History is not names and dates, it is the lives of people. Humans. Mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. Neighbors, allies, friends and enemies. People.
The hope in visiting historical sites is that these stories, these names and dates, can be more vividly turned into people. Through the things left behind or in the places where events occurred we hope the lives gone by become more tangible. Real. Not imaginary.
Outside Durham North Carolina stands a house built by Richard Bennehan back in 1787. Neither Raleigh nor Durham had been founded yet. Richard bought the property, 1,213 acres, in 1776 and through hard work, determination, and business sense, Mr. Bennehan became one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina. The property, known as Stagville, would stay in the Bennehan family for more than 200 years.
The home, many of the furnishings, and the surrounding buildings are all still there. You can go see them. Walk around in the barn, stroll paths that Mr. Bennehan followed on his way to fulfill his duties as an original member of the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and stand in the dining room where he took his meals. It is all still there. You can touch it. It is real.
But Bennehan’s house isn’t the only one still standing. Not far from his home is a row, almost a neighborhood, of two story homes, one of which looks recently renovated. This is where the people lived that Richard likely saw every day when he walked out onto his front porch. In fact, these were the people who really built Richard’s house.
Back in Bennehan’s day these people would have been considered property, but really, they were people. We all know, in our heads, that these black slaves were people, but the thing that makes Stagville remarkable, is that there, you can feel that they were people. Like really feel it, with your fingers.
The bricks used to make the chimneys were made by hand right there on the property. We know they were made by hand because the people who made them, the black people, left their fingerprints in the wet clay before it hardened. As you stand there you can see the distinctively human grooves of a well formed fingerprint, four scalloped grooves where someone once gripped the masonry, and even a footprint. These are not the marks of property. As you run your hands along the chimney and place your hand over the prints of theirs it is obvious that these were real people.
There is more.
While renovating the slave quarters, the homes of the black people, historians found a divining rod (a stick shaped a bit like a wish-bone) plastered inside one of the walls. They found another plastered inside a wall of the house next door. The people who built the slave quarters, their homes, followed an African tradition of placing such an object in the home as a sort of good luck charm. A way to wish, or pray, good will on those who lived there. You can see those two sticks in Stagville’s visitor’s center and read about them on the official website.
But again there is more.
In the Visitor’s Center, but NOT on the official website, is the stick found in Bennehan’s house. This stick, also found inside a wall, was not forked like a wish-bone, but rather straight and carved as if a serpent were wrapped around it. The people who built Bennihan’s house, Master’s house, followed another African tradition where such an object is left behind not for good luck, but as a curse.
At Stagville there is no mistake that both the Bennehans and the black people were real. They lived real lives. They knew each other. They are not just stories but people.
Humans. Mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. Neighbors, allies, friends and enemies. People.
*** Special thanks to Jeremiah Degennaro, a very open and informed educator/tour guide.