The 13th Amendment to the Constitution declared that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Formally abolishing slavery in the United States, the 13th Amendment was passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865.
It is not common that I would accept an invitation to spend the night in a slave dwelling during the month of December. An exception was made for the Coachman’s Quarters in Hillsborough, NC because my host assured me that the fireplace was functional and descendants of Jesse Ruffin the coachman who was enslaved there would be joining us. Also joining us for the sleepover would be Peter Wood, author of the book Black Majority. Moreover, this was an event commemorating the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
For this last stay of 2015, Prinny Anderson (20 plus stays) and Terry James (30 plus stays) would be participating. Prinny is a resident of Durham, NC so this was practically in her back yard and she was a vital part of the process to make this stay happen, a matter which is welcomed and becoming quite common.
I met our host Holly Reid and her parents Gwen and Bill Reid, owners of the property, at the Slave Dwelling Project conference which was held at the Embassy Suites in North Charleston, SC this past October. I learned from them that they had expended time and money to restore the slave cabin. I also learned from them that the descendants of the enslaved coachman who lived in the cabin had access to the space. Some of those descendants, including the 100 year old matriarch Mrs. Maggie “Midge” Bryant, were supposed to attend the conference, but because of the unprecedented rainstorm that Mother Nature unleashed on the state the week prior, they could not make the trip.
So the stage was set. Upon arrival at the site, Terry James and I immediately set out to look for fingerprints in the bricks and we were successful in finding some. To our surprise, Noah Read, the carpenter who did the restoration work was there conducting some work on the barn that had been converted into a resident. We would later learn that Noah was far more than a carpenter for he would be spending the night in the slave cabin also. From observing the finished work, it was obvious that Noah was a preservationist and I seldom get to interact with the people who do the physical work of restoring historic slave dwellings.
Co-organizers of the effort for the slave dwelling sleepover was County Commissioner Renee Price and Holly Reid. Because of their efforts, we were visited by local school students in the cabin. Prinny, Terry and I addressed the students and being in the space made it that much more powerful.
The event continued with a public program at the Richard E. Whitted Building which was well attended by a diverse group of people. It was an honor for me to be inserted among Dr. Freddie L. Parker, retired professor of history at North Carolina Central University; Dr. Peter Wood, retired professor of history Duke University; and Queen Norwood Thompson who represented the descendants of Jesse Ruffin and Rebecca Norwood. Queen introduced to the audience Mrs. Bryant, the 100 year old matriarch of the family.
The event continued with a fireside chat in the home, which was the restored barn, of our hosts Gwen and Bill Reid. Admiring the details of the work done to initially create this structure occupied much of my time for it was highly likely that it was the work of the enslaved. And for someone to have the forethought to turn this barn into a residence was even more amazing. Maybe the magnificence of this structure gave the Reids the inspiration to restore the Coachman’s Quarters which was, at the time of their intervention, being destroyed by demolition by neglect.
The fireside chat was aided by homemade chili and other fixings. It was that conversation that delved deeply into the subject matter of slavery that existed locally and nationally. It was that conversation that would be taboo in a normal circle of friends yet that conversation that many in this nation need to have. No one seemed uncomfortable or threatened in any manner for everyone added value to this meaningful conversation especially the family matriarch Mrs. Bryant. When she talked everybody listened.
A total of eight people would retire to the Coachman’s Quarters to continue the conversation. We could have added more but it would have been tight. When Holly Reid predicted that twelve people could sleep in the cabin she may have been thinking about a family of twelve for they come in various sizes. This was not the case for us but we claimed our limited space and made it work. Though unseasonably warm for that time of year, the fire in the hearth was definitely needed.
The next morning everything outside was coated with a thick frost. I took this as a testament that Noah Read had done a beautiful job on the restoration of the cabin and the fireplace because no one complained about being cold during the night nor did anyone succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Our day would continue with community members visiting the cabin. Various activities were offered and the diversity of the participants was astounding. The participants got the opportunity to interact with me, Prinny Anderson, Terry James and author Peter Wood. While that added value to the occasion, it was not as powerful as the ability for the participants to interact with the Reids, the owners of the property, and Queen Norwood Thompson and Mrs. Bryant, the descendants of those who were enslaved in the cabin. It is my desire that the Slave Dwelling Project can generate and facilitate more gatherings like this at other sites in the future.
Hillsborough, NC – The Coachman’s Quarters and Jesse Ruffin
by Prinny Anderson
On December 4th, people in the town of Hillsborough, NC, gathered to commemorate the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, finally abolishing slavery and restoring freedom to the country’s four million African Americans. The public presentations reminded us of the long road to that Amendment, and the many obstacles to full freedom that have persisted since 1865. Afterward, a group gathered at the home of the Reids. They own and have had the Coachman’s Quarters restored, and not only were we their guests for a hot supper, we would be their guests in the Quarters for the night.
