The more things change, the more they stay the same. Holly Springs, Mississippi has been beneficial for the Slave Dwelling Project. I have been participating in the Behind the Big House Tour for the past six years of its entire existence. What started as a partnership between the group Preserve Marshall County and the Holly Springs Garden Club was an effort to incorporate the interpretation of slave dwellings into the annual pilgrimage. While the first year was a success, the relationship between the two organizations has been diminishing ever since.
Despite the diminishing relationship between the two stakeholders, the Behind the Big House tours have been a success. For the past six years, the Mississippi Humanities Council has come through with funding necessary to conduct the program. Through Dr. Jodi Skipper, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi in nearby Oxford, students have been participating by volunteering as guides and monitors for the four-day event.
Through Linda Turner, Director of Mississippi Tobacco Free Coalition and Byhalia, the program has one of the best K – 12 participation that I’ve ever witnessed at any of the ninety-four antebellum historic sites that I have spent the night. Linda’s efforts ensure that the children in the Marshall County Schools have the opportunity to learn about the enslaved Ancestors.
Three property owners; Frank and Genevieve Busby, David Pearson and Chelius and Jenifer Carter have been consistently allowing access to their slave dwellings so that the stories of those once enslaved there can be told. This and funding are two of the most important elements in ensuring that the program will continue well into the future. Someone local who will advocate for telling the whole story is also necessary. Homeowners, Chelius Carter and Jenifer Eggleston have been those local people. It was their vision that saw beyond the romanticized version of history and under whose request and guidance that I am still involved with the Behind the Big House Tour.
For the past three years, Preserve Marshall County further enhanced the program when they got the world famous culinary historian and soon to be published, Michael Twitty, involved in the program. Meeting in Holly Springs is the one time of the year that is guaranteed that the two of us can share the same stage.
So here is the rub, anyone on the outside looking in would swear that the program is a complete success. In all actuality, everything is not well. While the Garden Club does a beautiful job in allowing people to gain access into the beautiful architecturally significant homes in Holly Springs, it does a poor job in interpreting the slavery that existed within those walls. Six years ago, we were well on our way to solving that issue by partnering with the Garden Club and by addressing the matters of slavery which they did not. Six years later, that effort to merge the two programs has dissolved. The Pilgrimage and the Behind the Big House Tour occupy the same space on the calendar but are now two separate entities.
Seven years into the Slave Dwelling Project, I’ve learned that getting beyond the watered down, sugar coated, Gone With the Wind, hoop skirt, mint julep version of history is difficult. That is a version of history where most would like to stay as in the Garden Club of Holly Spring, Mississippi and in all fairness, there are some African Americans who are also satisfied with the status quo.
Now that I’ve had my rant, there are some things that we can control. Now let me explain how the actions of the purveyors of real history transpired.
One must adapt and overcome. Despite the deteriorating partnership, the Back of the Big House event was a success. Our biggest challenge this year was Mother Nature, who tried to steal our joy by unleashing vast amounts of rain, and we were also competing with mandatory school testing. On the first day of the event, this school testing only allowed us to interact with one private school, one group of homeschoolers and a few individuals who were there for the pilgrimage, but they all got the same message that a larger group would have gotten.
The opening ceremony for the event was held at the historic Chalmers Institute which is currently being restored. As usual, Michael Twitty wowed the crowd with his vast knowledge. The diverse group was an indication that there is hope that the Behind the Big House Tour has great potential for the future. Dr. Stuart Rockoff, Executive Director of the Mississippi Humanities Council and Ken P’Pool, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer were there.
The first year I came to Holly Springs, I slept alone in the slave dwellings at the Hugh Craft House, the Burton Place, and Magnolia. Years two through four, I did not find it necessary to sleep in the dwellings again because no one expressed a desire to join me in any of them. Last year, a couple from St. Louis wanted the sleepover experience, therefore, I slept with them in the slave dwelling at the Hugh Craft House. That sleepover did not end well because the young couple left around 3:00 am without even saying goodbye. Because they left at 3:00 am, I have now established a rule that the sleepover will not count if the participants do not stay all night.
I came on this trip with no intentions of sleeping in any of the slave dwellings because no one made a request. I relished the thought that I would be sleeping in a nice comfortable bed at the Hugh Craft House all four nights. When I got to Holly Springs, I was informed that there was a possibility that students from Rust College would be joining me for the sleepover. I had my doubts that the students would show up because past efforts to get Rust College involved in this endeavor had proven to be lukewarm at best. Well, two young men did show up, and I did sleep in the Hugh Craft slave dwelling with them. The conversation with the two young men gave me some insight as to why Rust College is not as involved with this worthwhile endeavor as they should be. They have inspired me to redouble my efforts to get Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) more involved with the Slave Dwelling Project. If any institutions of higher learning should be involved in honoring the enslaved Ancestors, they certainly should be. These colleges and universities were created because of the educational opportunities that formerly enslaved people were denied at White institutions of higher learning.
