I met Jeremiah DeGennaro at a conference titled “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th,” which was held in Gettysburg, VA, March 14 – 16, 2013. We were on a panel together titled: “Discussing Emancipation with Visitors.” After the panel discussion, Jeremiah gave me an invitation to visit Historic Stagville near Durham, NC.
Until the invitation, I had never heard of Stagville. A plantation with extant slave cabins that once housed 900 slaves should have been on my radar long before Jeremiah’s invitation. I dismissed the invitation because I had gotten invitations before from young exuberant staff members who immediately get the intent of the Slave Dwelling Project only to have the invitation retracted when their bosses are introduced to the idea. Well young Jeremiah came through in a big way. The stay would occur on Saturday, October, 12, 2013.
Before the Stagville stay could occur, I had to take a side trip to Danville, VA. Since the Slave Dwelling Project started in 2010, I have become a clearing house for everything dealing with buildings that once housed enslaved African Americans. I do not recall when exactly I was alerted to a situation at the Fearn Plantation in Danville. With the buildings already gone, the ruins and grave sites are now being threatened with the development of an industrial park. Having already scheduled a stay at the site in Stagville, I recommended a side trip to Danville which was less than two hours away.
Terry James has a great history with the Slave Dwelling Project. After me, he has spent a night in more slave dwellings than any other person associated with this project. Most of his stays have been in the state of South Carolina and his other responsibilities dictate that he gets to the stays when time permits, this sometimes meant that he would get to the site very late and only be there for the experience of sleeping in the dwellings. Any public programs associated with the stays he would often have to forgo. This time for Terry would be different, I committed to picking him up from his home in Florence, SC which for me was a two hour drive from where I stay in Ladson, SC. Terry’s dedication to date was certainly deserving of such an act because I wanted him to participate in all of the activities involved for this stay. This allowed us to spend quality time talking about the future of the Slave Dwelling Project and his newly formed nonprofit for Jamestown, property that has been owned by his family since shortly after emancipation.
Three and one half hours after leaving Florence, SC we reached Danville, VA. We would spend the night at the II Georges Inn. According to its website, the II Georges Inn is a 3-1/2 year labor of love by Jake and Connie Eckman who have restored this 1885 solid brick Queen Anne Victorian home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, back to its original grandeur. It is situated off of Danville’s Millionaire’s Row in the heart of one of Danville’s fine historic districts. The name comes from Jake and Connie’s father’s names, George Carmen Eckman and George David Williams. Jake and Connie started calling it The Two Georges Inn when it was just a dream of theirs, seven years ago, to open a gourmet bed and breakfast. The name naturally stuck and so we now have “The II Georges Inn”.
The next morning, I was scheduled to give a lecture about the Slave Dwelling Project at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History. Meeting me and Terry at the lecture site was Prinny Anderson who was joining us for the weekend because she lived relatively close in Durham, NC and would be spending the night in the slave cabin at Stagville. The lecture had a respectable and diverse turn out and I yielded some time to both Terry and Prinny to talk about their experience with the Slave Dwelling Project. Terry added a new twist to his lecture by giving a genealogical synopsis of his family and passing around the slave shackles he dons before sleeping in the slave cabins. As usual Prinny included in her presentation her blood relationship to President Thomas Jefferson and her involvement with the group Coming to the Table. The result of the lecture yielded several invitations to come back to Danville to participate in future stays in slave dwellings located in the area. Two members of the audience, one African American and one Caucasian, even speculated about them being related and vowed to continue the conversation. The question and answer session eventually turned into a support session for the endangered Fearn Plantation.
From the lecture we proceeded to Oakhill Plantation. The mansion there was built in 1825 by Samuel Hairston and is now in ruins as a result of a fire. Samuel was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, owning plantations there and in North Carolina and approximately 1700 slaves. Unfortunately all of the outbuildings on the property, including the slave cabin, are being lost to demolition by neglect. Some immediate action could stabilize the ruins that are currently left.
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When everyone scheduled to stay in the cabin arrived, we all left Jerome cooking while Jeremiah took us on a tour of a huge barn on the site. The massive barn was a testament to the wealth of the property owner and to the slave labor necessary to erect and perform the duties that the space required.
