With stays at Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington, the Hall House Kitchen and Slave Dwelling in Salisbury and Stagville in Durham, the state of North Carolina is beginning to be well represented in the number of places I’ve spent nights in extant slave dwellings. The invitation for this stay at McCollum Farm in Madison, North Carolina came about as a result of the article written by Tony Horwitz on the Slave Dwelling Project which appeared in the October 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. After reading the article, my host, Jonathan Williams, social studies teacher and principal intern at McMichael High School in Mayodan, North Carolina, tweeted me with the request.
Jonathan really took me literally when I insisted that he maximize my time while I was there. My day started at McMichael High School with about seven minute sessions with each groups as they would shift from station to station. I can only compare it to speed dating but once I found my groove, I found that method quite effective. Other sessions included: artifacts from a local museum; Madison Colored School; and Madison’s African American businesses from days of segregation.
The site of the stay was McCollum Farm in Madison, North Carolina. Local historian, Robert W. Carter, Jr. describes the cabin as follows: “In the mid-19th century the majority of farm families in Rockingham County lived in log homes. Some well-to-do farmers lived in framed houses and a few even had brick houses. The truly remarkable building on the farm is the slave dwelling, one of the few remaining in Rockingham County. When Starling Yours owned the property he had three log houses for his 17 slaves. Only one of these buildings survives and the other two have since been torn down. This building had a stone chimney for a fireplace on the east side. There were no windows and the door faces south. No doubt this door was kept open much of the time as was the custom in the South. The building had no floor which was probably removed by the mid-20th century when the building was used as a chicken house. The house does contain a sleeping loft.”
The slave cabin and its out buildings reminded me a lot of the Simpsonville, South Carolina site where I stayed. The cabin there was also built of logs and had a dirt floor. Jonathan along with history club students and members of the high school football team had come out days earlier to clean the site in preparation for the overnight stay. In the words of Jonathan, “the cleanup was badly needed,” and he reminded me that my response to the picture of the cabin that he sent to me was that “it looked scary.”
At the site, I met Dick Cartwright, the property owner who was cooking turtle stew in a huge pot over an open fire. Dick is a descendant of the original owner of the property, he was also accompanied by his daughter and her husband. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were descendants of those who were enslaved on the property also at the gathering.
The property is currently for sale but there are renters living in one side of the big house. Dick took us on a tour of the unoccupied side of the big house. It was evident that the big house like all of the outbuildings is in need of restoration but they are all sturdy and would be a great project for a preservation minded buyer. What also became evident on the tour was the amount of work that went into erecting all of the buildings on the site because numerous amounts of huge trees had to be cut down and made into the lumber that composed the structures.
I ate a helping of the turtle stew but I was not impressed and happy that there were other items that satisfied my hunger.
The event continued with various people giving presentations about the occasion. About five minutes into my presentation, a strange weather episode began to occur. The wind began to blow so fiercely that we had to continue the presentation inside the cabin. Instead of coming inside the cabin about one fourth of the audience departed. I do not know if they left because of the impending bad weather or if that space inside that cabin was too much to bare.
Left to sleep in the cabin with me were my host Jonathan Williams, Kimberly Proctor, Executive Director Rockingham County Historical Society and Archives and her grandson Jones Gresham. A tarp was laid on the dirt floor upon which, we spread our sleeping bags. Both doors were left open so that we could maintain a breeze throughout the structure.
The next day, I was tasked with giving a presentation at the local museum. We managed to muster an impressive crowd considering the lecture was given at 10:00 am on Saturday morning.
I left this visit encouraged that there is great potential for a future visit. Additionally, the Slave Dwelling Project will engage in helping to find a preservation minded buyer for McCollum Farm. It is also my hope that I can keep the major players that made this stay possible engaged for it is not often that I can interact with descendants of slave owners and descendants of those they enslaved in on the property it occurred. Imagine these players in a session together at the upcoming Slave Dwelling Project Conference in Savannah, Georgia.
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Slave Dwelling Project – Mayodan, NC, & the McCollum Farm
Friendship on the McCollum Farm
By Prinny Anderson
I joined the Slave Dwelling Project’s visit to Mayodan, NC, for the afternoon at the high school History Fair and for the evening gathering at the McCollum Farm, but did not stay overnight in the slave dwelling on the Farm. What impressed me during this visit, was all that had already been done to bring the story of slavery, the enslaved people and the African Americans in Rockingham County into the general narrative of history. Unlike some overnight stays, this visit felt like an affirmation of a solid commitment rather than a first step to getting people to think about issues and histories ignored.
To start with, the McMichael High School, Mayodan, NC, (Rockingham County) has a history club, and the students and teacher in that club had put together a History Fair that ran for most of the school day. Guest speakers like the Slave Dwelling Project talked to small groups of students about topics such as the importance of preserving slave dwellings, the history of the local Rosenwald School and the enslaved families of Sauratown. The speakers included historians, authors, preservationists, a museum director, and the town’s mayor.
McCollum Farm in rural Rockingham County, has been in existence for at least 200 years and is still owned by descendants of the original McCollums. There are a number of old buildings on the property, including a slave cabin and a farm house constructed in segments between the early 19th century and the early 20th. This spot was the location for an evening gathering and a feast that included turtle stew, fried corn mush, and red beans.
The farm serves as the heart of the McCollum descendant community – descendants of people enslaved on McCollum properties and descendants of the slaveholders and farm owners. Black and white McCollums attended the evening gathering and talked about how they had met and connected. A tall African American man stood with his arm around the shoulders of a petite European American woman and recalled how, when they first met, she said to him, “Hello, nice to meet you. I’m afraid to say that my ancestors owned your ancestors. We’re connected.”