To my pleasant surprise, Tammy Gibson from Chicago would be joining us. I am certain that she and I had discussed her participation before, but it had slipped my mind that she would be joining us in Holly Springs. Tammy has ten sleepovers in slave dwellings throughout the United States. She does not hold the record for the number of places stayed, but she certainly holds the record for distance traveled to get to those sleepovers.
Friday was all that we anticipated. I spent my morning at Magnolia’s. As usual, some of the kids were more attentive than others, but the one item that tended to hold their attention was the census records. The fact that the enslaved Ancestors were not important enough to be given a name on a government document was compelling. The Mulattos listed on the census was also an opportunity to engage the groups on the subject of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. We managed to get all of the school groups addressed before the rain started.
The rain was more of an issue for Michael Twitty and oh, did I mention Kevin Mitchell? Follow that link; you will be amazed at the talent that a dedicated group of volunteers managed to bring to Holly Springs. They were cooking outside on an open fire. That didn’t ruin the meal because the amazing Michael finished cooking the feast in the modern kitchen.
Saturday and my morning would again be at the Magnolia’s. I had the pleasure of being alone and interpreting to strangers, the spaces of our enslaved Ancestors, now that inspires me. I finished the day interpreting the space at the Burton House.
After seven years of sleeping in slave dwellings in nineteen states and the District of Columbia and six years of participating in the Behind the Big House Tour in Holly Springs, Mississippi, I will now begin to lead from the front and not behind. As African Americans, we do not own any of the antebellum sites that our enslaved Ancestors physically built. We must obtain access to these sites by any legal means necessary. With ninety-four sites in the portfolio, it is now time to be more assertive in ensuring that antebellum sites are more inclusive in telling the stories of the enslaved. For Holly Springs, thus will mean having that conversation with my host, members of the Garden Club or whoever else is necessary to ensure that the two programs can coexist. If it is determined that we cannot coexist, we have proven to ourselves that the places that once housed the enslaved can be restored, interpreted, maintained and sustained. The continued participation from the local schools will ensure that there will be an audience. My renewed interest in getting Rust College involved should also help the process along. Leading from the front will also mean that next year, I set aside some time to go on the pilgrimage so that I can assess for myself, the stories that are being told in the big house.
It is still my desire to have the Slave Dwelling Project participate in the pilgrimage of all pilgrimages, and that is in Natchez, Mississippi. While that effort is ongoing, we must fix must ails Holly Springs, Mississippi because it has the built environment to tell the stories of the enslaved Ancestors and those stories are yearning to be unleashed not only to the locals but also to the world.
I was happy to volunteer for the second year at “Behind the Big House” in Holly Springs, MS. It’s a great feeling to meet homeowners who want to talk about the history of the enslaved that worked in their homes. I had the opportunity to learn the history of three homes (Hugh Craft, Magnolia and Burton Place).
Three different homes but they all had one thing in common, the enslaved where kept there. I’ve been to several plantations where the Big House sits on acres and acres of land and the Big Houses in Holly Springs are in a residential neighborhood. It reminds me of a neighborhood that I use to live in. Viewing the slave quarters in each of the homes, I was able to view the bricks that were made by slaves and walking in the doors that the enslaved had access to the Big House.
I also enjoyed for the second time working with Michael Twitty. His southern culinary skills are amazing. Some of the amazing dishes he made were sweet potato biscuits, country captain and Liberia ribs. The food was delicious.
I was not able to participate sleeping in a slave cabin, but I was happy to meet two Rust College students who came to experience and learn about how the enslaved spent their lifetime in a slave cabin. We talked for several hours until 2:00 a.m. before they turned in for the night. I am hopeful that they will take this experience and share it with their classmates and come back next year with more Rust College students.
I enjoyed my time volunteering for the “Behind the Big House” and looking forward to next year.
One of my closest professors at Rust College, Dr. Alisea McLeod, informed my friend and me about “The Slave Dwelling Project”, saying there was an opportunity to stay in an actual slave dwelling over night! On a Thursday evening, my classmate and I in fact slept overnight in a real slave cabin beside the Hugh Craft townhouse in Holly Springs, Miss.
At first sight of the main house, I was a little skeptical of the “overnight stay.” We were first
introduced to the main house before we were shown the slave dwelling. The main house was of course modernized and kept up. It’s eggshell walls were adorned with facts about the slavery era, in particular information on both the town of Holly Springs and the Hugh Craft house itself. As for the cabin, from the outside, I could see that it was a two-story shack with pure authenticity of both the era and the audience it had once held dear. The shack had known both servitude and endurance.
Before we entered it for the night, our tour guide, Joseph McGill, interacted with us, covering various topics such as his further endeavors concerning this year and of 2018 Slave Dwelling events, further collegiate support & his participation in many historical preservation projects.
After finally entering our quarters for the night, an instant sense of respect and awe came over me to know that I would lay my head down in the same spot as the African American prisoners before me. The first hour of laying there I brainstormed on how best I could honor the ancestors who still loomed over my present location. As any other young adult when confronted with an important ancestral experience, I felt of a pressure of appreciation and empowerment. The building was physically of wood and nails, emotionally of so many familiar feelings of ache, frustration and forced tolerance.
My overall experience within the Slave Dwelling was both mentally beneficial as well as