Friday, April 05, 2013

Historic Stagville

I'm pretty exhausted once again. Benjamin's got yet another cold and he's teething so he hasn't been sleeping well. We just went went three days in a row without a single nap (and nights haven't been much better either). But it's the "last" day of spring break (now we're just having a regular weekend (except that it's General Conference (so not regular))) and Andrew didn't have class today so we had to do something fun!

After having a horrible attitude yesterday, Rachel behaved perfectly today. She helped do chores this morning and then held her sad little brother while Andrew and I scrambled to get everything ready to go.

Our adventure for the day was Historic Stagville, the "center of one of the largest plantations in Antebellum North Carolina," according to the pamphlet. Antebellum means "before a war," especially in reference to the American Civil War. I didn't know that before right now when I just looked it up.

Stagville was indeed rather large (several thousand acres)—it was a parcel of land in Durham County owned by the Bennehan and Cameron families who in total owned around 30,000 acres (and some 900 slaves to run it). The Bennehan family consisted of the parents—Richard and Mary—and two children, a son and a daughter. They lived in the "modest" plantation estate (I'd like to see one of the mansions in the more southern plantations).

I suppose the original house (1787) was rather small, but the addition they managed to tack on twelve years later (1799) is gigantic!

I thought my mom would appreciate their dinner table, set with Blue Willow dishes. My girls recognized the plates from Naanii's house (my mom bought a set of these plates piece by piece when we lived in Canada).

Here are the girls in one of the bedrooms upstairs—with a beautiful four-poster bed. We talked about the bed a lot because we're reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban right now and just got past the part where Black breaks into the dormitory and slashes Ron's bed curtains. We also talked about the chamber pot (the girls thought that was a disgusting idea—why didn't they just use the bathroom?!).

After we'd finished touring the Bennehan house, we drove down to the slave community at Horton Grove (with the tour guide (otherwise we wouldn't have been able to go inside the buildings)). Considering that four people lived in the beautiful house we'd just seen, it was horrifying to think of people living in something like this:

Each house held perhaps eighty slaves, according to the pamphlet! I thought it was interesting that our tour guide never used the word slave. She always said "enslaved people." Our tour guide let the girls hold a cowrie shell that some archeologists found at one of the excavation sites that had been brought over from Africa (probably Ghana, Andrew said) by a slave and was handed down until it ended up at Stagville (the slaves at Stagville were all born in America so the shell could only have come from a parent or grandparent who had been...forcibly America).

These slave quarters were actually decent and highly unusual. Most quarters had dirt floors and wattle-and-daub chimneys. These ones have wood floors and brick chimneys. The reason behind that is that the slaves began to get sick and die, so a doctor was brought in to treat them, but they were still dying and the treatments were getting expensive. As a final resort, the current master of the estate (I can't remember who it was at that time) took some advice to build nicer housing—with raised floors to keep rodents and other disease-spreading critters at bay. So he had materials hauled in for these dwellings to be constructed with.

I feel like most things on plantations can be said in passive voice. All the work was done by the slaves owned. So, essentially, the slaves built their own houses. But they were nicer ones than they had

Their beds were not nice four-poster beds but instead were straw ticks on the floor.

The walls inside were brick for "insulation," but I can attest that those houses were darn chilly in the winter! We were all shivering inside! Hopefully they kept things a little cooler in the summer...

Horton Grove was interesting because there were several houses to poke around (though we only went inside one of the slave houses).

One home off in the back, a small white-washed one, was built in 1760—and is the oldest building in Durham County. It's crazy to think that it's over 250 years old!

There was a row of four slave houses, but on the chimney on the first house is original.

If you look, you can find fingerprints in some of the bricks. One of the bricks even has some toe-prints of a young child. It's chilling to see evidence of the sweat and blood the plantation owners thought they were entitled to. But history is so confusing. I don't think the Bennehans or Camerons were bad people...but I certainly do think slavery was a bad idea.

Bad seems a bit of a bland word to fill such big shoes. Slavery was a tragic, repulsive, ignoble practice. It's obviously an embarrassing section of history to go poking about in but its evil roots and branches stretch from ancient to modern history it's a wonder we don't talk about it more.

I suppose it's difficult to talk about since so much of the history is anonymous. Few records were kept detailing the work of specific slaves. We know who built the Bennehan house because a white tradesman did it and it was recorded. We don't know which slaves did what around the plantation because it "didn't matter." It's an invisible history.

And yet, there are the fingerprints, made some 200 years ago by a child of God, who was categorized as a lesser being—a mere commodity. It all kind of boggles my mind.

Well, 1865 saw the abolition of slavery. Freedom was granted, but no compensation. Freedom was granted, but no equality. Freedom was granted, but no opportunity. Where is the justice in that?

After our tour guide gave her speech about sharecropping, I muttered to Andrew that it seemed to me it was just as good (if not better) to be a slave. PBS agrees with me. I mean, our tour guide said that the original percentage sharecroppers got to keep was only 25% (but later they negotiated laws allowing them to keep 50% of what they grew).

With no other choice, really, many slaves stayed on to work Stagville as freedmen in basically the very same conditions they had lived in under slavery.

The last black family of Stagville left in 1954 (after the estate was sold to a tobacco company (which later gifted the property to the state in the 1970s)). They lived in a converted slave house, side by side with the original ones their ancestors had lived in.

I can't imagine how much history these walls have seen.

The woods were so pretty, even without leaves (we don't have leaves yet and I'm not sure what the trees are waiting for because it's definitely spring). I love moss, though, so...

