When an article about the Slave Dwelling Project appeared in the October 2013 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, I was shortly thereafter contacted by Jonathan Williams. He was a Social Studies teacher and Assistant Principal at McMichael High School in Mayodan, North Carolina. We arranged to have the Slave Dwelling Project come to present at his school and spend the night at a slave cabin at McCollum Farm which is located in Rockingham County. The programs happened during the school year of 2014 and were quite successful. Jonathan also presented about the programs at the first Slave Dwelling Project conference which was held in Savannah, Georgia in 2014.
Fast forward to 2016 and Jonathan is now Assistant Principal at Ellis Middle School in Advance, NC in Davie County. The two of us agreed on adding a place holder on the 2016 schedule for the Slave Dwelling Project to come to Cooleemee Plantation located in nearby Mocksville. The plan was tentative because the property which was always owned by the Hairston family was now under new ownership.
Jonathan again worked his magic and made the stay happen. This year the majority of the activities would take place at the site. Prinny Anderson presented on her ancestral ties to President Thomas Jefferson. Tim Keck, the grounds keeper, gave a tour of the grounds and outbuildings. Adrianne Carpenter gave the students a house tour. School teachers took the students on a scavenger hunt. Historians Charlie Rodenboug and Bob Carter Hairston gave a lecture about the Hairston family history and plantation life. Terry James and I talked about the Slave Dwelling Project and the lives of the enslaved.
I am not usually amazed by big houses but this one was somewhat unique. The winding staircase that went all the way up to the top was a work of skill and art. The work of the enslaved was involved in creating this big house if for none other than cutting down the trees that is now that magnificent stair case.
Throughout the day, Terry and I addressed six groups of students. The students were impressed by Terry’s explanation of sleeping in slave cabins while wearing shackles. While it was a chore to get any questions out of the first and last groups, those in between were abound with curiosity and expressed themselves accordingly.
We met the new owner of Cooleemee, Mr. Spurgeon H. Foster. He came and listened in as Terry addressed the third group of children. I was already impressed at the fact that he had given us permission for the school field trips to take place on the property and for us to spend a night in the slave cabin but for him to show up at the presentation was above and beyond. Mr. Spurgeon’s actions impressed me even more. Commonly, individuals with the means to invest in plantations are mostly standoffish. Mr. Foster would continue to engage us throughout the time that we would remain on his property. He offered us meat that he had smoked himself and invited us to explore with him a part of the property where he believed rice was grown. We took him up on both offers.
In addition to the activities at the plantation, Prinny, Terry and I gave a Slave Dwelling Project presentation at Ellis Middle School for any teachers and students who did not come out to the plantation because only the eighth graders were given the opportunity to do so. Some of the students in the audience had visited the plantation earlier and had brought their parents to hear the presentation. I was impressed because the school principal was also a member of the audience. The small intimate group kept the questions coming and we could have gone beyond the prescribed time easily but a local person who was a descendant of the enslaved on the Cooleemee Plantation was scheduled to meet us for dinner.
The caretakers Tim Keck and Adrienne Carpenter did a beautiful job in preparing the cabin for the sleepover. This is important because prior to getting to the site, the only pictures that I could find of the slave dwelling did not look very promising. The fireplace was missing and it had a modern screen door on it.
Joining me in the cabin for the sleepover would be Prinny Anderson, Terry James and Jonathan Williams. The invitation for more to join us was expressed but no one volunteered.
Early that morning, the property owner Mr. Foster delivered the smoked meat to me and Terry as he had promised. Later that morning, Prinny, Terry and I would join him and proceed to a site on the property where he thought rice may have been grown. We saw evidence of what could have been a system of dykes which was necessary for the growing of rice. Our collective conclusion was maybe rice was grown in this area but the jury is still out on that one.
We left with an open invitation from the owner to return to the site.
Pine Hall Plantation
Prinny, Terry and I took a side trip to Pine Hall Plantation which is located in Madison, North Carolina. The owners had extended to us an invitation to spend a night in the cabin on the site. The reports that we were getting about the condition of the site were not favorable. The owner was working on putting a floor in the building up until the time we reached the site.
Upon seeing the building, I was impressed with its condition. None of what I though was true, for the building was structurally sound and in great condition. We decided not to stay in the building because the building did not have windows and/or shutters, doors or chinking and the temperature was predicted to get down to 40 degrees overnight. Self-preservation is important when dealing with sleeping overnight in extant slave dwellings.
What impressed me the most, was the condition of the graveyard of the people who were enslaved at this plantation. In all of my travels I have seen very few graves of the enslaved that have been marked by stones. The graves were well marked and the stones were well embedded in the earth.
We now know that when we return to this area of North Carolina, there are two extant slave cabins that can accommodate us. Members of the Slave Dwelling Project and Jonathan Williams are already beginning to make plans about how we can make 2017 an even better year for students and others who want to participate in future programs that continue to honor the enslaved Ancestors.