Back at the cabin site, we began to engage in meaningful conversation about the institution of slavery and the meal that Jerome was preparing for us. Leoneda managed to pull me aside to the steps of one of the cabins to conduct a radio interview. Her goal was to interview all eight people that would stay in the cabin that night. Everyone was more than satisfied with the meal because there were absolutely no leftovers.
Everyone eventually claimed their spot in the cabin for the night. Eight people occupied one quarter of the building and it could have fit more which was probably the case during the time of slavery because the plantation had to house 900 slaves. To the amazement of some of the guests, Terry donned the slave shackles to keep in line with his usual routine. Leoneda continued her interviews. We all drifted off to sleep, me to awake occasionally through the night to someone getting up to go outside; the sound of slave shackles as Terry James repositioned himself or to a concert of snoring.
The next morning Terry James and I went to the campus of North Carolina Central University to participate in a radio interview. Later that evening, I delivered the Earlie E. Thorpe Memorial Lecture to a very diverse standing room only crowd in the visitor’s center. Me, Terry James and Prinny Anderson left there with our first invitation for the 2015 calendar for the Slave Dwelling Project.
Keeping the Past Alive in the Present and for the Future
By Prinny Anderson
The weekend of the Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight at Stagville was actually a two-site event, with activities in Danville, VA, and Historic Stagville Plantation, Durham, NC. At every point, the dialogue and experiences served to connect the past to the present and the future.
In Danville, the day started with a talk and discussion at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, sponsored by Preservation Virginia. One reason the Slave Dwelling Project is of interest to people in Danville is the current campaign to save some of the remnants of Fearn Plantation, to honor the lives and work of people in the past as we live on into the future. But the property is being considered for commercial development, which would entail the removal of a slave cemetery, the last “dwelling places” of members of the plantation’s enslaved community, in a manner of speaking. Preservation Virginia and a group of Danville citizens want to see the cemetery preserved in its original location, protected and signposted. In the dialogue that followed the presentation of the work of the Slave Dwelling Project, people exchanged ideas on how to influence Danville’s decision-makers in favor of preserving an historic spot and respecting the people who created some of the area’s early wealth.
Following the morning event, a Hairston descendant led a group to visit what remains of one of the Hairston plantations, Oak Hill, just outside Danville. As we poked around in the tumbling down slave dwelling and tramped over to the ruins of the plantation’s main house, we heard about the Hairston clan’s ideas for converting some land into a fun park for the whole community, and using some of the land to preserve old structures and present the history of the places and the people who occupied them. The Hairston family seems intent on honoring the past and making it present, so that the younger generations learn about it in the future.
From Danville, we went on to Stagville Plantation, just north of Durham, NC, a site managed by the NC Department of Cultural Resources. Portions of the enormous property owned by the Bennehan and Cameron families in the past are retained at the historic site, with a slave community at Horton Grove, an enormous barn nearby, where many people would have worked and much of the wealth of the plantation would have been stored, and smaller workshop and storage buildings scattered across the vicinity. Not far from Horton Grove, there are more workshop and storage buildings, barns and stables, and the owners’ house.
Many of these buildings are extant because people lived in and used them into the 1930’s, maybe even later. As a result, there are four 4-room, 4-family slave cabins and a larger, probably one-family cabin that may have become an overseer’s residence, all standing and available for an overnight stay. The eight of us who spent the night stayed in one room of one of the 4-family dwellings.We cannot display this gallery
After finishing his portion of the presentation, he then allowed members who participated in the event, hosted last night, to discuss their experiences. First to go was Mr. Terry James, followed by Ms. Prinny Anderson, and then myself. Ms. Anderson along with Mr. James has slept in many cabins with Mr. McGill. Her reasoning behind her staying deals with the mission of her organization and her family history. The organization which Ms. Anderson is a part of is called “Coming to the Table”. This organization functioning off of MLK’s line in his I Have A Dream Speech, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brother-hood”, promotes the gathering of former slave and slave owner descendants to have conversations in order to address the horrors of slavery. Ms. Anderson joined the organization to address the issues of slavery within her family, since she is the great, great, great, great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson. Currently along with the help of the organization, Ms. Anderson in trying to bring both sides of the family together in order to move forward, while still acknowledging the past .Once the presentation was done, closing remarks were given by the members of the Thorpe family. Dr. E.E. Thorpe’s relatives, who were present at the lecture included, two of his daughters and his wife. His daughter Rita was the one who stood and gave remarks and appreciation on behalf of herself and the rest of her family.
