaac’s own father, to give up their claim to enslaved persons in order to become U.S. citizens was put out in 1795, for example. It was defeated because Isaac abstained.

At the time of his passing in 1813, Isaac left his family a legacy of roughly 74 slaves. His son Walter served in the House for ten years and voted on the subject of slavery far more frequently than his father. Walter received about 1,000 acres of the original estate and oversaw the building of the Coles Hill mansion. He supported two resolutions in 1837 that claimed the abolition of slavery would be unconstitutional and that slaves did not have the right to petition as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. He supported a failed 1838 bill that would have made helping a slave fugitive a federal offense. Walter Coles, a steadfast supporter of the divisive “gag rule” that silenced discussion of slavery, voted in 1840 to prohibit the House from ever taking up any legislation that would outlaw slavery or the slave trade in any state.

The individuals Walter directly enslaved were making him rich while he was living in his elegant new estate at Coles Hill, more than 200 miles south of Washington.

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