For the last three years, the Slave Dwelling Project has started its season with a sleepover in the slave dwellings at Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown County, South Carolina. That tradition had to be broken when I was presented with two offers that I could not refuse. The start of the 2015 season for the Project would be different with two sleepovers, Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington, North Carolina and Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama, scheduled to take place prior to Hopsewee. Scheduling these two sleepovers was a testament to the popularity and relevance of the Project. Like Hopsewee, these two stays would involve students spending nights in these historic spaces, a concept that is coming more popular with the Slave Dwelling Project.
The state of North Carolina is well represented in the portfolio of the Slave Dwelling Project with overnight stays in extant slave dwellings at sites in Mayodan, Raleigh, Salisbury and Wilmington. Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington, North Carolina would be the site of the first overnight sleepover for the Project in 2015. While this would be the second time that I would have a sleepover at this site, it was an opportunity to further explore urban slavery and further build the relationship with the site while starting a new one with the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
For obvious reasons, I try to avoid sleeping in slave dwellings during the months of December, January and February. The cold weather and travel challenges could make winter stays prohibitive. What started out as an invitation to conduct lectures at Bellamy Mansion and the University of North Carolina Wilmington morphed into a sleepover. While the lectures are becoming more popular, I never pass up an opportunity to conduct sleepovers in extant slave dwellings even if it means breaking the tradition of not sleeping in these dwellings during the winter. The reality of the matter is that the Ancestors did not have a choice.
My host at Bellamy Mansion assured me that he could provide space heaters for the dwelling. The opportunity to be joined in the overnight stay with six University of North Carolina Wilmington students and one Bellamy Mansion staff member was also compelling because of my quest to use more of these spaces as classrooms.
Dr. Tammy Gordon, associate professor of history and some of her students from UNC Wilmington are in the process of creating a travelling exhibit on preserving and interpreting extant slave dwellings, so it was only natural that the Slave Dwelling Project partner with them. Some of the students working on the exhibit would be spending the night with me, Prinny Anderson and Terry James in the slave dwelling.
The dwelling is now in better condition than when Terry James and I stayed in it initially. The front has been painted to look like it did historically. There is now access to the rooms upstairs. Bellamy Mansion’s commitment to interpreting this space is evident in the resources that they expended in the restoration.
The day officially began with an evening reception in the Bellamy Mansion which it is well documented that it was built by slave labor. The reception was followed by a Slave Dwelling Project presentation that was given to a diverse standing room only crowd. After overcoming some early technical difficulties, I, Prinny Anderson and Terry James did our usual presentation which was followed by a robust question and answer period.
The time in the dwelling with the students was golden. As promised, Gareth Evans, executive director of Bellamy Mansion delivered on the space heaters and they were definitely well needed. The dwelling has no electricity so long extension cords were necessary for the heaters to work but that did not come with challenges that we were able to overcome.
Because of the student’s involvement in creating the travelling exhibit for slave dwellings, their questions were well focused. We stayed up well past midnight in deep discussion about the institution of slavery and how it affected this nation locally and nationally. The young inquiring minds of the students extracting from Prinny Anderson, a Caucasian descendant of President Thomas Jefferson why she would be spending her thirteenth night in a slave dwelling; or why Terry James a descendant of slaves would be spending his twenty seventh night in a slave dwelling and sleeping in shackles; and they wanted more details on why I started the Slave Dwelling Project. One local print news journalist joined us in the space but he would not be spending the night. This was certainly a great exercise in how these sacred spaces can be used as classrooms.
When the students went their separate ways, Prinny, Terry and I proceeded to the home of Dr. Terry Gordon for breakfast and a shower. The morning would continue with a panel discussion on the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington. On the panel were: Nana Amponsah, assistant professor of African history at UNCW; Janet Davidson, historian at Cape Fear Museum; and Donyell Roseboro, associate professor of instructional technology and secondary education at UNCW. It was a pleasure to sit on the panel with scholars who were all responding to comments that I made at the gathering on the night before. This presentation was also given to a standing room only crowd which had a good mixture of students and community members.
