I love it when a good plan comes together. For five consecutive years, I have been going to Holly Springs, Mississippi to participate in the Behind the Big House Tour. My friends in Holly Springs figured it out early that there was more to the story than what was being interpreted in the big house. Also for three consecutive years, I have been meeting Chris Lese and his students from Marquette University High School in some parts of the United States to sleep in slave dwellings. Marquette University High School is a private, all-male, Jesuit, Roman Catholic school located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first year we met in Charleston, SC, the second years was northern Virginia and this year I got to meet the group in Holly Springs.
Property owners Chelius Carter and his lovely wife Jenifer Eggleston did not hesitate when I made the request for me and the group from Wisconsin to stay in the slave cabin on their property, the Hugh Craft House. Likewise, David Person was also forthcoming with his slave dwelling at the Burton Place because the capacity of the group far exceeded the slave cabin at the Hugh Craft House.
So now the stage was set. My biggest challenge was to help fill the void that existed between the two nights that the group was scheduled to sleep in the cabins. For that, I reached out to Jeffrey Jackson a sociology professor at the University of Mississippi. In February of this year, I was a part of a tour that Jeffrey gave at the University. This was a tour that revealed all of the University’s involvement in matters of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. It just so happened that Jeffrey would be available to give the tour to the group at the time that we desired. Bill Griffith, the curator at Rowan Oak would also be available to give a tour of Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner that is currently owned by the University of Mississippi.
The plan was for all of us to converge at the home of our host Chelius Carter at 4:00 pm on Thursday. Chelius and his wife Jennifer are in the process of transitioning from a life in Holly Springs to a life Fredericksburg, Virginia, therefore he had driven 13 hours to get back to Holly Springs to make this thing work. While I arrived at the appointed time, delays would have the Wisconsin group arriving six hours late. This delay gave Chelius and me the opportunity to catch up on some matters concerning the Behind the Big House Tour. This was important because the local Garden Club is not feeling inclined to include the slave dwellings when they conduct their annual pilgrimage. They continually only want to interpret the mansions, a problem that is not isolated to Holly Springs, Mississippi. Nationally, it is the tendency of most places that give tours of antebellum houses only to focus on the mansions and not the slave dwellings or slave labor associated with them. This romanticized version of history is something the Slave Dwelling Project and the Behind the Big House Tour are trying to correct. Our combined goal is to change the narrative so the entire story can be told.
Contributing to the group’s late arrival, was a trip that they took to Jones County Mississippi. With the movie “Free State of Jones” on the horizon, the group did not want to miss out on the opportunity to visit the actual site. Arriving six hours late, meant that the group would be finding their space in the dwelling with the use of flashlights. Upon the group’s arrival, property owner, Chelius Carter, oriented them to the property. An attempt was made to fit all 32 people in one cabin but that proved fruitless. It was indeed necessary to use the space in the slave dwelling at the Burton Place. Chelius again showed heart by offering the one lady of the group an opportunity to sleep in a nice comfortable bed in his house. An offer which she accepted.
I recalled that the last time I slept in the cabin I was joined by a young couple from Missouri who did not make it through the night. They bolted around 3:00 am without even saying goodbye. I was assured that none of the young men would love throughout the night.
The next morning, all were present and accounted for. Our task was to get these young men over to the University of Mississippi by 10:00 am for our tour with a stop at IHOP along the way. I was pleased in the fact that we were only 20 minutes late. Luckily, I had constant contact with our tour guide and was able to keep him apprised of the situation.
The tour did not disappoint. It was everything I wanted it to be and literally more. Jeffrey did not hold back as he explained in great detail how the founding members of the University of Mississippi were enslavers. Students were allowed to bring their enslaved body servants with them to school. The most poignant part of the story was that of James Meredith and all that he went through to become the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi. I could not help but think about Clemson University with a similar history associated with slavery and discrimination because it has been less than two months that I had spent a night on that campus. Sadly, there are many more institutions of higher learning that should be as forthcoming about revealing their ties to the institution of slavery and the legacy that it has left on their institutions and this nation.
Our tour of William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, went on without a hitch. I was assured that my sleepover there would occur in the near future. This sleepover has been eluding me for years but now it seems that the stars are aligning for the sleepover to occur. The current plan is to conduct the sleepover when the University of Mississippi Archaeology Department conducts an excavation at the site. This is all a part of the larger plan to have the University interpret its ties to the institution of slavery.
Chelius came up with a brilliant idea of offering the Chalmers Institute building for the group to have dinner and its daily briefing. The group had the opportunity to reflect on the day’s activities and other places that they had visited on the trip. Sometime during the trip, the group had visited Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis home and Presidential Library. Some of the young men purchased confederate flags and were waving it as the vans were proceeding down the road. Chris expressed his displeasure and asked me to chime in. I began the conversation by recapping what happened in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC on June 17, 2015. It took nine individuals to lose their lives for the elected officials of South Carolina to finally move that flag from the state house capital grounds to a museum. Mine was a message that I hope resonated with the young men.
An early flight out of Memphis, Tennessee meant that I had to leave without saying goodbye to the group. Fear not, for group leader Chris Lese and I are already making plans for next year’s trip to New York City as we will get to explore the slavery that was conducted in the Empire State.
The face of “history immersion” with students from Marquette University High School in Wisconsin, while in Holly Springs, Mississippi this past week: June 9-11.
Most of you probably had the same experience as did I in high school…history being relegated to either the football or baseball coach and pretty much rote-learning of names and dates…and that was about it. Dead as dust and almost as compelling. Not Chris Lese, history teacher at Marquette University High School.
Chris’ first love was the American Civil War and a desire to teach it. Life handed him another route into architectural practice, but the recent (and might I add on-going) recession opened an opportunity for a career change and he elected to revisit his first passion: to teach history with a focus on the American Civil War.
He assembles what can possibly rival the Allies’ planning the 1944 Normandy Invasion. He plans extensive annual trips with his students (32 this year!) to visit battlefields, historic towns, homes, sites, archaeological sites and it involves mostly rough-and-ready camping along the way at several sites.
Mr. Lese met our friend Joseph McGill at a recent history conference and was intrigued by his Slaves Dwelling Project and wanted to work in that topic with his upcoming tour of Civil War battlefields of the Western Theatre…and correctly wanting to link the two topics together somehow. Joseph told him about our “Behind the Big House” program in Holly Springs, Mississippi and a two-night’s stay was set for the slaves quarters at the Hugh Craft House (home of Chelius carter & Jenifer Eggleston) and at David Person’s home, “Burton Place.”
So here is the youthful face of “history immersion”…and we (Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc.) invited them to use our property, historic Chalmers Institute in which to hold their wrap-up discussion and dinner (from Annie’s Restaurant – these boys from Wisconsin didn’t know WHAT to do with Annie Moffitt’s signature “bear-hugs”).
In my welcoming comments, I shared with them the observation that they were the first group of school-boys to be in the original 1837 lecture hall of Chalmers Institute since it closed its doors in 1879, as yet another victim to the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. It was in deed a “wow” moment to know they were actively participating in the history of this proud edifice.