Four descendants of the coachman, Jesse Ruffin, were there for the fireside conversation, with Mrs. Bryant, informally known as Miss Midge, the family’s 100 year old matriarch, as the living link back to “Papa Ruffin,” as she knew him. There were many family stories, stories of what the coachman’s life and character had been like, and stories of who’s who in the family and how the family history has been researched.
The more that was told about Jesse Ruffin, the more curious I became about who he was. First of all, given his name, was he a child of his owner, Thomas Ruffin? It wouldn’t have been out of the question, and the two remained in close association for years. As coachman, Jesse Ruffin drove Thomas Ruffin all over central North Carolina, to court, to Raleigh, to his properties and business meetings, and to the homes of his extended family, friends and associates.
What was Jesse Ruffin’s life like? Was he favored in some way? Does a favored position explain how he came to live on his own in a sturdy brick dwelling with two windows and a fireplace? Or was it skill and reliability with the care of the horses and the driving of carriages, important responsibilities that earned him a certain status and a cozy home? The coachman would have been the person entrusted to carry an important message across town or to the next plantation. He would be expected to pick up purchases and supplies either in town or in Raleigh, while Ruffin family members visited, shopped or sat on the judicial bench. Visitors and newly arriving servants or specialized artisans dropped off in town by a public coach would have been met and transported to Burnside by the coachman. Jesse Ruffin was an extension of the Ruffin family’s public face to the world.
To what extent did Jesse’s position as a coachman give him some aspects of freedom – freedom to move around, freedom to interact with a variety of people, freedom to know who was who and what was happening? Given the long hours of travel, it would not be surprising if Jesse Ruffin and Thomas Ruffin exchanged at least some conversation. It would be inevitable that Jesse would overhear conversations Thomas had with family, friends and business colleagues. Waiting around at places of business or social functions would have allowed Jesse Ruffin to glean more information from other coachmen and even other slave owners.
There is a family story that tells how the Ruffins moved away from Hillsborough, to another plantation, before the Civil War. After the war, Jesse Ruffin was reported to be back in Hillsborough. A former slave owner who recognized Jesse wrote to the Ruffins asking that they call Jesse back. The complaint was that Jesse Ruffin was talking to formerly enslaved people in Hillsborough about their freedom and their rights, and urging them to claim land from their former owners. Jesse Ruffin was exercising his own rights as a citizen to speak freely and to claim what he and others thought was rightfully theirs.
Much of what I have recounted here about Jesse Ruffin is conjecture based on oral history and bits of fact, a story that teases me with its possibilities. It’s a story that both reveals and conceals a skillful, resourceful, persevering, canny, and courageous man, a man I wish I’d known.
I especially wish I’d known him because of another conjecture. You see, Thomas Ruffin was a cousin of mine, through one line of my ancestors, the Randolph family of Virginia. If Jesse was indeed a son of Thomas Ruffin, he would also be my cousin. Who wouldn’t be proud to be part of Jesse Ruffin’s family?
This is the third Slave Dwelling Project program that I have had the pleasure of which I have participated. I have repeatedly been struck by the conversations that occur not long before the snoring begins. In the shadow of the dwelling, often by the flickering light of a wood fire, I have repeatedly watched African Americans feel comfortable enough, empowered enough, and hopeful enough to talk with White Americans about things that we typically don’t talk about in the dominant culture. I have repeatedly been struck as students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, African American historians, and descendants of the slave dwelling’s former residents have shared their experiences, hopes, fears and concerns, without reservation. These are conversations that we often have. It is just that they rarely happen in front of White Americans.
To me, for a group of people to feel that level of safety, that level of empowerment, that is healing. To me, those conversations are proof that there is power in the preservation of these structures. To me, it is also proof that these spaces are more than reminders of pain and suffering. These spaces are baptismal fonts of hope and healing that we so often need in this country. They are wellsprings that we can return to; whenever we need reminding that we are all God’s children, worthy of love and respect.
Inspiration from the 150th Celebration of the 13th Amendment
by Holly Reid
“What do I do with this history?” the young woman earnestly asked me during the first Faucette Norwood Family reunion tour of the Coachman’s Quarters in July 2014. I did not know how to answer. I believe she was discovering her family connection to this place and perhaps personalizing her link, like shackles, to enslavement.
Historic structures, especially unusual ones that Joe is trying to save, are immensely evocative. Slave dwellings bring the inhabitants to life, along with their undeniable stories of physical daily toil and exceptional emotional hardship.
For us rebuilding the Coachman’s Quarters has helped to bring Thomas Ruffin’s enslaved coachman, Jesse Ruffin alive – – his work with mules and horses, his transportation access, his communication responsibilities and his critical role between white and black family life in the 1800s. Jesse, and his wife Rebecca Norwood, are real to us now. Their lives are easier to imagine, respect and represent because we can start to see their lives in front of the fire here or in the great barn next door.