Furthermore, this paper was able is to articulate the experiences I encountered while participating in the Slave Dwelling Project, and attending the E.E. Thorpe Lecture Series. I was extremely excited and blessed to have the experience of participating in both events. Not only was I able to learn a great deal, but the experience was able to provide me with a different perspective on slavery.
Reflections From My Experience With the Slave Dwelling Project at Stagville
By Jermara Bullock
From the moment the Slave Dwelling Project was brought to my attention, I knew that I could not deny myself the opportunity to have such an experience. As a scholar and lover of history, specifically my fascination with and appreciation for African-American history, the idea of spending the night in a house or facility where slaves once lived was inviting to me. Though I did not know what to expect, my intention was to walk away from this experience having had engaged in a deep intellectual experience through discussion with Mr. McGill and the remainder of those who chose to join him on one of his many stays for the project. Further I wanted to learn more about the various ways in which these facilities were built, as well as find out more about this Historic Stagville Plantation.
However as the evening progressed the perspectives from which I intended to engage in this experience, slowly began to be stripped away. After I enjoyed an evening meal cooked outdoors, the conversation became increasingly thought provoking. Having discussed various issues facing the African-American community, the conversation shifted towards the topic of escape and we marveled at the courage and willingness to navigate into and through the woods and hide and survive in remote and undesirable areas such as mountainous and swamp regions.
I was thoroughly enjoying the evening conversation when, Mr. Terry James turned to me and asked, “So you are out here in the middle of the night, you need to escape which way do you go? You are out here in the middle of the night with your two children and you’re on the run, which way do you go?” For some reason I was caught off guard by this question. I had often imagined myself in certain predicaments as a slave and pondered my course of action only to come to the realization that there was no way I could say what I would or would not do. I could not say how I would or would not react. Perhaps it was the fact that I was standing on a former Plantation in front of a slave dwelling that I was about to spend the night in. In thinking about myself out there in that state that Mr. James described, I felt vulnerable.
In thinking about my two children being with me, the cool comfort of the night turned to a bone chilling cold as the Mommy in me knew I wouldn’t dare want to have my children out in the cool night. My children afraid, no coats or a shoe, with little or no food in tow, feeling frantic and afraid is what I imagined. The feeling of vulnerability was so overwhelming I was left at a loss for words. “What would I do?” “What could I do?” These were the questions I asked myself as the conversation continued on around me. As a black woman who loves being a wife and a mother, I was humbled by the experience of participating in the Slave Dwelling Project immensely. The title of mother, the emotion and responsibility one feels when one embarks on a journey of motherhood and family was an identity that was traumatized by the institution of slavery as it existed in America for the black women that gave birth to under this institution.
The questions that Mr. Terry’s question provoked in me left me restless. Imagining my family here living as property under the control of a person or a family that viewed us a servants, workers, collateral, without their humanity being acknowledged. Yes it was cold. Yes the floor was hard and neither my sleeping bag nor blankets soothed the discomfort I felt. The itching from the mosquito bites was not pleasant. But none of these factors affected me as much the knowledge that the institution for which this structure had been built to support; that in these dwellings female slaves existed and survived the traumas that I would find unbearable. Weeks after my night there it still resonates with me, when I’m helping my son with his homework, or I return home to my daughter’s cheerful greeting.
I think of those mothers and those children those families that somehow survived and endured. These slave women who had to know when to acquiesce and when to resist in order to ensure survival from themselves and for their children. This dwelling place and my experience there represents to me the untold stories of the mother, the child, the black family and the attack placed upon them collectively and individually by the institution of slavery. The stories and experiences these dwellings represent and the importance of preserving these structures to aid in further exploring these stories are critical in understanding the African-American experience in America from past to present. I have been humbled and inspired from this experience and would eagerly participate in a stay at another dwelling only expecting to be informed and stirred immeasurably.