“When I woke up the next morning, it saddened me when I read negative comments about me sleeping in slave cabins. The most hurtful is that it’s from our community. The comments are “Why are you doing this,” “Why don’t you leave slavery in the past,” and “Why are you bringing up slavery all the time.” The more negative comments I hear, the more I want to do more to raise awareness about the enslaved. I do these travels to learn about the enslaved because, if I don’t do it, who will? It is only a few people that I can count on my fingers, who have the same passion I have about the history of the enslaved. My hope, is one day that more people will come and learn about the contributions that the enslaved have provided us to have the freedoms that we have to today. We are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and their voices and sacrifices should be acknowledged and honored. The slave cabins and the enslaved lives matter and it is important to remember when comments are made about slavery such as “forget about it” and “leave it in the past,” we must remember what “it” is.”………Tammy Gibson
It seems like only yesterday that I got my first invitation to participate in the Behind the Big House Tour in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The Slave Dwelling Project, like the Behind the Big House Tour, was fresh out of the starting blocks and saw the great potential for inclusiveness that this new collaboration with the local Garden Club of Holly Springs, Mississippi could bring to the local pilgrimage. Until then, all that the Garden Club and the pilgrimage offered was the opportunity for visitors to view the stately mansions, this was typical of the majority of house tours throughout the United States that included antebellum buildings. The ability to view and interpret the spaces where the enslaved stayed was very limited.
The Behind the Big House Tour took a bold step and offered the public the opportunity to experience those places that the enslaved that serviced those stately mansions lived. Three properties in Holly Springs (Hugh Craft House, Magnolia and Burton Place) all made their slave dwellings available for viewing and interpreting to the public during the pilgrimage. This was a bonus because the major funder, the Mississippi Humanities Council, dictates that no fee can be charged to the public to access any of their funded programs. This was a perfect opportunity for the Slave Dwelling Project to participate. And participated we did and have been doing so for the past five years.
Since that first year, the collaboration between the Garden Club and the Behind the Big House Tour has continued to erode. Despite the fact that the African American participation in the overall event continues to rise, since year two, the chasm between the two organizations continues to widen. The Garden Club has reverted back to its old way of just giving their visiting public the opportunity to view the stately mansions completely missing the opportunity to interpret the whole stories of these structures and their owners.
Confederate Heritage Month
Year five and the governor of Mississippi has now declared April as Confederate Heritage Month. My resolve was now strengthened to make this visit to Holly Springs the best ever by reminding the visiting public that Confederate heritage involved enslaving others. The challenge was and still is that I can only express this notion to those who would choose to come into the space of which I would interpret. With the Garden Club not including the Behind the Big House Tour in any of its advertising, that made this quest more of a challenge.
Again this year, I would be joined by culinary historian, Michael Twitty. His methods of disseminating the real history of our enslaved Ancestors can be as radical as mine and he has a network much larger than that of the Slave Dwelling Project. Like me, he is the practical hands on type which makes the two of us a perfect combination because we are a compliment to each other.
Day one of the tour and I was stationed at the Magnolia House. The students would arrive already having spent time at the Hugh Craft house and Burton Place. An overabundance of students would mean that some never got to Magnolia while some that got there had ten minutes or less to hear my presentation.
This was a good problem to have because at the Hugh Craft House the students were exposed to Michael Twitty and other stations manned by history students from the University of Mississippi. At Burton Place, the students had the opportunity to go through the Big House and hear a lecture on the making of bricks. The history department at the University of Mississippi has partnered in this venture and provided me with a well capable student to assist in the interpretation.
This year the students were armed with a well-conceived questionnaires that covered many aspects of the slave dwellings. It covered such details as how many people were enslaved in the space to what material the structure was made.
