There are times when you get into something so deeply that you lose all sanity. Sometimes when trying to get to the result, you neglect to plan the necessary steps to get there. This way of living can often put you in situations where you have to make mind blowing decisions. If that decision is wrong, there could be grave consequences.
I am proud to admit that my desire to sleep in extant slave dwellings will last as long as my body will allow. I can prolong that time when I factor self-preservation into the decision making process. Hovering around ninety-five slave dwellings of which I have spent a night, there was only one in which I refused to sleep. That one was Laurelwood Plantation in Eastover, South Carolina. The physical condition of the unrestored cabin made it impossible to sleep in; I opted to sleep on the porch of the big house instead because common sense prevailed. That cabin has since was restored, and I have slept in it many times with school children and their chaperones from Lower Richland High School.
Along this journey of spending nights in slave dwellings at antebellum historic sites across the nation, I have met some amazing people. They jump through hoops to make my stay at historic sites proceed swimmingly. And then there are those who are beyond amazing; Jonathan Williams is on that short list.
In 2013, while I was in a clubhouse, after caddying for my daughter, I received a call from Jonathan. He was responding to an October 2013, about the Slave Dwelling Project. Well, much like myself, Jonathan is a man of action, and in 2014 Jonathan arranged for the Slave Dwelling Project to have a sleepover at McCollum Farm, Madison, NC. In 2016, Jonathan arranged for us to spend the night at Cooleemee Plantation in Davie County, NC. All of the stays accompanied by a program at the local high school that gave the students the opportunity to interact with members of the Slave Dwelling Project and local historians.
This year was business as usual, and the presentations went on at Walkertown High School without a hitch. In my presentation to the students, I never committed to the sleepover that we were supposed to conduct at the See Farm dugout. The pictures of the site were not very appealing. It was a collapsed ruin of a structure initially built below grade. The constant rain the night before and the day of the proposed stay did not support the case for camping at the site. I just wasn’t feeling it.
When we arrived at the place where we could park our cars, I was still somewhat optimistic that we could set up our tents and spend the night at the site. From where we left our cars, we hiked about 100 yards before we reached the woods. We then proceed along a narrow path of uneven terrain and a creek. About a quarter mile away from our vehicles, we reached the See Farm Dugout. Our lead guide had already made up his mind about spending because he had already pitched his tent.
It was all that we expected, a collapsed ruin, while we speculated about its history, there remained too many unknowns. As much as we examined the structure, we all knew that we had to make the ultimate decision to stay or to take the offer to stay in a local church.
Prinny Anderson declined to stay because of the effort that would be involved lugging her equipment to and from the site. Terry James said no because of a fear of spiders. I said no because every plant looked like poison ivy and every bug looked like a tick. Our host, Johnathan Williams did not object. It seemed as if he knew what decision that we would make but he put the burden on us.
Our lead guide, Daniel Bowles, Walkertown Area Historical Society setting up his tent did not persuade us to stay there so to Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church it was for us. The church accommodations were offered to us by Paul Freeman, President of Archives of the Walkertown Area Historical Society, Greensboro College History Student, Chairman of Trustees of Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church. Both Daniel and Paul presented with us at Walkertown High School.
Daniel decided that he would spend the night at the See Farm dugout all by himself. A bold move if he could pull it off, but I had my doubts.
The accommodations at the church were far nicer than See Farm dugout. We could sleep anywhere we wanted in the church. We found a room upstairs that would perfectly accommodate the five of us sleeping there. Our biggest problem was finding enough electrical outlets to charge our phones. This problem paled in comparison to what we would have dealt with at See Farm dugout. Around 10:00 pm we gave Daniel a call only to find out that he did not to spend the night at the site, a wise choice. We then engaged in an impromptu conference call with Franklin Vagnone, the new Director at Old Salem. It just so happens that I am on his advisory committee. Franklin and I will be conducting our first program together at a site in Virginia. It appears that we know where we will stay when we come to Winston-Salem, and there is that possibility that students and their chaperones from Walkertown High School might be joining us at Old Salem.
