One way of testing the effectiveness of the Slave Dwelling Project is when I get invited back to a place where I have stayed already. An invitation to return is an indication to me that the project is working and I am not the only one who has come to the conclusion that preserving and interpreting former slave dwellings is the right thing to do. Accepting the invitation to go back to Holly Springs, Mississippi to participate in the Behind the Big House Tour was a no-brainer. The tour is in its second year of existence and gives people participating in the Holy Springs Pilgrimage the opportunity to hear the rest of the story by touring the slave dwellings behind the “big house".
Last year when I participated in the Behind the Big House Tour, I took a side trip to Oxford, Mississippi. While there I visited Rowan Oak which was owned by author William Faulkner until his death. The Greek revival house was built in 1840 by Colonel Robert Sheegog a planter from Tennessee. I left there with a verbal agreement that when I returned this year, I would spend a night in one of the out buildings. In fact, when my host booked my plane ticket for the trip they added two extra days on the front end to compensate for the stay at Rowan Oak. Unfortunately, the stay did not occur because of a bureaucratic nightmare. I did visit the site and had a productive conversation with the curator who gave me and my host access to the outbuildings. With patience, I am hopeful that the stay will occur in the near future however while there I did see a large snake which curbed my enthusiasm for that stay to occur immediately.
Along the way, the project has gained supporters who have helped it in many ways, those who publish my blogs; those who spend nights in slave dwellings with me; those who help find those obscure slave dwellings; those stewards of dwellings who grant me permission to spend a night; to those who just offer an encouraging word along the way. In the year 2010 when the project was in its infancy, my first slave dwelling lecture was given on the campus of the University of South Carolina. It was arranged by Jody Skipper, PhD, who was a doctoral student at that time. After a series of emails Dr. Skipper met me in Anderson, SC the site of one of the early stays for the project. After receiving her doctoral degree, she accepted a teaching position at the University of Mississippi. Fate would have it that we would meet again, as a result of this Mississippi trip, she made arrangements for me to address two of her classes. I was not surprised to learn that she along with her graduate students, would serve as volunteers for the Behind the Big House Tour.
Year two would see many positive changes for the Behind the Big House Tour. One such change was adding school children, so on Thursday morning, April 11 local school groups were scheduled to visit the Hugh Craft House and slave dwelling. This was also an improvement because last year only the slave dwelling at this house was available for public viewing. Unfortunate for me, recalling my knowledge of being a park ranger at Fort Sumter, I had a preconceived notion that the high school students would misbehave, but proper preparation by their teachers; an orientation in the “big house” by Alex Mercedes and the home owner; the power of the place; and my Civil War uniform were all factors in the kids giving me their undivided attention. I only regret that I had to cut short the time given to the last group because of another scheduled obligation. Regrettable because one young lady in the last group engaged in a line of questioning about the institution of slavery that made her get so emotional to the point of shedding tears; honorable because the rest of the group respected her outward moment of mourning. This was a true testament of the power of place.
The official opening ceremony for the project occurred at the Smiling Phoenix a newly restored historic building on the town square of Holly Springs. The spacious building is now Holly Springs’ only coffee shop and is the talk of the town. I was thoroughly impressed by the demographics of the crowd that showed up for the event. My observation would be 60 % African American and 40 % Caucasian. This impressed me because I recalled last year for the two days that the two slave dwellings were open to the public only a sprinkling of African Americans came for the tour. I also recalled that as I queried those few African Americans the overwhelming message was that before the Behind the Big House Tour, the Holly Spring Pilgrimage had nothing to offer them. My only hope was that the strong presence of African Americans at this opening event would translate in to more African Americans touring the slave dwellings.
Friday morning would find me interpreting the slave dwelling at Burton Place. It was not necessary for me to spend the night in the space because I had done so the year before. One African American female volunteer showed up well before the scheduled school group of third graders. As all third graders are, they were full of pertinent questions. When we went inside the space, their line of questions continued, I continued to answer in a manner which third graders could understand. For the second time in two days the power of the place brought tears to one of the participant’s eyes, but it was the volunteer who experienced this emotion not any of the third graders.
