The photographer was late. All the family was gathered at the town square for a holiday portrait, but it was cold, so everyone stayed in their cars, except me. I had driven past the square thousands of times but never stopped so I took advantage of my polar bear genes and strolled the green space while the others sat in seat belts.
By walking around the square I learned that Roswell was founded by a Savannah family man who resettled in the upstate, got lonely, then granted some land to buddies so they could all live near each other.
I walked across the street to the town visitors center. In a glass case was a cavalry saber, some spurs, an old pair of ladies shoes, and some other excavated odd items. On the other side of the large room was a full wall display of the town’s cotton mill and an explanation of how cotton was harvested and milled in historic Roswell.
I also learned that right here in Roswell, 20 minutes north of Atlanta, was one of the nations largest concentrations of pre civil war homes. I quickly looked through the rows of brochures keeping one eye out the window for the photographer, then approached the desk. “Excuse me. Would you by chance have any information on the history of slavery or the black population in Roswell? I asked the well groomed lady at the desk, attempting to sound as polite and harmless as possible. In a way that only southern women can, she smiled, while still looking upset, and said they did not, but maybe I should try the historical society down the street.
Early the next morning, while all the in-laws were still sleeping, I opened my new walking tour pamphlet and took a stroll. It turns out Teddy Roosevelt’s Mom was born in Roswell. He even gave a big speech in the square where we had just had our portraits taken. How bout that.
Nothing was open yet and it was almost raining. Almost as in everything was wet but an umbrella was unnecessary. The house, all the houses, were beautiful. As I normally do with old mansions, I walked around the side or the back looking for the “outbuildings”. The places where the slaves lived. Teddy’s Mom’s place had one, so did the Smith Plantation, but I’m not sure about the others. I’m not sure because most of these homes are still private homes. People, not curators, still live there.
Looking through the literature I read that many of these places were still owned by the old families, or were granted over to the city from descendants within my lifetime. Walking in the damp morning I started wondering about this place and all the things I wasn’t reading. I read about how the Union troops occupied one house during the march on Atlanta, how the old church was used as a hospital during the Civil War, and even about how many of the families relocated to other cities to flee the invaders. One story even recounted the tragedy of a number of women and children who were sent North, accused of treason, never to return. The tale did not specify, but I am guessing the accused were white.
As I walked and read, the story reflected the town in its modern form; very White. My wife’s sister had moved her family there for the school. While sitting in a mechanic’s lobby I read that the local school was number two in the state, and 95% White. Maybe some of my questions then and now are unfair in that I never had the chance to ask anyone who might have answers. But then again maybe not. You see, in writing history there is a challenge. We of today, are mostly limited to what we know happened, or what those then, wrote or left behind. I Googled Roswell before I started writing this, I reread the tourist literature, and for the most part Black people aren’t there. They don’t live there now, none are mentioned in the brochures, all that is left are these gorgeous mansions and well manicured streets.
What I was able to figure out is that the town was started in 1830-something by six planter families, Roswell King and his friends. King initially brought at least 85 Black slaves. His was one of six plantations. An 1850 census listed 378 slaves. In 1860 the town was 27% percent Black, or approximately 845 Black people.
Where was their story?
A couple homes had the small structures labeled slave quarters. The Smith home even had a large placard explaining the daily life of enslaved Africans. But not one name. Maybe it is because their story was never written down, or perhaps it is documented and I in my touristy hurry just missed it, but still…
The plaque says Mr. King built his home and this town, but really, Black folk built it. They did a great job too, I would love to have a home that nice. They were people. The stories of Black people are too often a side note at these places and that is a shame. Not only in the loss of individual’s tales but in the inaccuracy of our historical perception.
If Roswell King had six kids (I just guessed, too lazy to look), and 80 slaves, what did the crowd look like that he saw every day? Does it look like the crowd I see today? When I go to a restored plantation home am I expecting a taste of what things looked like then or am I expecting a glossy view of what was left behind? I always get gloss.
I know, I am the radical grumpy one. I’m always talking about it, I need to relax and look on the bright side. I know, I get it. But I talk about it because I go to these places and there, where it happened, they aren’t talking about it. They are talking, but not really talking about IT.
At the Smith Plantation, the one most touted as a historical tourist destination, there is talk of the peculiar institution. On the recreated slave house is a large placard. Here is what it said:
“By the age of 22, Archibald Smith owned six slaves at his home in coastal Georgia. By the 1830’s his workforce had grown to sixty slaves, including a driver, two carpenters, a cook, a nurse, two house servants, and twelve field hands. Archibald’s son Archie, wrote that while his father lived in St. Mary’s Georgia he became infected with abolition ideas and designed to free his Negroes and send them to Liberia. But attempted first to prepare them for self support and self government. In his attempt he overworked himself destroyed all discipline and effectiveness among his people. Crops failed. Father had nervous prostration. Appenzelle was a failure.” Archibald had apparently had such ideas since his youth. Archie wrote: “As a young man Father was zealous in giving the Negroes religious instruction, and he endured much heat and hardship [from other slave owners] teaching them in Savannah.”
To escape the occupation of Roswell by Union Troops in 1864, Archibald Smith moved his family to Valdosta Georgia. at least fifteen of the slaves who accompanied the Smiths to Southern Georgia remained in Valdosta after the Civil War and apparently became free sharecroppers.”
So that is what you get. When the time is taken to talk, or better to write and display something about the Black people of the day, what you get is the story of the White owner who cared so much about his slaves that he ruined himself trying to prepare them for freedom, but then thirty years later still owns them and is fleeing the Northern troops. But that’s okay because at least some of them became sharecroppers after the war was over and the Smiths went back home to Roswell.
I know it’s just me.
Archibald may have been a great man, especially by the standards of his day. Why can’t I just leave it at that?
I left Roswell not mad, just disappointed. Wonderful buildings well preserved, and when the time was taken to talk of those who actually did the work to build them, we get a defense of the one who owned them.