Traveler’s Rest

John Overton’s great great grandfather was a member of British Parliament. He did not come from humble beginnings. That being said he was not content to rest on the laurels of others and he spent his life as a mover and shaker in the founding of Nashville, one of the American South’s major cities.IMG_2090

Overton built his two story home in 1799. Well, he didn’t really build it, he had other people build it for him. By people, I mean slaves.

When we arrived at the plantation the woman in the gift shop told us they had an award winning exhibition on the slaves who lived at Traveler’s Rest. We bought our tickets.IMG_2064

The grounds are relatively well tended though not seriously landscaped. There is a white picket fence around the property enclosing in a series of buildings. The main house is a hodge-podge of wings added over time. Behind that are two smaller buildings, a smokehouse and building for spinning. The slavery display was on the second floor of the spinning shed.IMG_2066

The exhibit was mostly the names and approximate ages of the black people who are normally ignored at such places. It was very meaningful in that there has been an effort to get names and relationships recorded and displayed. But reading those names was sort of “meh” and even more it was sort of discouraging. I was reading about the slaves but I wasn’t standing in the buildings in which they lived. Those buildings are gone. The homes of black people are gone, but the smokehouse and spinning shed are still there and I was looking through a window at a giant house that these black people built.IMG_2087

The pamphlet explains that right before the battle of Nashville General Nathan Bedford Forrest slept in this house. The text made note of him as a confederate general, not as the founder of the KKK. But his name was  recorded and that was who he was.

The Overtons hung on to Traveler’s rest, and a surprising amount of their fortune, after the civil war and the location became well known for their stable of Arabian horses. the stables are no longer there. They came down after the family and the horses moved to California. When the location became a historical sight they did not rebuild the stables or the slave quarters. They did however build a large “barn” to host weddings and events.IMG_2089


Stagville Plantation: prints of history

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.IMG_4648

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.IMG_4654

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.IMG_4651

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. thumbprint closeupAs 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.whole hand

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.divining sticks

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.


The Hermitage: Home of Andrew Jackson

When I was little I had a children’s book about Andrew Jackson. All I remember of that book is an image of a British soldier raising his saber as if to strike the little boy before him. The little boy, Andrew, had just refused to shine the soldier’s boots and was rewarded with a lifelong scar on his face and arm. That is all I thought I remembered till I drove past the sign that read, “Hermitage next exit”. I cut across two lanes to get off the highway. I apparently remembered that word as well.front door

Visiting historical sites on Wednesday afternoons in winter makes for a semi solitary experience. The visitor center parking lot was nearly empty when I pulled in. It was completely empty by the time I left.

I walked into the center still remembering very little about our country’s 7th president. I know now I remembered so little because that was all I ever knew. I remember the song about a battle using alligators as cannons and I knew he looked a little like an angry version of Albert Einstein, but it wasn’t till then, the moment I walked down a hall flanked by two life sized posters of Black people that it really hit me; of course he owned slaves.

The two posters gave two descriptions, one each, of two people born as slaves to Mr. Jackson, one who stayed on with the family after the civil war, the other fled to Union lines. I though it a bit unusual that these stories would hold such a prominent position, I hadn’t even seen a plaque telling anything of Andrew yet, and I continued on a bit more interested. I was curious about Ol’ Hickory.front columns

Leaving the visitors center I walked across a grassy tree lined walk, and was greeted by a man wearing an old timey trench coat, the kind with a built in two layered cape about the shoulders. He was pleasant and welcoming, opened the front door, and passed me off to an older woman wearing petticoats and a bonnet. She quickly told me no pictures.

This historical home is a bit different than so many others I’ve visited. All the stuff is still there. The tour guides explained that President Jackson’s son sold the home and all its furnishings to a preservation foundation, which still owns it to this day, and thanks to them I could now see the original Parisian wallpaper that tells the pictorial tale of Homer’s Odyssey. I saw Jackson’s riding switch whittled from a sapling that grew at Mt. Vernon, I saw his muzzle loading black powder rifle, and I saw his bedroom slippers set on the floor next to his original bed linens. The place and its furnishings were beautiful, the history felt real and not forced. Preserved rather than presented. I appreciated that.inside

We, myself and the grey haired couple who made up the rest of my tour, were also told a bit about the man.