Cooleemee – Change and Preservation
By Prinny Anderson
When you first think about the word, “preservation” would seem to be the opposite of “change.” A place, an object or a story is preserved just as it was, so that it will be that way forever. But preservation also has to do with a combination of preserving knowledge and learning new things. Sometimes as we learn more, our perspective on a topic changes, and our choices about what to preserve and how to preserve it evolve.
The Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight stay at Cooleemee, on the banks of the Yadkin River in North Carolina exemplified the balancing of preservation and change.
The land for Cooleemee was purchased by Peter Hairston in 1817. The name is said to come from the local Native American language, meaning white oak. The American story of Cooleemee starts with a failure to preserve, with eradication of the original inhabitants of the Yadkin flood plain, their language and their culture.
The land itself was changed in the early nineteenth century – it became 4500 acre farm, growing tobacco, corn, cotton, soybeans, livestock and timber. But thereafter, the tradition of farming has been preserved into the 21st century, and some of the same crops are grown in Cooleemee fields – corn, soybeans, wheat, and sometimes barley.
The property remained in the possession of the Hairston family for 200 years, through wars and all kinds of family changes. The current house was built in 1854-55. Its basic design and much of its finely worked décor were preserved, but some elements of the house changed as times changed. Plumbing and indoor bathrooms were added; cooking moved from a separate cook house to an attached kitchen.
With the Civil War, the Hairston family remained at Cooleemee, but their fortunes could not be preserved. They lived on in the mansion, but could not keep up all of the outbuildings. Of the 60 – 70 slave dwellings standing across the acres, almost none remain, and the only intact dwelling has been preserved by being modernized and moved to a new location.
In November 2015, the preservation of the land and the remaining buildings resulted from a profound change. The Hairston family sold the property to a local man who had been farming Hairston land for 45 years, and the last Hairston occupant moved away.
However, care for the land and maintaining it in agriculture have been preserved as a result of this hand-off from old owner to new. Not only will farming continue at Cooleemee, as many as possible of the old buildings will be preserved, including the mansion and the slave dwelling. But their purpose and use will change from exclusively private to more public. The property and the buildings will become places in which school children can learn about their past in active, experiential ways. There are dreams of continuing to expand the story of Cooleemee to include the lives and contributions of its enslaved and then tenant farming community. There are plans to bring living history experiences to Cooleemee, changing the “moonlight and magnolias” story that has been told about such plantations into the stories of those who built, farmed, cooked, made bricks, hewed wood, wove and sewed clothing, nursed and raised babies, and in all other ways made life at Cooleemee possible for the Hairston family.
The Slave Dwelling Project had the privilege to participate in processes of change and preservation at Cooleemee. Our visit started with meeting eighth graders on a field trip from the William Ellis Middle School. Because Cooleemee is private property, none of the students had heard of it before, much less visited. Once they reached the plantation, they spent time at each of 6 learning stations where the topics ranged from slavery to plantation life to the Hairston family’s history to touring the main house. For the first time, young people were exposed to facts and stories preserved from the past and shaped by modern thinking about the “good old days.”
Later in the day, back at the school, the Slave Dwelling Project had an hour of presentation and conversation with interested parents and children. Each person attending told a story about sightseeing visits or graduate school studies that had changed their view of American history as they had previously taken it for granted.
That night, the William Ellis school vice principal joined the Slave Dwelling Project to sleep over in the preserved slave cabin. This cabin was a perfect example of alteration that led to preservation. It had been removed from its original site and put beside a pond, near the last Hairston’s cottage. He used the cabin as an office, and there’s a story that hams were stored and sold from the building. Today, the floors are new, there are shelves on all the walls, and there’s modern glass in the windows. But experience has taught us that sometimes the only way a slave dwelling is preserved is when it’s changed to be used for another purpose. A strict preservationist might cringe at the repurposing, but specialists in slave dwellings know that without that change, slave cabins can be demolished or allowed to deteriorate and collapse.
Sometimes change is the best way to achieve preservation, and that which is preserved, whether it is a place, an object, or a belief or a concept, may need to be changed to reflect the expansion and deepening of our culture and beliefs. Changing our view of history is what enables the preservation of our knowledge of the identities, lives and contributions of enslaved African Americans.
Slave Dwelling Project Blog – April 15th – 16th, 2016
Cooleemee Plantation, Advance, NC
Jon Williams – Assistant Principal, William Ellis Middle School – Advance, NC
Two years ago I discovered Joseph McGill from an article in Smithsonian Magazine. I immediately connected to his work and his mission of sleeping in every extant slave dwelling in the United States. I was able to contact him via Twitter and organize a History Fair style program for the high school I was teaching at, at that time. We had a program at the school, a program at the site of the overnight stay (McCollum Farm – Madison, NC), and then a program at the local museum the next day. I stayed with Joe, and two other folks in the slave cabin in need of great repair. All told 300 high school students were exposed to Joe’s message. Good work was done.
