The Hugh Craft House

The 1860 U.S. Census was the last U.S. census recording of slaves and slaveholders. Slaves were documented in 1860 without listing their names; only their gender, age, and race were provided.

Hugh Craft House, Oxford, Mississippi

Hugh Craft House, Oxford, Mississippi

At the Hugh Craft House 9 slaves are listed: Female, 25; Female, 28; Male, age not legible; Male, 16; Male, 15; Female, 12; Male, 9; Female, 6; and Male, 3

For the third consecutive year, I participated in the Behind the Big House Tour in Holly Springs, Mississippi. As in recent years, my role was to interpret the slave dwellings behind some of the antebellum mansions in the town, this year that would be three. How the enslaved were documented in the 1860 census without names made me realize that it is absolutely necessary that this project does all within its power to honor them.

The third year also presented the opportunity to involve many school groups in the tour. Linda Turner, Director of Marketing & Community Outreach, Byhalia Family Health Center in Holly Springs ensured that over the course of three days, many schools would participate.

As I addressed the school groups, mainly consisting of African American students, I could not help but state that some of those unnamed enslaved people could easily be some of their direct ancestors. One has to wonder when and why it became policy that the census takers would not list the names of the slaves and how that could frustrate present day genealogists.

Hugh Craft House, Oxford, Mississippi

Hugh Craft House, Oxford, Mississippi

Another teachable moment was provided when my host Chelius Carter, provided a brick that was made by slave labor and had hand imprints. Many of the students did not pass up the opportunity to place their fingers in those imprints and all who touched it realized that the size of the imprints indicated that the enslaved person was a child around their ages or younger. I was impressed that as all of the groups approached the site and gathered outside, their immediate attention to the matter at hand varied from (I’d much rather be somewhere else) to (I’m anxious to learn more about this space). Viewing the census information; touching the imprints in the brick; and thinking that some of those unnamed people could be their ancestors, the power of the space humbled all of the students and their chaperones.

Burton Place

Burton Place, Holly Springs, Mississippi

Burton Place, Holly Springs, Mississippi

Listed in the 1850 census are 8 slaves: Male age 65 black; Female age 40 black; Female age 27 black; Female age 15 black; Male age 10 mulatto; Male age 4 black; Female age 3 black; Male age 2 mulatto Listed in the 1860 census are 80 slaves

The case of Mary M. Burton was quite interesting. Not only did she manage to keep her wealth after her divorce, but she managed to, within the span of ten years, increase her number of slaves from 8 to 80. This was quite enterprising because during that period, any woman bringing wealth into a marriage would automatically transfer that wealth to her husband. Additionally, owning 80 slaves was a clear indication that she was a part of the 2% planter class who could afford to own slaves and profit from all of the cotton that was being grown in Mississippi so abundantly.

The day continued with a visit to University of Mississippi in Oxford where I addressed the southern studies class of Dr. Jodi Skipper. I met Dr. Skipper when she taught at the University of South Carolina. At that time the Slave Dwelling Project was in its infancy and she immediately recognized it had great potential so she met me at a site in Anderson, SC to learn more about me and the project. She is now a professor at the University of Mississippi and this would be my second year presenting to her class. We discussed possible collaboration between the University and the Slave Dwelling Project.

The official opening ceremony was held at the Smiling Phoenix in Holly Springs. The diversity of the group was impressive. There was speechifying by many and a show case of who’s who of Holly Springs.


Magnolia, Holly Springs, Mississippi

Magnolia, Holly Springs, Mississippi

Listed in the 1850 census are 11 slaves: Male age 42 black; Female age 36 mulatto; Female age 30 black; Male age 26 black; Male age 24 black; Female age 28 mulatto; Female age 17 mulatto; Female age 17 mulatto; Female age 5 mulatto; Female age 2 mulatto; Male age 30 mulatto

Listed in the 1860 census are 11 slaves: Male age 45 black; Male age 40 black; Male age 40 black; Female age 39 black; Female age 32 black; Male age 30 black; Male age 20 black; Male age 19 black; Female age 19 black; Male age 7 black; Male age 1 black.