Could this be the future of the Slave Dwelling Project? The standing room only crowds at Bellamy Mansion and the University of North Carolina Wilmington were surely encouraging. Getting the team of me, Prinny Anderson and Terry James back together for the first stay of the year was nostalgic. Imparting our knowledge of slave dwellings to the youngsters who shared the space with us was educational. Knowing that a slave dwelling travelling exhibit is being created ensures that the project has longevity.
The Ancestors would be proud of the networks that are being built so that the extant buildings that they inhabited while they lived on this earth will be preserved, interpreted, maintained and sustained.
Reflecting on Sight Lines at Bellamy Mansion: What Did They See?
Dr. John Dillard Bellamy was preparing to move his sizable family from their plantations in South Carolina to the bustling city of Wilmington, NC. Consequently, he had the design for a fine downtown mansion begun in 1859, with construction following promptly. The brick slave quarters were built immediately and inhabited as the main house went up. By 1862, the mansion was finished and the Bellamy family took occupancy, along with their full staff of nine enslaved people. The house is still considered one of North Carolina’s finest Greek Revival antebellum houses.
One of the striking aspects of this urban mansion and its outbuildings are the sight lines. The mansion has a half-basement, known as an English basement, half below ground, half above ground, and three floors of living and sleeping rooms, crowned with a belvedere. The rooms have large windows; on the main floor, the windows stand almost floor to ceiling. Covered walkways, porches and balconies wrap around the house at all levels.
This design makes the house stand high, visible all around the neighborhood. No one could doubt Dr. Bellamy’s prominence or success. Furthermore, since the attractively finished, brick stables, carriage house, laundry room and slave quarters were also visible from the street and to any visitors and overnight guests in the mansion, they too contributed to the family’s image of taste and prosperity.
The tall windows not only provided cross-ventilation, they also gave the Bellamies a 360 degree view of their affluent neighborhood and of all activities on their property. From every room in the back of the house, its occupants could oversee the activities of the courtyard, where work required to run and provide for the house was performed, from doing the laundry to attending to the carriage and horses.
Likewise, the seven enslaved women, housekeeper, cook, and nurses, and the two enslaved men, butler-coachman and handyman, could always see their owner’s house and members of the owner’s family. There would have been no escape from the knowledge of being owned by and in servitude to the big house and its residents.
Furthermore, while the mansion stands high on its half-basement, with views of everything far and wide, the quarters for the enslaved people only have windows toward the courtyard and the big house. There are no windows looking to the sides or back. The enslaved people were prevented from casually looking out into the neighbors’ gardens or seeing anything going on in the neighbors’ houses. Like blinkered horses, their view was restricted to their owners and their owner’s residence.
Nonetheless, the timing of the construction of Bellamy House, with all the care given to sight lines available to the free and the enslaved residents, could lead one to wonder what Dr. Bellamy saw in his mind’s eye of the future. In the year his family took up residence in their new, many-windowed mansion, a war about the preservation or abolition of slavery broke out. Since Wilmington was a busy port and crossroads city, with people and goods moving in and out to and from all parts of the country, it is hard to imagine that Dr. Bellamy had no inkling about the coming conflict. If he knew war was on the horizon, ready to break out within a few months, does his move signify his supreme confidence in the strength and the rightness of the southern way of life and the ability of the southern states to defend their borders and their ports? Or does his move indicate that he did not see the inevitability of war?
What is even more likely is that Dr. Bellamy could not see and did not imagine the change that would come to the inhabitants of the courtyard quarters and the opening up of their prospects and lines of sight, both literally and figuratively. How could he have imagined that the people he owned would be emancipated in 1863, just 2 years later? How could he have foreseen that 4 years later, in 1865, as Wilmington, the last port supplying southern troops, was finally occupied, Northern Army officers would take over his house as their headquarters? And how could he possibly imagine his formerly enslaved cook, Sarah, looking after those officers and earning enough gold to make her way comfortably? How surprised must he have been when his family was finally allowed to move back to Wilmington, to find he had to hire and pay people to cook, clean, drive the carriage, serve the meals, groom the horses, and look after the children? If Dr. Bellamy was like many men of his time and class, he never envisioned such an upheaval of his way of life.
It isn’t possible to know what John Bellamy knew and thought, what he did or did not anticipate. But the layout of his town property makes clear statements about what its free and enslaved residents could see and how they would be seen by others. And the story of that property, beginning on the eve of the Civil War and continuing into the 20th century, opens up the opportunity to consider and discuss the dramatic changes in legal, economic and social structures that the people of Bellamy Mansion property saw unfold before their eyes.