Many Americans are still denialists when it comes to understanding our history of enslavement, and our development has been arrested by ignoring or physically erasing the ugly parts of our past. How should we handle this history? By recognition, reexamination and proper historic standing. The Slave Dwelling Project does exactly that.
Our celebration of the 150th anniversary of North Carolina’s ratification of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery on December 4, 2015 in large part came about because we decided to restore, instead of demolish, a brick outbuilding. As we slowly added the bricks, roof, windows and chimney, the living history started to flow into the Coachman’s Quarters, eventually connecting us with the descendants of Jesse and Rebecca. We will never forget witnessing Maggie “Midge” Bryant, at 100 years old, tipping a drinking gourd to honor her ancestors, Jessie and Rebecca, as the perfect conclusion to our hosting of the Slave Dwelling Project.
Like stages of psychological counselling, national progress in racial understanding and reconciliation depends on historical honesty and a holistic interpretation. Without restored, reconstructed or reimagined cabins, kitchen hearths and floors, haylofts and coachman’s quarters of our African and Native American history, we cannot see the work, hear the voices, and appreciate the lives of the enslaved of our past for a chance to improve our present and future together.
What do we do with this history? We rebuild it, study it, and own it.
Thank you, Joe McGill, for your important work to protect slave dwellings, for the history and connections to the present they uniquely hold for all of us.
Sleeping and Waking: A Significant Night in the Coachman’s Quarters
by Peter H. Wood
After a bright sunny day, the sun sets early and the winter’s heaviest frost is on the way, as we unroll our sleeping bags to spend the night in the Coachman’s Quarters, a square brick structure, measuring roughly 18 feet by 18 feet. It sits in the flood plain of the Eno River on the east edge of Hillsborough, North Carolina. The small structure (and the huge slave-built barn beside it) once belonged to Paul Cameron, the largest slaveholder in antebellum North Carolina.
The quarters, with two windows and an ample fireplace, is spacious and solid in comparison with most slave dwellings. The American Bond bricks from which it is made came into use early in the nineteenth century, so it might have been built any time after roughly 1820. When the Civil War erupted, this building, on the estate known as Burnside, would have been inhabited by Mr. Cameron’s relatively privileged slave coachman, whose name is still unknown.
If the building dates back to the 1820s, then its first residents may have been Jesse Ruffin and Rebecca Norwood Ruffin. Jesse was the enslaved coachman (and perhaps the son) of Burnside’s founder, Thomas Ruffin, Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and father-in-law of Paul Cameron. A modern descendant of Jesse, Queen Norwood Thompson, has traced much of the family’s ancestry, and she and other relatives have journeyed to Hillsborough.
With lots to talk about, we stay up late, gathered around the hearth in the renovated barn, now owned by Bill and Gwen Reid. After moving to Hillsborough in 2003, they worked with restoration expert Noah Reed to rebuild the collapsed Coachman’s Quarters, and we joke with Noah as to how cold it will be when eight of us traipse through the darkness to begin our sleep-in. But when we push open the wooden door, a warm fire is burning in the fireplace.
Heat will be no problem, and we are tired enough so snoring may not be a big issue either. Noah is there, and lying on our backs we can admire his handiwork in rebuilding the sturdy roof. Holly Reid, organizer of the event, and her husband Rich Shaw are present, as is Jerome Bias, a skilled African American craftsman who tends the woodworker’s shop at nearby Old Salem Village. I am there as an historian of slavery and a former resident of Hillsborough.
The five of us take our cues from the other three, all veterans of the Slave Dwelling Project. Joe McGill, who founded the organization, has driven up from South Carolina with his friend, Terry James. Both are former re-enactors from a black regiment, and they are wearing their Civil War garb. By now, they have spent the night in scores of slave dwellings all over the country, as has Prinny Anderson, an SDP member from Durham, and a Jefferson descendant.
It has been a busy day, marked by a local public gathering to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, ending legal slavery in the United States. Renee Price, a dynamic black member of Hillsborough’s Town Council organized the successful event, a useful milestone for a town (once the home of Elizabeth Keckly) still wrestling with its troublesome Confederate heritage. The fire is warm and sleep comes fast.
My mind is tired and blank, so I stare at Noah’s roof beams and close my eyes. Out of nowhere, two scenes spool quickly through my brain. They are too short to be dreams—each only a single brief “take”—and more vivid. In the first, I am moving above a rolling landscape covered with endless ranks of small headstones that sway and march. In the second, I face a small fox. Both hunter and hunted, it bares its teeth and takes on a rabid look. Then slumber.