It was interesting at this site as to how many mulatto slaves were owned in 1850 and in the span of ten years the same number of slaves were owned and their ages would dictate that they were different from those owned in 1950 but they were now all Black.

For the third consecutive year, I made an appearance at Rust College, a Historically Black College and University. The previous year was disappointing because only three people showed up for the presentation. This year far surpassed that thanks again to the actions of Linda Turner. Well over one hundred students and faculty members attended the presentation.

For me the real test would be how many African Americans the event could muster on Saturday when school was not in session. To that end, I must say that I was thoroughly impressed because throughout the day African Americans were well represented in the groups that visited the sites.

The Challenge

As indicated by its name, the Behind the Big House Tour was developed three years ago to compliment the Holly Springs Garden Club’s Pilgrimage and give visitors a chance to visit and learn about the slave dwellings behind the mansions. Maybe I am a bit too ambitious, but it seemed to me that the Garden Club was not embracing the Behind the Big House Tour as much as I would like. It seemed the relationship was one more of tolerance rather than acceptance. Could it be that I have become so emotionally attached to this project that I have developed less patience for those who are not willing to step out of their comfort zones but who are only content with telling the stories of those who resided in big houses?

Burton Place, Holly Springs, Mississippi

Burton Place, Holly Springs, Mississippi

It also became obvious to me that the Behind the Big House Tour can and should stand on its own.  Like the Slave Dwelling Project, the Behind the Big House Tour is on the cutting edge of ensuring that extant slave dwellings remain on the American landscape. We are elevating these places to a level equal to the big houses, mansions, businesses or plantations that the people who lived in the slave dwellings supported. There are those who are not yet ready to embrace our concept, but waiting for them could mean that we lose more of these extant buildings to demolition by neglect for I have come across many in my travels that if not stabilized soon, may not last another year. The willing property owners; the dedicated volunteers involved; the buy in from the school system; the buy in from Rust College; the buy in from the Southern Studies Program at University of Mississippi; the buy in from the Mississippi Humanities Council and this year from the Mississippi Development Authority / Tourism Division are true testaments that the program can continue to improve and the Slave Dwelling Project will always be willing to do its part.

We have the census records which gives us the gender, age and race of all of the enslaved people who lived in the slave dwellings at the Hugh Craft House, Burton Place and Magnolia in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Now it is time for the genealogists to step in and do what you do, Let’s give these people names.

The Ministry

Joseph McGill

Joseph McGill

Since embarking on the Slave Dwelling Project four years ago in May, it and I have been called many things by many people, most of which are worthy of repeating. One such title for the project which was given by one of the visitors in Holly Springs was ministry. That word intrigued me so much that I had to consult Webster: a. The act of serving; ministration. b. One that serves as a means; an instrumentality. Thank you Holly Spring visitor, whose name I did not get, for humbling and reminding me that the Slave Dwelling Project is much bigger than Joseph McGill and the current board members, but it is about saving these extant slave dwellings and interpreting the stories of the people who lived in them.

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The Behind the Big House Program: a Collaborative Effort in Holly Springs, MS

By: Jodi Skipper, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Southern Studies, the University of Mississippi

[caption id=”attachment_1846″ align=”alignleft” width=”300″] University of Mississippi, Oxford, Mississippi University of Mississippi, Oxford, Mississippi[/caption]

For the past two years, University of Mississippi students have helped to fill gaps in Mississippi interpretations of African American history by participating in the Behind the Big House (BTBH) program in Holly Springs, MS. The program interprets the lives of the enslaved, through extant former slave dwellings hidden in plain view. They were readapted for various uses, making it difficult to recognize their original purposes, and often suppressed from historical memory, either unintentionally or by design. The BTBH program seeks to remedy these omissions.

The project was initiated by several private property owners, including Chelius Carter, Jenifer Eggleston, David Person, and Genevieve and Frank Busby. Since 2012, the program has been a supplement to the yearly Holly Springs Pilgrimage (sponsored by the Garden Club) which has, for over 80 years, historically interpreted the lives of plantation owning families through historic main houses. BTBH is a distinct program, with twenty sites listed on the tour program. It is free and open to the public, with a select few properties interpreted each year. Additional interpretations are offered by Joseph McGill, Jr., former program officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill, who has been spending nights in slave dwellings to bring attention to the need for their historic preservation, was brought in to help interpret sites.