Elizabeth Mae Bullock
I heard about Joseph McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project through my courses in the public history program at UNCW where I’m a second year graduate student. The Slave Dwelling Project was part of the inspiration for the program’s year-long project titled Still Standing. The first phase of the project consisted of visitor evaluation research including a survey of visitors to the Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington and focus group interviews with various community members. Both the survey and the focus groups asked people about their assumptions, opinions, and knowledge of slave dwellings and their preservation. This information will be used in the second part of the project, the creation of an exhibit about the history of slave dwellings and their preservation. Thus, the Slave Dwelling Project’s mission is one that fits in well with our project. The purpose of the overnight stays and the Slave Dwelling Project is to bring awareness to these structures and their need for preservation. Many of these structures are in danger of being demolished or of falling down due to neglect. Slave spaces have historically not been a focus of historic preservationists who have instead worked to save, preserve, and restore architecturally-significant buildings for their aesthetic value rather than historic. Mr. McGill’s efforts have brought attention to these spaces and helped to save several of them.
My reasons for joining Mr. McGill’s stay at the Bellamy Mansion’s Slave Quarters were both professional and personal. In many ways Mr. McGill’s project and methods are a clear example of public history in action. When sleeping in these spaces and attracting public attention, Mr. McGill is encouraging connections between people and the past. Hopefully, he is inspiring some people to think about the importance of saving structures, objects, and other tangible evidence of the past, even if that past is painful. Hopefully, he is helping people to understand slavery on a more human level, to think about the experiences of those who lived in slave dwellings, and to realize that the stories of some groups of people have been undervalued and underrepresented in the past. These hopes were the basis of my professional interest in the project and the overnight stay. I wanted to know how he carried out the stays and how others reacted to them. I wanted to know if this experiential method was a helpful approach to presenting history to the public. These hopes also were a huge part of my personal interest. It’s hard to separate my professional goals and interests from my personal interest in history and my belief that learning from the past can impact our present and change our future. I wanted to connect with a difficult past, reflect on the lives of enslaved people, and be open to the emotions and ideas that might be sparked by spending the night in a slave dwelling.
My interest in and decision to participate did not, however, remove all doubt, anxiety, or concern for what the experience would be like. I worried about having difficult, uncomfortable, or awkward conversations even as I was prepared for and wanted to have these important discussions.
After the public presentation we ate dinner and moved from the big house to the slave quarters, all gathering in one room of the 2-story building for what I expected to be a deep and interesting discussion led by Mr. McGill. We started informally chatting about a variety of things and McGill did share with us two examples of the responses he gets from the public. One was an angry email asking to be removed from a mailing list and charging the Slave Dwelling Project with “race baiting.” The other reaction was that of a child who participated in the project and wrote Mr. McGill a card admiring his work. These two reactions demonstrate the issue of race in our modern society and how the past is so central to discussions of race today.
Beyond sharing those reactions, Mr. McGill did not structure the discussion that followed as I expected, allowing conversation to flow in any direction. This led to some interesting discussions of other slave quarters he had stayed in and others we students knew about from our work on Still Standing. Also, one of the women staying with us explained why she had wanted to participate in the overnight stay. She discussed her connections to the past and her interests in genealogy. As an African American woman who had found enslaved ancestors and felt so connected to her past through genealogy the overnight stay was another way to connect to her family past. Listening to her speak reminded me of the strong ties some people have to the past and people’s interests in their personal and family history.
The power of place lies in context and in a person’s knowledge of the importance of where he or she is standing. Those moments when I felt connected or awed by the power of place were when I separated myself from the discussion going on and thought about the enslaved people who lived in the building. As we were gathered in one room, I thought about the prior residents’ gatherings in that dwelling, for work, for meals, for worship, rest, or fellowship. I tried to imagine the range of emotions they might have felt toward the big house and its occupants. From the window of the quarters I could see the big house. A usually very beautiful structure, in the dark and from the vantage point of the slave quarters I thought the mansion looked ominous, looming over the space. After our discussion ended and several of us students went upstairs to sleep, I thought about the sleeping arrangements of those who lived here when it was first built. I thought of the cold, of the luxury of my modern sleeping bag made for cold weather, of the electric heat that was temporarily placed in the dwelling. Throughout the night as I tossed and turned on the hard floor and woke up periodically, I looked forward to the morning when I could leave, go home, and take a warm shower. But then I thought of those previous inhabitants and how at the end of a night they could not leave. As I stood up and stretched sore muscles and stiff limbs, I thought of those rising from uncomfortable nights’ rests to perform a variety of manual tasks all day. It was these inner thoughts that were most powerful.