Our breakfast at the church came with all of the fixings.
Before we could do lunch, Prinny, Terry, Jonathan and I gave a small group in the sanctuary a presentation on the Slave Dwelling Project. The lunch was superb.
How unfortunate that all of that work that Jonathan and other volunteers put into finding us a place for a sleepover did not pan out. In this thing that we do, self-preservation and safety must always be in the forefront of our thoughts. That said,
there are other sites in the vicinity of where we were that are far more appropriate for what the Slave Dwelling Project is trying to accomplish. We understand that it will take some time for some of the owners of these sites to get comfortable with the notion that we come in peace, we mean them no harm. In the meantime, we have hit the mother-load because when we return to the area, we will be spending the night at Old Salem.
SANCTUARY: Walkertown High School, the Sell Farm Dugout, and Mt Pleasant Methodist Church, Walkertown, NC
By Prinny Anderson
I trudged through the underbrush, picked my way across the mud, through the puddles, and over the roots, and wondered how much longer it would take to get to our proposed overnight sleeping spot, the Sell Farm Dugout. A yellow tent appeared on the other side of a gully and small ridge, and when I slipped and clambered my way to it, I could finally see the dugout.
The Sell Farm Dugout is a collapsed structure, with early Moravian-style stone foundations, 18th or 19th century wood plank walls, now tumbled into the dugout, and a 20th century tin roof, now in big separate sheets lying cattywampus all over the ruins. Not a good spot to spend the night, but definitely a mystery to be explored. The oral histories of the Walkertown area say that this structure built half buried in the earth served originally as a hiding place for runaway enslaved people, in addition to whatever other purposes it had for the owners of Sell Farm. Walkertown is known as the home of abolitionists and Underground Railroad activists. Less well known is that a number of Walkertown residents were dissenters during the Civil War, some of whom fled to go serve in the Union army. The Dugout was remembered as a hiding place for those dissenters until they could be bundled onto trains heading north.
As muddy and tumbledown as it is today, the Sell Farm Dugout was a sanctuary, a refuge and a hiding place for people seeking freedom, for people following their consciences. Anyone caught helping the runaways into that sanctuary would also be at risk of suffering rough justice.
Since the conditions were so poor, our Slave Dwelling group made its way back to our cars and were then given our own kind of sanctuary in a warm, dry parlor at the Methodist church. As we talked during the evening, we learned about the position taken by some Walkertown Methodists during the Civil War. The denomination split over the issue of owning slaves, and one group took a stand for abolition, for freedom and equality, and against slavery.
Today, Methodist churches around the country are taking a stand to protect immigrants. Congregations provide hiding places for immigrants being tracked down, to be arrested, immigrants with children and old people to care for. The churches provide physical sanctuary.
The ministers also protect the church records of immigrants who might be members or to whom the church might have provided services. In contravention to the demands of the authorities, Methodist ministers are burning records and declaring their willingness to go to jail for doing so. In this way, these people of conscience dissent and provide an information sanctuary to the vulnerable.
We ended our visit to Walkertown with a gathering in the church’s sanctuary, the place where church members come together to honor their God and testify to their beliefs. My prayer for them is that they carry on the proud heritage of their town of giving sanctuary, of standing for liberty, justice and equality.
Slave Dwelling Project Blog – May 5th – 6th, 2017
Sell Farm Dugout, Walkertown, NC
Jon Williams – Assistant Principal, Walkertown High School
“Not Your Typical SDP Visit… But, In A Good Way”
Three years ago, I started a journey with Joseph McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project by running across his mission in a Smithsonian Magazine. Since that time, I have embraced Joe’s call to preserve these sacred places by exposing students to his message and tying in state curriculums both at the middle and high school levels in the subject of Social Studies. After two previous visits by Joe and the SDP, I embarked on a third journey to locate a dwelling in my new school’s community. This is where the story gets very interesting…
This year I took a new role as an Assistant Principal at Walkertown High School. I was very fortunate to find the Walkertown Area Historic Society just down the road from the school, and I made contact with them about possible slave dwellings in the Walkertown area or in Forsyth County. I was thrilled to meet two very eager young historians, Daniel Bowles and Paul Freeman, who were ready to take on the challenge of hosting an overnight stay and school visit in our community.