He joined the continental army at the age of 13. He was orphaned by 15. He passed the bar with little formal education then moved into a little log cabin to scrape out a fortune as a cotton farmer. They mentioned he was shot in the chest during a duel, that he won the battle of New Orleans, was the provisional governor of Florida, and that his wife died just days before he was sworn in as president. Fascinating man.

Once upstairs, while looking at the children’s original bedroom furnishings, yet another guide explained that in this room with one bed lived two little girls along with their maid. This struck me as odd, not the girls sharing a room, but the maid quartering there as well.

“Wait. The maid slept here as well? Who was the maid?”

“The Maid was Hannah. She was a slave.”

“Was that normal? I have been to several other homes where the servants had their own quarters.”

“Well where else would they sleep? She had to be with the young children. She was their nurse.”

“In the other homes they slept upstairs.”

“Like the attic? There is some attic space inn this home but no evidence that any slaves stayed there. It is true that slavery was an unfortunate situation but President Jackson was far more lenient than others of his day. He let them learn to read and do as they pleased. He believed a man should be able to rise as far as his abilities would allow. He let them marry and tried to keep families together. So while slavery was an unfortunate situation Andrew Jackson was far better than so many of his day.”

I wondered at this statement. I was tempted to start googling on my phone right there to see what I could find of his treatments of the slaves, but I didn’t. I could see the guide was agitated. She didn’t like my questions, possibly because she thought I was trying to make Jackson look bad in front of these other tourists, or perhaps she was just uncomfortable with slavery. She spoke quickly enough to prove she was not just uninformed. She had responses from which to draw.

She went on to tell how he grew his wealth on his own, starting as an orphan, then laboring as a lawyer till he had the money to buy a farm. She was obviously very proud of what he had accomplished. I kept the rest of my questions to myself and continued on the tour. I was honestly curious about this place and the man. Unlike my normal self I was not trying to pick a fight or make any points, I was too uninformed. This guide’s demeanor had already told me how she felt about things, I would Google later.slave house

Outside the back porch was a completely different story. Walking through the back door the first thing you see is a small log duplex. Beyond that there were more of the same.

Slave quarters. Recreated, visible, prominent, slave quarters.

A path winds its way back through the property lined with informational plaques, most of which dealt with the people who lived and worked behind the big house. The stories these stations told were not apologetic but rather quite damning. One told the story of Alfred. Alfred was the man who stayed on at the Hermitage after emancipation. Not only did he stay on but is buried in a marked grave right next to Andrew Jackson. Highly unusual. A plaque tells the story of how one day The Jackson children were walking the property with their tutor and came across a forlorn Alfred. They inquired what was the matter and he simply stated, “You white folk sure have an easy life.” The tutor replied that Alfred didn’t have it so bad with a roof over his head, a kind master, and that freedom had its own challenges.

Alfred looked at him and just inquired, “Would you rather be a slave?”

There were a dozen more similar displays throughout the plantation. I have never seen such a thing. Not at Mt. Vernon, Monticello, Montpellier, Roswell, Cliveden, anywhere in Savannah or Charleston, nowhere. What a contrast to the story the woman told me inside. Remarkable.instructions to whip

I have never been to an historic “great” home that presented such a complete picture of life in that time and location. The combination of original furnishings both grand and humble, information both lauding and condemning struck closer to the truth than anywhere I have visited.

What a contrast to the guide who was so bothered by my questions. I wish she would have been more direct rather than protective in her answers.

I think it would be so instructional to consider how remarkable and horrible Andrew Jackson was. It would, could, serve as such a lesson to people like me today. Consider this man. He was obviously more devoted to country than I enlisting in the army at age thirteen. I was a young adult when my country was attacked by terrorists. I did not enlist. This man while fighting a duel stood his ground allowing another man to fire a bullet into his chest, stayed on his feet, and then returned fire killing the man. I will never be that brave. This man with little formal education passed the bar, had the wisdom to not only invest in land but instructed a cotton gin to be built on his own property allowing him to become more self-sufficient in his business. He was smarter than me. This man became president. I will never rise that high. He was better than me.shrine

But this man, better than me, was still capable of ordering that a woman be whipped due to her attitude. This man was willing to kill another man over a disputed horse race. This man was responsible for the national policy of removing a native race of Americans from their homes to desolate and unwelcome reservations. This man valued his personal luxury above the lives of black people.

He was a better man than me and still capable of such horrible things. What a great warning to us today. So sad that we often have to look under the rug to get such a lesson.