Fast forward two years. I am now an Assistant Principal at a middle school in a different school system. Since I have been here, I have looking for properties and ways to bring Joe and the Slave Dwelling Project back to NC to bring his message to more students, teachers, and community members. I am now in Davie County. Remarkably so, there is a plantation house near my school that was owned until recently by the Hairston family, who owned numerous plantations and slaves in this region and just north of here into Virginia. Books have been written about the family, their properties, their wealth, and their slaves over the years.
I first reached out by email to a member of the Hairston family. At first I thought it was a descendant of the slave owning Hairstons, but later I found out it was a member of the descendants of the black Hairston Clan. After some correspondence, no progress was made in securing an overnight stay at the Cooleemee Plantation. The family was in the process of selling the property, and I soon realized there would be no visit by the SDP for the school year 2014 – 2015.
At the beginning of this school year, I continued to keep up with Joe’s overnight stays via his blogs and website. It never ceases to amaze me the dedication, passion, and commitment he displays in his weekly travels. It was my hope that there still could be visit to Cooleemee.
As I filled my car up with gas at a local service station, I noticed the front page article from the county paper with the headline “Cooleemee Plantation Sold.” There was a picture of the new owner who had bought the property from the Hairston family. He had worked the land for the family for decades. The article indicated that it was his desire to restore the existing buildings and the plantation house and have events on the property in the future. I found out his number, and contacted him and he agreed to have a program on site and an overnight stay from Joe and the Slave Dwelling Project. The mission continues.
At my new school, I have a great group of 8th Grade Teachers who work together, plan together, and all were on board with an on-site visit to Cooleemee. Over ten standards and objectives from the NC 8th Grade Social Studies and English Language Arts curriculums were identified and plans were made to bring the entire 8th Grade from William Ellis Middle School to the Cooleemee Plantation for the day. It was my hope to bring something similar from my previous school visit by Joe by having local historians and to be on site to give the history of the land, buildings, time period, and the typical life of a slave. Plans fell into place and we secured seven guest speakers and tour guides. We conducted six different stations on the grounds which included a presentation from Joe and Terry James at the slave cabin, a talk about family history from Prinny Anderson, a plantation house tour by one for the current caretakers of the property (Adrienne Carpenter), a tour of the grounds by another caretaker of the property (Tim Keck), a history presentation about the life of a slave by historians Charlie Rodenbough and Bob Carter, and a welcome from the current owner Spurgeon Foster. Students also had a group in which they could reflect on what they were seeing and experiencing and were assigned to write a poem from the perspective of slave. My teachers used slave narratives to help students generate ideas for their creations. Students also got to participate in an online scavenger hunt for things on the property.
All told over 180 8th graders got to experience, for a day, life on a plantation with many experts from the field. It was a good day for bringing awareness to the “little house” behind the “big house” and from where the true source of Hairston wealth originated. Connecting local history, state history, national history, and world history was prevalent in the day’s activities and students got to see and hear first-hand the importance of preserving history and ensuring that important people are not forgotten in the process.
After the day visit by the students, we had a more intimate gathering of about 15 people in our Media Center at Ellis Middle School. What was great is that each student that attended, a parent accompanied them. Joe gave his usual presentation and slide show and a great discussion was started with our school parents and students with Joe, Terry, and Prinny.
In organizing two of these visits, I am never surprised by people who hear about Joe and come out of the woodwork to come hear him. This visit was no different. Through a friend of Prinny, one of the African-American Hairston descendants contacted her and wanted to meet with us and take us to dinner. She met us at school and we then enjoyed a great dinner of Lexington, NC barbeque. We then went back to the property, and our new friend toured the house, took pictures and was so excited to be at the property where her descendants once lived and worked. The spirits were with her as she shared pictures with me later from in the house. Many were foggy and turned out blurry with unexplained things in what should have been clear pictures.
After the visit, Joe, Terry, Prinny and I sat down to a camp fire outside the cabin. Topics of slavery, politics, the use of social media, and others were fodder for the night. It’s always a good and powerful time sitting by the fire. Again, I am thankful for Joe and his work.
As during my first overnight stay, I did not know what to expect. All of us retired and it was a peaceful, serene, and cold night. Again, the very act of sleeping in a slave cabin sends such a powerful message of the importance of preserving these important places and the stories they tell. I was thankful to be a part of the Slave Dwelling Project experience… again.
We awoke, and I left my comrades who were now on their next trek to stay in another slave cabin near my home. I wished everyone well, and just as with the first visit, I know I will be searching out properties, and talking to people to help Joe with his mission. I look forward to next year…
**A SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Spurgeon Foster, the owner of the property, and the caretakers of the property Adrienne Carpenter and Tim Keck, who were truly amazing and gracious throughout the preparations for the event, during the event, and also after the overnight stay. This occasion would not have been possible without their efforts and understanding. They were so helpful, and so involved to make sure everything was ready and right for the event. Thanks also goes out to my 8th Grade Teachers and students.