The opening reception was held at Chalmers which is in the process of being restored. Built in 1837, it was home to the University of Holly Springs, the oldest university in Mississippi, from 1838 to 1839. It was home to a short-lived Methodist medical and law school from 1839 to 1843. It reopened as the Chalmers Institute, a Presbyterian boys’ school, from 1850 to 1878, when a yellow fever epidemic closed down the school. It became home to the Holly Springs Normal Institute in 1879, but closed down a few years later. In the twentieth century, it became a private residence. It has been listed by the National Register of Historic Places for its historic significance since 1982.
My first instinct when I got to the building was to examine the bricks for fingerprints which would have been made by the enslaved people who made the bricks. Unfortunately, no fingerprints were found. The hand hewn logs were enough evidence for me that enslaved labor was heavily involved in the erecting of that building. The standing room only crowd included the mayor of Holly Springs, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and a representative from the Mississippi Humanities Council.
Day two and I mistakenly found myself stationed at Burton Place because I found out after the fact that I was supposed to be again stationed at Magnolia. Home owner of Burton Place, David Pearson, gave the students the opportunity to go through the big house before viewing the slave dwelling. Additionally, there was a gentleman there who demonstrated the making of bricks.
I was fortunate enough to meet a descendant of someone who was enslaved at the site. Unfortunately, I did not have a lot of time to interact with them because the students began to descend upon us. The conversations we could have had would have been immense. The ability for the descendants of the enslaved to interact with the property where their Ancestors were enslaved is becoming more common or maybe I’m just noticing it more.
After the students left, people who paid to participate in the pilgrimage began to show. Some were surprised at the fact that the slave dwelling was open for visitation. There were all extremes of reaction to the space from a gentleman who adamantly refused to come into the space with the rest of his group to one African American woman who wondered into the space but could care less about my interpretation of the space. Despite the extremes, most of the people visiting the space were quite receptive to the message.
Five consecutive years of participating in the Behind the Big House Tour and I had only slept in each of the three properties the first year that I visited. No one had expressed an interest in sleeping in the slave dwellings beyond that year so there was no reason for me to sleep in any of them again.
This year would be different. A young lady from Missouri was adamant about spending the night in a slave dwelling in Holly Springs. Additionally, Tammy Gibson from Chicago, who had three stays in slave dwellings also wanted to join us in a sleepover. We were granted permission to spend the night in the Hugh Craft House.
The young and ambitious couple from Missouri showed up as scheduled. After clearing up a misunderstanding, Tammy Gibson also showed, otherwise she would have showed up the following night. Skepticism about the couple staying throughout the night began to emerge as the young lady was afraid of cats and bugs. That skepticism came to past as the couple left the dwelling at 3:00 am without saying goodbye. Although it was unseasonably cold, Tammy and I toughed it out until 5:00am.
Day three and I found myself again conducting interpretation at Magnolia. The visitors had the opportunity to visit the big house as well as the place where the enslaved lived. Most of the people opted for both but there were a small few that I observed who were satisfied with what the big house offered and opted out of viewing the slave dwelling.
Two students from the University of Mississippi assisted with the interpretation of the space. A steady flow of visitors who bought their tickets for the pilgrimage were more than receptive to the message that we were disseminating in the space. The questions dictated that they wanted to know more. This was a testament that if the Behind the Big House Tour was embraced by the Garden Club, the pilgrimage could be that much more robust.
The Way Forward
It has become apparent that the Garden Club of Holly Spring, Mississippi will continue to interpret the stories of the big houses only. The places where the enslaved stayed is of no consequence to them. The Governor of Mississippi proclaiming April as Confederate Heritage Month does not do much to change that way of thinking. That way of thinking also does not get the Slave Dwelling Project any closer to applying its method to Natchez, Mississippi, a place that is even more embedded and committed to telling only the romanticized stories of those who enslaved. In their minds, a problem does not exist.
The Behind the Big House Tour has proven that it can stand alone. That is based of the fact that many students have visited the three sites that have given them access to the places where the enslaved once dwelled. In all of my travels, I have yet to see a tour created for and dedicated exclusively to multiple sites where the enslaved occupied. Heritage Tourism should be all inclusive, it should not concentrate only on those places that keep us in our comfort zones.