The day following the night in the quarters, UNCW hosted a panel of speakers including Joseph McGill, Dr. Jan Davidson of the Cape Fear Museum, Dr. Nana Amponsah, African historian in UNCW’s history department, and Dr. Donyell Roseboro from the UNCW Watson School of Education. These speakers highlighted some of the important themes surrounding discussions of race, slavery, memory, preservation, and education. Most interesting to me was Dr. Roseboro’s discussion of the need to consider the agency of enslaved people rather than merely assuming they were passive victims. While enslaved African Americans were subjected to many things, they remained human beings and resisted slavery in many ways, namely by surviving it and forming communities, families, and other relationships despite their enslaved status. The panel encouraged further thought and reflection on the Slave Dwelling Project and my overnight stay and was a very valuable experience in its own right.
Overall, my night in the slave quarters was enlightening and meaningful, sparking a great deal of personal and professional reflection on slavery’s history, how we tell that history today, and what bearings that history has on our present.
Joshua Christian Cole
Slave Quarter Night Reflection
On the night of Thursday, January 22, 2014, I participated in an event led by Joseph McGill of the Slave Quarter Project, hosted by the Bellamy Mansion in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. I and nine other participants spent the night in the newly restored Bellamy Mansion slave quarters. The event began with a lecture by Joseph McGill at the Bellamy, which was followed by dinner. Afterwards, the participants in the stay had a lengthy discussion. We talked well past midnight about numerous subjects related to why we were there and what we were doing. At the end of the discussion, we adjourned to wherever we had previously set up our sleeping bags.
The Bellamy Mansion slave quarters are fairly unusual. The reasonably attractive brick building was built nearly at the end of slavery and in many ways represented the height of development in urban slave quarters. The structure boasts five relatively large rooms. As we went to bed, I found my thoughts processing the discussion we had just had. I felt quite at ease in the structure itself. There was nothing about the building that I found particularly intimidating or scary. However, I did begin to have a very strong sense of both despair and isolation. This was not brought on by the location itself but rather by what the location represented and what had taken place there in its history. One of the unusual quirks of our group is that of the six graduate students, I was the only male. All of the graduate students slept upstairs where there were three rooms. All of the female graduate students decided to sleep in one room, and I decided to sleep in another room upstairs. As I lay there by myself staring at the ceiling, it hit me that our group of graduate students was actually a fairly good representation of the demographics of the enslaved people who stayed at the Bellamy. At the time of the Bellamy’s completion, there were nine enslaved workers at the site: two males and seven females. It is believed that the men stayed in the carriage house adjacent to the slave quarters, and the women occupied the slave quarters themselves. It occurred to me that our self-imposed gender segregation was roughly similar to that of the enslaved people. I suddenly realized that it was entirely possible for an enslaved person to be almost completely isolated living in what was at the time the largest city in North Carolina and even in the most urban setting in the state. This isolation was very deliberately caused by the slave system itself, which is embodied by the structure in which I was laying.