Our last stop was the Great Barn, which was constructed in 1860 over the course of six months or so. It's gigantic and was, at the time, the largest agricultural building in North Carolina.

Andrew puzzled over why they'd need such a huge door (elephants? giraffes?) because they certainly didn't have huge farming equipment like we have now (though they did have huge farming equipment it certainly wasn't to the scale we have today). The girls and I quickly launched into a Little House explanation of haying, which includes stomping down huge wagonloads of hay, which would then need to be stored. If your barn had a big enough door, you could just wheel it right inside the barn. 

This barn definitely was big enough for several haystacks to fit inside.

The interior was impressive, too. Three stories, with two rows of stalls for donkeys.

Whole tree-lengths of beams were used—and sometimes even more than that. This beam stretches across the entire length of the barn and so they had to use two logs, which they put together using a scarf joint. It's very snug.

Here we are outside the barn again:

We headed back to the visitor's center for a picnic before touring around the grounds some more.

We kept seeing these white boxes strapped to trees. They're beehives, which we guessed, and they house wild bees. They put the hiving boxes out, though, to keep the bees from building hives in the old houses. A keeper comes to tend the bees and steal harvest their honey, which is sold in the gift shop (for fairly decent prices, though we didn't buy any).

Maybe we should get a hive box to put out in the woods behind our house to keep bees away from our house...though we seem to be having more problems with wasps than with bees at the moment and I don't think wasps care about bee hives.

Anyway, here's the foundation to either a slave house or the kitchen (the "house slaves" were "kept" closer to the house (and separated from the field slaves)):

Here's Andrew and Rachel admiring some wonky tree branches/roots:

Here's Miriam showing me a flower and verifying that it is, indeed, a pansy:

Then she ate it.

"Did you just eat that?" Andrew asked.

"Yup!" Miriam said.

"Why?" Andrew asked.

"They're good!" she said. "And Mom said that if she knows what it is and says we can eat it then we can eat it. Mom said we can eat pansies and I asked her if this was a pansy and she said yes!"

Then she skipped off to find more pansies to snack on. Crazy child.

We found the chicken house.

There were nine plump Dominique chickens scratching around the yard—one with a "lucky leg" named Nemo. Dominique chickens are considered the oldest breed of chickens in the United States and the Bennehans had them on the property originally.

Sometimes the woods here strike me as so jungly...

Anyway, we spent quite a bit of time with the chickens. Rachel was moderately afraid of them. Miriam was petrified. 

The only one to get hen-pecked, I think, was me. But their keeper assured us their pecking was just their way of saying hello. Considering it didn't hurt a bit, I'll believe her.

They also sell fresh farm eggs in the gift shop. They're super fresh...

The keeper let the girls help feed the chickens. Rachel fed them several handfuls of feed before Miriam got the nerve to try. They both enjoyed it...from a distance.

Eventually their attention was drawn to a rope dangling from a tree branch, which they used as a rope swing (though I'm having a difficult time imagining a state-run place purposely putting a rope swing out for children to play on).

Rachel only had one run-in with the tree trunk. We promise not to sue.

From the rope swing we raced off to find the cemetery.

It rained all day and night yesterday so the trail was rather soggy.

I was surprised to find the cemetery so empty. It's a huge plot, but only contains three lonely graves.

Mary and Richard Bennehan are buried there, along with their son Thomas (who never married (nor had any children). Their daughter Elizabeth, I suppose, is buried elsewhere, probably in her husband's family plot, along with her children.

Here are the girls trying to make out the words on the top of the gravestones:

Erosion has all but erased the letters. Thomas' was the easiest to read.

Rachel enjoyed all the moss on the ground. She said it felt like carpet.

Miriam loved the purple flowers growing on the stone wall. I reminded her that she shouldn't pick it or eat it unless we knew what it was (and that it was edible).

"I know, I know, I know!" she said. "Only eat pansies. And dandelions. Oh, and chickweed."

And she can identify those flowers perfectly. Here I thought that by identifying edible plants I'd be able to relax about Benjamin but instead I've had to start keeping a more stringent eye on Miriam!

The girls sneaked out of the cemetery and shut us inside, telling us that we'd be stuck forever.

We said that was just fine.

But they let us out eventually and we slogged our way back to the van.

We had such a great time. I can't believe that we even bothered to go to the Duke Homestead first because Stagville was much more fun (and we enjoyed learning more about the abolition of slavery and antebellum plantations than we did learning about the fall of the tobacco industry and tobacco magnates). The tour guide we had seemed much more knowledgable and there was more for the kids to do (like feed chickens and swing on ropes).

Here's one last picture of the girls in the gift shop, admiring the American Girl Doll things. The story of Addy is based on research done on the Stagville Plantation, which is why she was in the shop.

I assured the girls that we could find all the Addy books at the library.

Miriam also wanted Rapunzel by Rachel Isadora (which used to be on We Give Books (but it's not there anymore) because she loves the story of Rapunzel and really likes the pictures in Isadora's version. I assured her that we'd be able to find that book in the library as well.

We went on a few other adventures after Stagville, but I'll have to write about those tomorrow because it's getting rather late...


  1. I think you should work for the NC tourism industry. Really enjoyed your post. And I am amused at Miriam's love for eating pansies! :)

    Thanks for the history lesson. Great pics, too!

  2. I recently visited this wonderful site and enjoyed it immensely. truly a chance to see history both the good and the bad.