If the Holly Springs Garden Club, Chamber of Commerce and the state of Mississippi should embrace the Behind the Big House Tour they may realize that they could be an impressive tool in improving the race relations of this nation. They have the potential to correct an historical narrative that has relegated the stories of the enslaved Ancestors to footnote status in history. It is because of that incomplete narrative that we are living with the legacy that chattel slavery left on this great nation. Mississippi, will you embrace this opportunity to move forward in a positive light or will you continue to regress by wallowing in a romanticized Confederate history that tends to glorify those who enslaved?
When Joshua and I arrived in Holly Springs we were not sure what the experience would entail. It was only when we turned down Craft street in “old town” Holly Springs that we felt like we could feel something. The fact that it was pilgrimage week added slightly to the cause. We felt the Behind the Big House tour began with the town. We walked and observed the town from the bricks in the church to the landscape of the cemetery. Upon our arrival we were welcomed by smoke from a boiling pot of rabbit, amongst other cooked Slave food. The dwelling was much bigger than we anticipated. It was a semisolid wood structure. There were brick dwellings throughout the town, but the one we stayed in was made of wood and had a small upstairs. The temperature gradually decreased as the night grew long. We laid on the hard floor hearing every sound the Mississippi night provided. The floor hurt. Our blankets were not full size but square and modest. We couldn’t imagine, though we tried, how slaves must have felt. Every breath was uneasy as the night got colder. Restlessly we laid inhaling dust and randomly hearing the door from the big house open and close. The anticipation and fear the slaves must have felt hearing the doors. We looked out of the glass windows knowing that during the 1800s that layer of glass keeping out the crisp air would be nonexistent. Alas we couldn’t sleep. There was no comfort. We rested in the dwelling with heavy hearts and educated minds before departing in the dead of the night, unable to withstand the task.
We were touched by the town and the feeling of the past. The dwelling was cold and hard. We laid restlessly imagining all that must have been endured inside and outside the dwelling in Holly Springs. It was emotional and thought provoking. An experience needed for everyone but especially those interested in African American History and Slavery. Thanks for the experience Joseph.
My first overnight stay this year was at the Hugh Craft in Holly Springs, MS. I was really excited seeing Joe McGill again and meeting new people. I arrived at Holly Springs late in the evening but was able to get there in time to have my first conversation with Mr. Michael Twitty. He is an amazing culinary historian and I was happy and excited to spend time and get to know him more. Mr. Twitty had me in the kitchen making homemade biscuits and crust. I have to admit, I am terrible in the kitchen and when he asked me to help him cook, I was extremely nervous. I didn’t want to let him down, but he made me feel at ease. Even when I messed up, he was very nice about it and showed me how to correct it. I enjoyed working with him and learned a lot about the essence of cooking. Mr. Twitty is very passionate about his craft. I look forward to reading his book and hopeful one day I will have the confidence to create a meal from scratch.
Sleeping in a slave cabin for the fourth time, I would think that it would be just another night, but it wasn’t. The feelings and emotions I was getting through the night made it very uncomfortable for me to sleep. The temperature was about 30 degrees and I can’t imagine how the enslaved endured trying to sleep. I had on two pairs of socks and two layers of pants and I was still cold.
When I woke up the next morning, it saddened me when I read negative comments about me sleeping in slave cabins. The most hurtful is that it’s from our community. The comments are “Why are you doing this,” “Why don’t you leave slavery in the past,” and “Why are you bringing up slavery all the time.” The more negative comments I hear, the more I want to do more to raise awareness about the enslaved. I do these travels to learn about the enslaved because, if I don’t do it, who will. It is only a few people that I can count on my fingers, who have the same passion I have about the history of the enslaved. My hope, is one day that more people will come and learn about the contributions that the enslaved have provided us to have the freedoms that we have to today. We are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and their voices and sacrifices should be acknowledged and honored. The slave cabins and the enslaved lives matter and it is important to remember when comments are made about slavery such as “forget about it” and “leave it in the past,” we must remember what “it” is.