The day continued with a program at Christ Church. Alex Mercedes (whom I had met the day before and had the pleasure of co-presenting with to the school students) played three songs on the piano which included Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar, one of my favorite songs. I along with doctoral candidate Justin Rogers presented on religion and slavery. I fore-warned my host that my knowledge on this subject was perfunctory at most and most of the time should be yielded to the young scholar Justin Rogers. This proved to be a good decision because Justin was quite thorough in is research and the explanation of same. I could only present my knowledge of using religion to justify slavery; extant Praise Houses; antebellum church balconies and galleries; slave burial grounds and practices; and the history of the song “Amazing Grace”.
I was then scheduled to present at the McCarroll Place Quarters, one of the new stops on the Behind the Big House Tour. Last year I had a brief stop at the site and was glad to know that the current owners agreed to make it a part of the tour. The main house on the property is uninhabited and has been for years. Volunteers managed to get the quarters in a condition that could be toured by the public. I must admit that I am getting a little soft because while the opportunity to spend the night there was presented, I passed. Misinformation managed to minimize the number of people that came to the site. Although interpretive information was provided, I had not familiarized myself with it enough to feel comfortable disseminating it to a visiting public. Fortunately, the few people who were there were given the history of the site by my host Chelius Carter.
I vividly remember that one of the slaves that lived in the dwelling was a brick maker who was promised his freedom after he trained another brick maker. While still on the site, I met Rkhty Jones. Our conversation revealed that African Americans made the bricks that were used to build the antebellum buildings in Holly Springs. I revealed to her that this past February, I gave a lecture in Charleston titled Who Built Charleston: Factoring Slave Labor into Antebellum Architecture. We both agreed that the concept of slaves making bricks can be applied to all historic cities where slavery occurred.
The night ended with dinner and a movie on the green. I joined my hosts for a bar-b-que dinner and the outside viewing of the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes.” As an avid channel surfer, that was the first time that I had seen the movie in its entirety. The KKK scenes were a lot more poignant in this setting and bar-b-que may not have been the best choice to serve as the main course for dinner.
Magnolias would be my thirty ninth former slave dwelling in which I would spend the night. The main house best known for the movie Cookie’s Fortune which was filmed there, was recently acquired by the young couple Frank and Genevieve Busby. Last year I toured the house and saw the potential for the stay. The owners worked frantically to prepare the entire house for the Pilgrimage in the weeks prior to the stay. Extensive renovations by a series of owners had attached the once separated kitchen and slave dwelling to the main house therefore, the average person would not readily identify the space as one that once housed slaves. This attachment also meant that the space would be complete with a bed, electricity and an indoor full bathroom. This attachment also made interpreting the space that much more interesting for it gave me the opportunity to explain to the visitors how some spaces that once housed slaves are sometimes hidden in plain view in attempts by home owners to add square footage to their houses or adaptively reuse the space.
That evening, I was assigned to the Hugh Craft House. As I was familiar with the narrative, that information flowed much more easily. It was there that, in making a point that the labor was not free for slave owners, one visitor stated that “the slave owner was economically liable for the feeding, clothing, housing and health care of his slaves even the non productive ones like the young and elderly.” I stated that you can justify slavery economically but can you justify it morally? One other visitor added a statement supporting my point of view and did not let the initial statement carry the day.
Behind the Big House II was much bigger and better. It has the potential to be bigger still. Like the Slave Dwelling Project, the Behind the Big House Tour is still going through growing pains and still has to convince some people and entities we mean no harm to anyone and that this is the right thing to do. There are several well established historic house tours carried out in places where slavery once existed in this nation. I hereby challenge all of them to step out of their comfort zones and interpret those extant slave dwellings behind those architecturally significant buildings therefore telling the complete story of this nation’s history.