The chattel slavery footprint that consumed this great nation is vast and not just relegated to southern states as assumed by many of whom I come in contact. It is the intent of the Slave Dwelling Project to identify and acknowledge the built environment that can help tell the stories of the enslaved Ancestors, wherever those places may exist. I am on this journey to ensure the Ancestors, from whom I derived my DNA, have their stories told in a correct and respectful manner. In documenting this vast footprint of chattel slavery, this journey takes me to some interesting places throughout this nation.
Behind the Big House is a phrase of which I am becoming more familiar. This term is derived from the 1993 book by John Michael Vlach titled Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. It is one of those books that I read before I started the Slave Dwelling Project. I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Vlach when he visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina.
My longest tenure with any organization is with the group, Preserve Marshall County in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Since 2011, Preserve Marshall County and the Slave Dwelling Project have been conducting the Behind the Big House Tour. The Holly Springs program spawned the Behind the Big House Program of Arkansas. In 2016, the Slave Dwelling Project added Arkansas as the seventeenth state to its portfolio when it conducted a sleepover at Washington State Park in Washington, Arkansas. At that event, I assisted Jerome Bias for the first time as he prepared a meal in the hearth of the slave dwelling on the property. Archaeologists provided the evidence necessary to re-create this cabin where we did the cooking. The experience of assisting Jerome gave me a greater understanding of all that our enslaved Ancestors endured as cooks for those who enslaved them.
For the second consecutive year, Jerome and I would perform those same duties at Lakeport Plantation near Lakeview, Arkansas. Helping Jerome cook seemed simple enough. This remote site is located in Southeast Arkansas on the Mississippi River and across the river is Greenville, Mississippi. I would not have been surprised if I had seen a tumbleweed. Jerome and I arrived at Lakeport Plantation on Thursday evening to get an assessment of what we would be dealing with on the next day. Absent was an oak allee of trees that lined the road leading to the big house. The big house sat practically by itself among freshly planted fields of corn. There we met Dr. Blake Wintory, the site manager who reminded me that we met last year in Washington, Arkansas. Blake also reminded me that it was his daughters photograph that I use often on the Slave Dwelling Project’s Facebook page. We were satisfied that the accumulated amount of wood was sufficient to cook, on an outdoor open fire, the planned meal of pork jambalaya, hoe cakes and cake for dessert.
The interpretive display in the big house included the names of the people enslaved on the plantation. Historic sites that include the names of the enslaved in their interpretation always warms my heart. It is evidence to me that the site is concerned about telling the stories of all the people associated with it. Moreover, someone did the tedious research necessary to give the enslaved names. This research is tedious because the enslaved Ancestors were deemed not even worthy of being given names on official government census documents. That census data merely enumerated the enslaved Ancestors for congressional representation and for collecting taxes.
There are no extant slave dwellings at the site. Therefore we would be spending the night in the attached kitchen. Surprising, the house never had a second set of stairs that provided access to the enslaved. Since the enslaved tended to live where they worked, the kitchen would be more than sufficient for the sleepover. About fifteen people had signed up to spend the night at the site with us. Those who would not sleep in the kitchen would pitch tents outside.
The next day, after shopping for our ingredients in Greenville, Mississippi, Jerome and I arrived at the site to begin the cooking process. Our task was to prepare a meal for fifty people. Our knowledge of timing dictated that we get the meal started no-later-than noon. To our dismay, the wind was high and constant. We had concerns about how this wind would influence the cooking as we built our fire pit. We compensated by creating a brick barrier and stacking the wood in a position that would help block the wind. This creation would only work if the wind continued to blow in the same direction for the duration of the cooking process.
My duties included building the fire pit, hauling wood, washing dishes and chopping herbs and vegetables for the pork jambalaya. In my experience with Jerome, these tasks are usually performed by two people. As usual, performing these meticulous duties made me more appreciative of what an enslaved cook had to endure.
The wind did indeed provide a challenge for the first cake that Jerome attempted to cook. The outside of the cake was burned to a delicate crisp, while the inside was still raw, not Jerome’s best work. Jerome made the proper adjustments and the second cake was more successful than the first.
As people began to arrive, I was relieved of my duties of being Jerome’s assistant. Like the previous year, the diversity of the crowd was impressive. I was pleasantly surprised when Kenetha Lanee showed up for the sleepover. This sleepover would be Kenetha’s second. Her first was Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. Her presence surprised me because her written assessment of the first sleepover gave me the impression that she was through with her little experiment and that she was through with the Slave Dwelling Project.
I was most impressed that five students from Central High School in Little Rock and their chaperones would be joining us for the sleepover. Central High School is best known for the Little Rock Nine. One lady even showed up in a camper, a method of a sleepover at an antebellum historic site that I have yet to categorize.
The food that Jerome prepared was superb, and the timing was excellent. Before we indulged, Jerome had his opportunity to explain to the audience how it was all prepared. Had it not been explained, no one would have known the mishap with the first cake. Everyone took part in the meal, and I heard complaints from no one about the food.
Most of the diverse audience would be coming back for the second day of activities, but before they dispersed, I had the opportunity to address them about the Slave Dwelling Project. Kenetha was given the opportunity to give the audience an assessment of her first sleepover at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana.
The Central High Students and their chaperones set up their tents. Our conversation around the campfire covered a wide array of topics, but the Little Rock Nine seemed to dominate. My only regret was the missed opportunity to engage the five students more in the conversation.
The second and final day of the event was a series of presentations:
- Uncovering the History of Slavery at the Lakeport Plantation by Dr. Blake Wintory
- Using Pension Records of United States Colored Troops (USCT) to learn about Slavery in Southeast Arkansas by Angela Walton-Raja, Historian, and Genealogist
- African American Heritage Tourism and the Development of Old Salem’s Foodways Program by Jerome Bias
- The Slave Dwelling Project, Historic Preservation, and What Arkansas Can Learn from this Project by yours truly.
- The challenge and Benefits of African American Heritage Tourism by Dr. Jodi Skipper, University of Mississippi.
During lunch, we were educated and entertained by a living history program titled: Interview with a Slave by Voice of the Past. Using the Slave Narratives as their basis, living historians in period dress gave a first person presentation of their researched character.
So I was impressed by Dr. Blake Wintory’s presentation titled: Uncovering the History of Slavery at the Lakeport Plantation and Angela Walton-Raja’s presentation titled: Using Pension Records of United States Colored Troops (USCT) to learn about Slavery in Southeast Arkansas. They first reminded me that a tedious researcher, I am not. Secondly, they made me remember that despite the enslaved Ancestors only listed by age, gender and race on census documents, ways exists through research that these people can have names.
All antebellum historic sites should yearn to know the names of all who they enslaved on their property. Until we know those names, the stories that we tell of these structures and this great nation are incomplete.