I tried to imagine what it would have been like being a young man staying at that site. I imagined that I had just come there for the first time. As I was laying there, I recalled my first experiences in boarding school, the first time I had travelled alone internationally – any experience I have ever had where I was new and alien. It occurred to me that in all those instances, some of them quite traumatic for me, there were numerous things I had that an enslaved person could only dream of. I always knew that I had a family that loved and supported me. I realized that if I were enslaved in the system that existed in North Carolina in 1860, I quite possibly would have no idea who my parents were. I knew that I belonged somewhere, not to someone. I have been very fortunate to always have family and friends who have loved and cared for me, and that anything short of death would never deprive me of their respect. Laying there, I realized that everything that truly gave me a sense of myself and a sense of calm, even in the most traumatic of situations, is something that an enslaved person very likely did not have. As I lay there trying to discern what was the most terrible aspect of slavery, it occurred to me that not being independent was not terrible. Many people today, even myself, are not completely independent of my family for support. Not having control is not the most terrible thing. I do not have complete control of my life due to obligations and commitments I have made. The thing that was by far the most dehumanizing was being owned and being an object. It occurred to me that I was sleeping in a building that was designed more as a storage unit for property than it was a home. The building was expressly designed for the purpose of keeping a subjugated people close at hand to work in service at the main house. Their needs, wants, and desires were all subjugated to aesthetic beauty and functionality. This blatant attempt at systematically destroying individual agency and identity is what made slavery so cruel.
It is impossible for me to truly grasp and understand what it would be like for someone to deprive me of all sense of identity and purpose. It would be an absolute joke for me to claim I have any idea what an enslaved person went through simply for staying one night, sleeping on the floor; nor frankly would I ever wish to experience the kind of dehumanizing abuse which enslaved people were subject to. What I did take away from the experience was a better understanding of what I truly value and how fortunate I am to be born when and where I was.
Leslie Ann Randie-Morton
Where do I fit?
In the past,
In the present,
In the future?
These enslaved had an identity
An identity thrust upon them.
An identity that haunts this building
and its ancestors today.
I feel that I have none.
I know not whence I came
and hence not where I am going.
There is something so powerful in the knowing.
Be it tortuous or virtuous,
Be it forced or earned,
Be it enslaved or free.
Freedom is in that knowing.
Freedom is embracing my identity.
It is in the historical ignorance where haints wait.
It is in the unchecked silence where peculiar institutions are birthed.
It is in the convenient amnesia where danger lies.
These were the ideas fumbling around my head as I lay awake in the silent Bellamy Mansion slave dwelling. Shadows from the magnolia tree danced across the plaster walls, and I lay there thinking. Thinking about the enslaved. Thinking about my family, and where we fit in the puzzle of slavery in America. I never wondered, never asked, and never cared. I have been charting my future, not trying to recapture my family’s past. I have been moving forward, not looking backward. It sounds fairly ironic coming from a graduate student in history, but it was the truth. The stay at the slave dwelling lit a desire to know more about my ancestors; it was the needed spark that ignited four years of emotional kindling.
I am a white woman from Mississippi. Upon first moving to North Carolina, when asked where I was from, I announced it loudly and proudly, never once thinking that where I was born branded me an ignorant racist, but after making friends and working with colleagues, many have admitted that their first impression was just that—I had to be a bigoted, closed-minded racist if I was a white Mississippian. Sadness, shock, anger and understanding seem to always be the chain of emotions I feel when someone, either jokingly or in earnest, confides that I am not at all what they expected from a Mississippian. I undergo the same process every time sometime declares, “Well, I will never visit Mississippi.”
Are there ignorant racists in all corners of Mississippi? Absolutely. Is this endemic below the Mason-Dixon exclusively? Absolutely not, but the stereotype is there. It was solidified through ideas and images of the antebellum and Jim Crow South, and will be a moniker of states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia for much longer than I will be on this earth. I labeled myself a “Mississippi Ambassador” last year when cohorts from my graduate program sheepishly admitted their preconceptions, and expressed their relief upon working with me and finding those notions misplaced. They asked if my family owned enslaved people, and I did not know the answer. I have only been told the good stories about my family, like how my father, a newly minted attorney in the early 1960’s, was targeted by a group of white businessmen because he refused to refuse his services to African Americans. The tale of how my grandfather went with the National Guard to protect James Meredith as he enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Was my father a Civil Rights champion, or simply in need of clients as the new lawyer in town? Did my grandfather proudly stand up for equality at Ole Miss, or did he resent being mobilized for a black man? These are questions I have never asked, and ones that now, as a budding historian, seem important to me.
The overnight at the Bellamy Mansion is leading me down a path in the last link of my emotional chain—understanding. I want to understand as much as I can where my family fits into the stereotypes and where it broke the molds. I need to answer questions for curious others and for my reticent self. Will I like everything that I uncover? Doubtful. Will I have a better understanding of myself? Not sure. Do I need to ask the questions I have never asked? Yes.