They have remained connected. The black McCollum Farm descendants have held family reunions at the Farm. Among the black and white Farm descendants who research and write up family history, documents and new discoveries are freely shared. The McCollum Farm descendants seem to see themselves as people with a single, shared heritage and a common interest in preserving it, enjoying it, and sharing it with their elders and with their young people.
My only regret about driving away after the meal and presentations was that I wanted more time to understand what qualities of heart, mind and soul had drawn the McCollum Farm descendants together and allowed them to talk about their historical and present-day connection through slavery in the friendly, down to earth terms I had experienced.
Slave Dwelling Project Blog – May 9th – 10th, 2014
McCollum Farm, Madison, NC
Jon Williams – Social Studies Teacher, Dalton L. McMichael High School – Mayodan, NC
I was sitting in the orthodontist’s office waiting on my 13 year old daughter to finish with her adjustment for the day when I picked up, at random, a Smithsonian Magazine. Upon thumbing through the pages, I came across an article about Joseph McGill and his mission to sleep in every slave dwelling that was still standing in the United States. Being a high school history teacher, I was immediately impressed, captivated, and yearned to help this innovative and immensely important cause. As a pretty techy educator, I immediately checked to see if Joe had a twitter account, and sure enough, he did. Over the course of the next few days, we communicated via social media and phone and tentatively set up a possible appearance of the Slave Dwelling Project in Rockingham County, NC.
I have worked with several groups in our county on historical events, and I sponsor the McMichael High School History Club at my school. I contacted our local museum and the local historical properties commission and we got to planning. First came locating a property in our local community that had a slave dwelling. We looked at a few different possibilities, and finally contacted an owner who was willing to take on our project. The property fascinated me in that it still possessed the main house (built in 1812), one slave cabin, a meat house, a corn crib, and a few other out-buildings. All are in need of preservation, but overall, the structures were in fair shape considering their age. Through working with the county historian, the Museum and Archives of Rockingham County, and the Madison Historic Districts and Properties Commission, we were able to determine that the plantation in 1860 had 17 enslaved people, and it had 3 slave cabins at that time. It was a tobacco plantation, and according to records had not had the best of financial yields through the years. All of this information motivated me to work with the team to set up a first-rate event for my students and our community. It was truly a collaborative effort between a lot of people in order to pull off the 1st Annual McMichael History Fair at the school, and then carry out a full-length program at the site that night. We followed the fair, the on-site program, and the overnight stay with a closing program at the museum the next morning. My students were instrumental in making this happen.
All told, over 300 students passed through the media center of McMichael High School to see five different stations of presenters with our headliner being Joe. Our stations included a local group restoring a Rosenwald African-American school in our town, a booth with our county historian and museum director speaking on slavery in our county, an author of three books on slavery in our region, three people from the historic properties commission speaking about African-American businesses and buildings in our town in the times of segregation, and of course, the Slave Dwelling Project rounded out our groups. Students and community members came out for our fair and raved over all of the things they learned. Groups circulated every five to seven minutes like clockwork enjoying each station. It was a truly great experience in which awareness of the project was facilitated and our community history was embraced as well. Our African-American community was so appreciative of the speakers, exhibits, and overall remembrance of the times that should never be forgotten. The only complaint was that all of our African-American students could not visit our fair that day. I agree. Many missed an incredible showcase. Next year, I hope we can change that.
Later in the day, our History Club moved to the Old McCollum Farm – the site of the overnight stay. Tables, chairs, and tents were set up for our big event. We had members of the museum including one of our school board members prepare a traditional dinner of corn meal mush, pinto beans, greens, fat back, and the owner of the property (a descendant of the original plantation owner) made his famous turtle stew. The dinner was preceded by a tour of the property in which descendants of the plantation owners and descendants of the slaves that worked the property were both present. Again, I was hoping that we could locate family members of both groups, and it did happen. The reunion of sorts was very special. Doors were opened and conversations began about the roots of both families then and now. It was also shared that the “white McCollums” and the “black McCollums” did have some blood relatives in their ancestry. At our program that evening, both families shared stories of past and present.
Our program at the farm included some of the same speakers from our event earlier in the day at the school, plus a guest appearance from Prinny Anderson, a 4x great granddaughter of Thomas and Martha Jefferson, and a 5x great niece of Sally Hemmings. After she spoke, Joe started his portion of the program when fierce winds and clouds came out of nowhere. We had to make a call on where to move our event, because it looked like a violent storm could be coming soon. So, where did we go? Of course, our event moved into the cabin itself which had been cleared out for the overnight stay. Another teacher from the school remarked later that it was as if the program was supposed to be “inside” the cabin. I think he was right.
Following the program which attracted close to 50 people, a bon-fire for the four who were staying the night was held. After this long day, myself, Kim Proctor (the museum director), her grandson, and Joe prepared the tarp and bedding for the stay on the dirt floor of the cabin. All retired with the two doors of the cabin open for the breeze. No club was needed for the night. In fact, it was very serene and peaceful. Upon laying my head down, I did not know what to expect. I just knew that our simple act was somehow a small step in preserving a very important piece of history.
Lastly, we awoke and had breakfast at a local “country cooking” stop and had a 2 ½ hour program that originally was supposed to last an hour. People stayed, talked, discussed, and were engaged with our conversation about the project. It is our hope that Joe will be back next year, and at possibly a new site in our small town. I know I will be there to support the cause…
**A SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Dick Cartwright, the owner of the property, and his family, 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.