I met McGill, while working in South Carolina, and later became aware of the Holly Springs program while at the University of Mississippi (U of M). During the BTBH program’s second season, I was teaching a course on southern heritage tourism and my thought process began to focus on how to organize students interested in the growing field of heritage tourism. In 2013, I chose the BTBH pilot program as a case study. It was close by, the program managers were receptive to student help, and most importantly, I believed in the work that they were doing.

Carter and Eggleston began by visiting the class to discuss the development of the Program. Students interviewed tourism officials in Holly Springs to get a better sense of the tourism political climate. Carter and Eggleston expressed the need for help with documentary and archival research. I solicited help from my U of M History department colleagues who specialized in antebellum slavery. One of their doctoral students, Justin Rogers, was allowed to work with Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, Inc. as a part-time research assistant. This was a welcome gift from the History Department. Rogers and my graduate students each had the opportunity to work at more than one property. In addition, I organized a lecture by McGill, held at the U of M. Attendees who were interested in spending additional time with McGill stayed for a question and answer session.

That season, I volunteered as a docent and joined “Gracing the Table (GTT) ,” a derivative of “Coming to the Table,” a national organization whose mission is to provide “leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery.” GTT was organized as a response to members of the Holly Springs community’s realization that the interpretation of dwellings can become fruitless without the therapeutic work necessary to represent such issues. Through GTT, a group of diverse Holly Springs citizens meet at a neutral location, once a month, and interact through exercises prompting them to discuss slavery, race, and racism. It is largely a cooperative effort between private citizens and Rust College faculty and students…and now students from the U of M.

In the program’s third season, first year graduate student, Lauren Holt, joined the project. Lauren Holt is now a member of the GTT planning committee. This season, she took charge of putting together the booklet that the BTBH program provided for local Holly Springs school groups coming through the tour. Working mainly from a guideline from program managers, BTBH info panels, and a high school textbook on Mississippi history, she put together a draft for the text. She also volunteered as a docent for four of the five program days, leading pilgrimage guests and local school groups. In all, some 450 students from Marshall and Benton County schools came through the program during a three day period. Purvis Cornish, another first year graduate student, led some of these school groups at the Hugh Craft House.

This Spring semester, I did not teach a course on southern heritage tourism, but taught another course whose content was just as relevant. In my African Diaspora course, undergraduate students think through how African Diasporic cultures thrived by creating their own forms of arts, musics, foodways, religious and ritual forms, speech genres, and architecture. Several of these students volunteered as docents for the BTBH program and were heavily affected by their experiences.

[caption id=”attachment_1845″ align=”alignleft” width=”300″]University of Mississippi, Oxford, Mississippi University of Mississippi, Oxford, Mississippi[/caption]

Genevieve Busby was kind enough to give those students a tour of the Magnolia main house and quarters, after they attended an orientation on the BTBH program. It was a school night, yet students were so intrigued that they did not want to leave. We spent over three hours in Holly Springs, that day, when we only intended to spend an hour or so. Joe McGill also gave my class a lecture on the Slave Dwelling Project and they were thoroughly fascinated by his commitment to his work. Many questions were asked, from how long he plans to do this work to what kinds of reactions he gets from visitors. No amount of classroom lectures could have replaced this personal connection and first-hand experience for my students. They could not only read and write about those who came before them, but be in the same places in which they lived.

Since I began working with the BTBH, I have had some revelations. 1) If more places like Holly Springs are more willing to tell more complex stories of their built environments, then it can be a benefit to us all. 2) This work cannot be done without the support of institutions like the Mississippi Humanities Council; Mississippi Development Authority/Tourism Division; local citizens; private landowners who value stories of the underprivileged; and volunteers who see the potentially restorative and reconciliatory value in local history. The BTBH program is a necessary one, yet can only survive through the support of lovers of history everywhere. I certainly hope that more of my colleagues, in academia, vow to get their students and institutions involved.

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