As many who embark on this undertaking know, finding and securing a property for a visit is no easy task. The WAHS searched and located a possibility of 4 – 5 property sites for a visit. After months of trying to contact the right people, our prospects did not look good for an overnight stay. In fact, we did not get in contact with the owner of the proposed site until the week of the visit… talk about cutting things close. Once we had permission from the owner, Daniel and Paul helped to make preparations for our stay. The property that was selected has a unique story to it as all slave properties that still exist do. The structure is back in the woods and was only recently rediscovered by the WAHS. The collapsed building is believed to be a hide-out for slaves who were fleeing their plantations en route on the Underground Railroad. It is also believed to be a site for Confederate Soldier dissenters during the Civil War. With historical interviews and accounts to legitimize these stories, it was decided to have a camp out at this site.
When organizing an overnight stay for the Slave Dwelling Project for a school audience, I have always included a visit to the school so students can hear the importance of preserving these historical places. It is so important to hear the stories of the “little house” behind the “big house,” and this visit was no different. Joe came with Prinny Anderson, and Terry James. I organized the program in the auditorium, and had five stations in which students could rotate. Joe and Terry presented on the message of the SDP. Prinny presented on her family history and her ties to the SDP. Three members of the Walkertown Area Historical Society (Daniel, Paul, and Jean Linville) spoke about the local ties of Walkertown to the Civil War, Churches in the Area, and the history of a local plantation. All told, over 400 students, staff and community members were exposed to Joe’s message.
After the day visit by the school stakeholders, we had a more intimate gathering of few teachers and others in our Media Center at Walkertown High School. Joe gave his usual presentation and slide show and a great discussion was started with the teachers and with Joe, Terry, and Prinny.
Following the school programs, we had dinner at a local Mexican restaurant and then headed to the site of our overnight stay – Sell Farm Dugout in Walkertown, NC. There were some questions by all who planned to stay (Daniel, me, Joe, Prinny, and Terry) before we even went to the site. We had bad storms the night before and this structure was back in the woods in a very remote part of the community. Safety issues came into play, with no access to bathrooms, heavy foliage in the area ripe for critters, the area was extremely wet. There just wasn’t a very good place to camp, and a camp fire would have been extremely difficult. So, the decision was made by the group to not stay the night. Even though we did not stay on the site, it did bring to mind thoughts of how runaway slaves must have felt hiding out in an abandoned structure, no place to go for the time being, and the fear of someone discovering them in the middle of the night. Again, that is what it is all about… getting a small glimpse of what slaves must have felt on their journey to escape a cruel and unjust system.
Unable to stay on site, we then went to the church where we were having a program the next morning for some WAHS members and members of the Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church. Though there was no campfire, we were able to talk as a group about plans for future events and how the SDP is moving forward in its mission. A great contact was made to the Director of Old Salem Museum and Gardens in Winston-Salem for a partnership for next year and the possibility of staying in a new property at Old Salem or somewhere in Forsyth County. Again, the message moves forward…
The next morning, we had breakfast provided by the church, and then had a nice intimate crowd to hear the message from all four of us about the SDP. Great conversations were again started with even more interested parties. The final culmination of the weekend visit was a wonderful catered lunch at the church. All in all the visit was a great success. Contacts were made, ideas were spread, the site owner is interested in preservation, and plans are moving forward for a 4th school visit for next year. Thanks to Joe, Prinny, and Terry for the important work you are doing! Until next year…
**A SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Daniel Bowles, Paul Freeman, Walkertown Area Historical Sociey & Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church (Winston-Salem, NC), 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. Thanks also goes out to Walkertown High School PTSA, Webster Brothers Hardware, Tree Hugger Forestry for sponsoring our event. Lastly thanks to Dr. Jay Jones, WHS Administration, Teachers, and of course our students!