My younger cousin, an avid genealogist, has always baffled me, but I found myself asking him for tips and information. He found that my maternal ancestors enslaved two people according to the 1860 slave schedule. My personal genealogical investigation of the past two weeks has yielded much. I have traced back to my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Edmund Camp, born in 1738 in Halifax, VA. I have miles to go, but I have taken the first steps. Not to atone. Not to harbor guilt. Just to understand.
Bonnie Jean Soper
The overnight stay at the Bellamy Mansion Slave Quarters left me with lasting impressions I did not expect. Although I knew the night would be emotional, I did not realize how clearly the Bellamy Mansion would loom over the room I slept in, unavoidable and imposing. The only windows in the quarters were aimed at the mansion to ensure that occupants would always be watched. We sat in a circle for hours listening to each other speak, often not strictly about slavery but rather about our families and communities while understanding that we were in a place which separated families and attempted to stop the growth of community, making us feel more grateful for what we have. A question that was repeatedly brought up by many throughout this experience was “Where do I fit into all this?”. Whether they come from a long line of Americans directly affected by the Civil War, or their family more recently moved to the United States, to be American is to be impacted by slavery.
Throughout last summer I did my own genealogical research into my family’s history and discovered both Confederate ancestors on one side of my family, as well as African American ancestors on the other, which I did not find surprising. The history of the United States is complicated, and reflects an intersectionality of all our lives that only becomes clearer with more research. Whereas in the past slavery may have been taught (if taught at all) separate from other aspects of American history, in truth it has always been intertwined with all the facets which have shaped the United States into what it is today. Rather than an unfortunate afterthought mentioned when discussing the Civil War, slavery, particularly the lives of enslaved people and their legacy, needs to be discussed as it was: a long tragedy perpetrated by the United States which built the foundations of the country and still has its effects felt today. The importance of the preservation of these dwellings is not to remind the United States of the mistakes it has made or dwell on a bleak section of history, but to protect the buildings that represent the many lives of the enslaved; often these dwellings are the only material way of connecting to the lives of slaves who are unable to speak to us through texts and manuscripts.
One issue commonly discussed throughout this project is how few people realize slave dwellings are all around them. They are not just ramshackle cabins wasting away in the woods of the deep South, they are trendy and expensive apartment buildings, sheds, Mansions where the enslaved were forced to work as well as sleep, and various other things throughout the South and North. The responsibility of recognizing and discussing them falls upon not only historians and museum workers, but the American people who often revel in researching and relating to their country’s heritage while sometimes overlooking the unsavory parts. Only when all of us can confront the role slavery has played in shaping our country, and slave dwellings can be preserved as an integral part of U.S. history, then the work of the Slave Dwelling Project will be complete.
A Space for the Ancestors
I had been a follower of the Slave Dwelling Project for the past year. I admired the work Joseph McGill was doing by emphasizing the importance of preserving the dwelling places the enslaved occupied. So when the opportunity arose for me to participate in an overnight stay with several students from University of North Carolina, I accepted and made preparation for an experience to occupy a space where the enslaved ancestors dwelled. Upon entering the quarters, I was filled with many emotions while inspecting each room. I went upstairs walking in and out of the three rooms on the second floor peering through windows which faced the front of the slave quarters. The windows were strategically constructed in this manner as to avert any thoughts of life as a free person.
As we sat in a circle we discussed the importance of preserving structures such as slave quarters we were in. Why preserve places where enslaved persons inhabited? Should we destroy the structures and replace them with some form of beautification to erase the blemish of history? If so, Why? How will the future generations learn about the past except by printed material if we do not preserve these historical structures such as the slave quarters we occupied? We agreed preservation serves as a tool to enhance the learning of American History. Like us, others should be able to physically examine what once was and why it is an important part of American history. African American history is American history. If we are going to tell the stories we must include slave dwellings just the same as plantations.
I had so many thoughts about the person (s) who occupied the space where I retired for the night. A member of the group said her name was Sarah. I do not know if others shared this room with Sarah, but I imagined she was not alone. I remembered reading about Sarah “the cook, housekeeper, and caretaker who stayed during the civil war when the Union Soldier’s took control over the mansion” in a memoir written by one of the family members of the Bellamy Mansion.
