“Do you know descendants of slave owners who are proud that their Ancestors owned slaves?” From the mouth of a 7th grader, this question was quite profound. Yet profound, I had to give her an answer as we stood in the Hugh Craft slave quarters in Holly Springs, Mississippi. My answer: “Yes, I know descendants of slave owners but none who are proud that their Ancestors owned them.”
Like the time I stood on the slave auction block in Brenham, Texas, this was one of those profound moments that I knew would have a lasting impact on me and it was all brought on by this young 7th grader. She really made me think about my colleagues who I met through the group Coming to the Table who have acknowledged the slave holding past of their Ancestors. Upon that acknowledgement, they became unpopular among their current family members and circle of friends. Edward Ball, author of the book Slaves in the Family is a good example of that. It also made me think of all of those descendants of slave owners who have spent nights in slave dwellings with me. Yet it was the power of coming together in this slave dwelling that provoked that question from this inspiring young lady.
This would be my fourth consecutive year visiting Holly Springs to participate in the Behind the Big House Tour. Holly Springs does not hold the record for repeated invitations; that belongs to Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina. Holly Springs does hold the record in the amount of resources invested that it takes for me to participate in a slave dwelling sleepover and that speaks volume.
Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, the creators of the Behind the Big House Tour is now at a stage where new alliances are being forged. The tour runs consecutively with the Holly Springs Pilgrimage, which is in its 77th year of existence. Until four years ago, the Holly Springs Pilgrimage was all about the big house. Four years into the Behind the Big House Tour, challenges still exist because the Holly Springs Garden Club, the organization that operates the Pilgrimage, has not yet fully embraced the tour. A new group known as Gracing the Table is now involved in the process and making progress in being a liaison between the two existing groups. It is my opinion that the Behind the Big House Tour can stand alone if necessary but it is always better when the whole story can be told and for that, the two groups must play well together.
Like last year, the three sites that would be interpreted were the Hugh Craft House, Magnolias and Burton Place which is great because they all are in walking distance of each other and are great for touring. The background information of all of the original owners of the properties has been well researched and the census information of how many slaves that were on each property is also available.
This year, the tour added world famous culinary historian Michael Twitty. He set up his base camp at the Hugh Craft House and in addition to conducting a cooking demonstration on an open fire, he wowed the audience with his knowledge of the foodways of our enslaved Ancestors. Additionally, he gave lectures at the University of Mississippi and the Ida B. Wells Museum. I had the privilege of indulging in some of the dishes that he made which included rabbit and chicken.
Michael Twitty’s presence at the Behind the Big House Tour is a true indication that the program is expanding. As expected, several people were well aware of him long before his appearance in Holly Springs. Often times, egos do not allow programs like the Slave Dwelling Project and what Michael Twitty brings to the table to coexist. I am now convinced that Michael and I must collaborate more in the future.
You can find out more about Michel Twitty on his website: http://afroculinaria.com/
In 1860 there were approximately four and one half million enslaved people in the United States. Most of the places where they dwelled are no longer on the American landscape. In the absence of buildings, some sites are using creative ways to interpret the lives of the enslaved such as living history, ghost buildings, augmented reality and museum exhibits. More and more sites are conducting archaeological digs to assist in determining where those buildings that once housed the enslaved once stood.
Happening at the Hugh Craft House was an archaeological dig which was being led by Carolyn Freiwald, assistant professor of Anthropology, at the University of Mississippi. The excavation had been happening sporadically over a series of months and on this occasion, several students from the university were participating. It takes a willing property owner and the resources to conduct archaeology correctly so that the findings can be properly documented and stored. That combination exists between the stewards of the Hugh Craft House and the University of Mississippi.
You Inspire Me
“I spent today with family Behind The Big House. Standing in extant slave quarters, holding bricks made by slaves (with a child’s finger imprint) and hearing about the evolution of African food ways was life giving. It is important to honor the ancestors, their dwelling places and their traditions. Their lives mattered and so did they!” Marilyn Reed
Marilyn Reed became familiar with the Slave Dwelling Project through social media and the website. While I was interpreting the space at the Magnolias, she stopped by for a visit and reminded me that we were friends on facebook. She made me aware that it was the Slave Dwelling Project that inspired her to do more research on her Ancestors so that they may be honored accordingly. We had that conversation about family reunions being more than just opportunities for families to gather to do the electric slide, talent shows and play games. Family reunions should also pay homage to the Ancestors. Her words almost brought me to tears.
Later that day, while interpreting the space at the Hugh Craft House, Marilyn Reed showed up with a gift for me which again almost brought me to tears. Her gift included the booklet she created for their last family reunion. I had the pleasure of showing her a brick that contained the finger imprints of the enslaved person who helped to make it. As if the Ancestors were reaching out to us and in another powerful moment of inspiration, we both concluded that it was the imprint of a child and/or female.
They just kept coming. While interpreting the Burton House, an unscheduled group of first graders came to visit, over 100 of them. I love giving presentations to large groups but interpreting this subject matter to first graders was a challenge. While the questions were relevant, it was a chore for me to give the answers in a manner that they could comprehend.
How can one easily explain to kids at that level why slavery existed in this great nation? How can one talk to them about the breeding of slaves during the domestic slave trade? How can one talk to them about the public whippings that were inflicted on the enslaved? How can one talk to them about the religious and institutions of higher learning that preached and taught that chattel slavery was the right thing to do? How can one talk to them about the politicians who enacted laws that ensured the longevity of that institution? The list goes on.
Despite this challenge, there was one young first grader that seemed to be able to grasp the concept, because her questions were centered around how wrong it was for Blacks to serve Whites.
In the previous four years of the Behind the Big House Tour, the diversity of the groups has steadily increased. This year I saw the largest number of African Americans ever. By individuals, families and groups they all came.
While I am well aware of the challenges of continuing the Behind the Big House Tour, if for the reason of the diverse audience alone, it will be well worth the effort and resources. I am still trying to convince well established historic house tours with antebellum buildings that there is more to the story than mint juleps and hoop skirts. The Behind the Big House Tour is proof of how house tours should be done so keep it up Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs. Continue to honor the Ancestors by telling the rest of the story.