Near 2 AM, I wake to the smell of wood smoke. The coals are fading, and wind coming down the chimney is pushing smoke into the room. I add logs to the fire to renew the draft and then remain sitting up in my sleeping bag. The smoke gradually recedes, and shadows from the renewed flames dance across the walls. As I have done on many daylight visits, I stare at the building’s most remarkable feature, small clear marks across two bricks that say “Dec. 5, 65.”
In the firelight, the emotion behind that scratched date sinks in more deeply than ever. North Carolina’s legislature in Raleigh ratified the 13th Amendment on December 4, and word that slavery had officially ended in the state reached Hillsborough within 24 hours. (The next day, December 6, Georgia became the twenty-seventh state to ratify, assuring national approval, and on December 18, Washington officials certified adoption of the 13th Amendment.)
When we first climbed into our sleeping bags, it was still December 4, exactly 150 years after the date the legislature took action in Raleigh. But as dawn melts the white frost off the field around us, it brings December 5, a joyous anniversary. After waking up here a century and a half ago, the coachman finally learned for certain that he could no longer be “owned” by Paul Cameron. Our sleep-in honors this Day of Jubilee for thousands of enslaved North Carolinians.
After sunrise, several of us hike up to the hill to Burnside where, in 1818, Judge Ruffin had his slaves and others erect a small law office. It was probably here, in 1829, that Ruffin wrote the infamous decision of State v. Mann, which assured masters total control over their slaves. The tiny white building has been decorated for a Christmas Tour, and deer graze on the sunlit lawn. Returning down the hill for breakfast, we each reflect on how far we have come.
When people ask me if a building can be saved, I always have to give a disclaimer that given enough will and resources, any building can be saved. This was my answer when the Reid family approached me about the restoration of the coachman’s quarters. Then my question back was, where along the continuum between a simple stabilization and a full restoration would we be seeking to go in protecting and saving the building. That question is usually only fully answered in the small decisions made along the way to the goal.
As a craftsperson, just the challenge of saving a building often inspires me past the hopes of preservation, so I was enthusiastic about being involved in the coachman’s quarters restoration even when it sat as a little ruin, unexamined and uninterpreted. So off we set on the project to prevent the loss of the building, the Reid family and myself, but unsure of how far along that continuum of restoration we would go. How hard would we search for the perfect bricks to match the existing bricks. Would we use standard, available dimensional lumber or seek out custom milled material that would not so quickly reveal the work of a modern carpenter. Reproduction nails? A fully functional chimney? Period roofing materials? The careful search for still-existing structures to provide local precedents, to base our reproduction design work on?
The answer to many of these questions took a mighty turn to the ambitious and idealistic, when we discovered that brick. The evocative font of the date scratched into that brick immediately suggested there was more to the story than mere graffiti. The “’65” tantalized. 1965? or excitingly, 1865? And then modern technology gave the initial questions of those minutes after discovery a thrilling boost. My recently acquired smart phone gave me the ability to find out in the moment, what might be the significance of that date. “Dec 5, ’65”. Probably never again will a quick Google search provide me such a thrilling answer. The day after the ratification of the 13th Amendment by North Carolina and the day before ratification by the United States. Better than any forgotten gold coin, lost in the floor boards of an old house. A simple six character message from someone who sought to memorialize that day. Was it to good to be true?
As to the answers to many of those questions about those six characters, we will never know for sure, but those evocative characters scratched into a brick, did seem to answer the question of how important was it to really give the little ruin the respect it deserved. The discovery of those characters put a human touch, put emotion, put an imagined person with real hopes of a better world right there standing in that spot by the door of a well-built outbuilding. A person whose enslaved family member may have built the one room building. A person who at that moment saw the upending of a whole society built on the backs of his brothers and sisters, and decided to take a few minutes to carefully, and with an attention to calligraphic details mostly lost today, set the date of legal emancipation into the wall. Even the act of writing by a person legally emancipated mere hours before attested to his or her personal aspirations, when often such a skill was carefully and strategically withheld by those who sought to keep one race of humanity in a position of vulnerability and servitude for their own personal profit.
I’ll never know what was going through the head of the person who wrote this simple date, but by being invited to participate in an overnight stay with Joseph McGill, Jr. and those others inspired by his Slave Dwelling Project, to imagine what it all might have meant at that singularly important moment in our tragic, but possibly redemptive history, I was certainly moved. After being given the chance by the Reid family to become so intimate with the physical historic materials, after being given the chance, due to a lack of historic evidence, to try and imagine how this dwelling might have appeared, I was allowed to imagine with a little more vivid detail, what those people who laid down to rest at the end of a possibly brutal day of servitude might have experienced. Just a glimpse. Just enough to bring a white family, a white historian and a white craftsman and two black historians and a black craftsman together in an evening around a fire, on a cold night, to make jokes and to reveal a little of each others lives in honor of those who had slept there before them and in honor of a day whose potential we have yet to live up to, but for which we have not stopped striving. It was a real privilege.