What did she look like? I envisioned a woman, diminutive in stature, singing or humming spirituals to soothe her soul as many of the woman in my family often do while performing their daily chores. As a cook, I imagined her preparing the finest cuisine for the most prominent figures of the Antebellum; persevering through extreme heat and exhaustion without cooling or heating mechanism of modern day. Consistently laboring from sun up to sun down.
While lying in my sleeping bag with my eyes closed, I tried to imagine the “kind” of exhaustion she experienced, wondering if her extremities ached after too many hours of toiling especially during special occasions and holidays. Did she have a bed or did she sleep on some type of mattress on the floor? Or was she cold in this room? How many people shared this space with her? I, on the other hand, enjoyed the comfort of a heater expelling warm air all through the night, warm layers of clothing, a blanket a with an insulated sleeping bag.
I rose at 5:30 AM the day was dawning. I thought of Sarah making her way towards the kitchen to prepare the morning meals. She may have paused to gather wood or pump water while she sang or hummed the old spiritual songs similar to “We Come this Far by Faith” or “We Shall Overcome” as she traveled the path towards the kitchen. She left an indelible mark in my mind and in my soul because she persevered and paved the way for me and many generations of African American women.
I collected my belongings closed the door behind me and quietly thanked Sarah and the Ancestors for humbling experience.
Bellamy Mansion Slave Dwelling Stay
Though I spent most of my adolescent years in the South, I was born a Yankee and raised by Yankee parents. Moving to Greensboro, North Carolina allowed me to surround myself with Southern culture (if one could call northern North Carolina southern…) and get a glimpse into the lifestyle that so many romanticized for so many years. My ancestors were more than likely Irish immigrants in the early 1800s; throw in some French and German and you have the wonderful mix that many white Americans today would associate with. From a young age, I thought that this removed me from some of the problems that plagued the history of early America. I was not desensitized (I was a history major after all), but I never really saw how my family might have fit in to this mixed up and contested history. My stay at the Bellamy Mansion slave quarters however, would drastically change this.
Going into this project, I had no idea what to expect. Part of me was willing to fling the doors wide open and bare my soul to my classmates who I knew only marginally well and a couple of strangers. The other part of me just wanted to curl into a small ball and ignore whatever pain I was sure was headed my way. I’m not going to lie, I was terrified. Of what exactly I have no idea, even now. But I feel that this is a common feeling for anyone faced with this type of task, especially as a white American. You try to run away from the conversation, try not to talk about it for whatever reason, and try to deny the feelings you have inside. The feeling that you know slavery was wrong, and you know that there are lingering issues today that need to be recognized, but the feelings you don’t want to cope with. In part, this was exactly what I got during this two-day event.
Talking with Joseph, Terry and Prinnie was such a wonderful experience, and one that I will probably never truly forget in my lifetime. The overnight stay opened my eyes in a way that I had not imagined. We talked about their lives growing up in the south and the north. We talked about the ways in which the effects of slavery can still be felt today, and the different actions we can take to help remedy this. Maybe part of me was terrified that during the course of this event, I would be somehow blamed, or that I would be made to feel guilty. More than likely, my ancestors had some hand in this race-fueled world. While they probably did not own any slaves themselves, they were still a cog in the wheel. How exactly they fit into this world I’m still not sure. But I knew that I don’t own slaves today, or my parents, or my grandparents. Because of this, I felt that I didn’t have a right to talk about these issues, as if my feelings should not be given credence because of this. So many times I have heard blame placed on white individuals, when maybe all they really want to do is try and help remedy social injustice that has gone on for far too long.
It is a tough balance to find, and a thin line between wanting to try and help, and trying to absolve your own guilt. Should this be the reason white individuals want to talk about these issues? Is it selfish to want to help only to make yourself feel better? I know that I will not be able to solve all the issues of race by myself, but I also know that no one person truly can. What we need is more discussion, more education, and more people to lay down their past judgments and say, ‘I’m here to listen to what you have to say, and I think that what you’re saying is important.’ This event made me realize that there are people who want to talk, on both sides of the issue, and if we simply take the time to listen, we can learn incredible things, and hopefully some positive change will eventually be made in this world.