Tag Archives: slavery

Hidden Figures… and Signatures: Black History Month

William Benjamin Gould was a slave in Wilmington North Carolina. His owner Nicholas Nixon would rent Gould out as a plasterer working on mansions and public buildings around town.  When he was finishing up the interior trim work inside the luxurious Bellamy mansion, he did a risky thing for a slave, he signed his work. He scrolled his name on the inside of a section of some ornate molding before he attached it to the wall. No one knew of it till 100 years later when his signature was uncovered during a mansion renovation. It was quite the find, not just because it was unexpected, and not just because slaves weren’t supposed to be able to write, but mostly it was unexpected because historians actually knew who William Gould was.bellamysignaturebetter

In 1862, one year after that mansion was completed, William and six other slaves stole a small boat and rowed it out into the Atlantic Ocean where the Union Army had a series of ships blockading the Southern coast. They were scooped up by the USS Cambridge and now finding himself a free man, Gould joined the Navy.

At the war’s end Gould settled down and started a family in Massachusetts. He became an active member of the community and his story appeared in occasional articles in various periodicals. Not long after the signature was discovered in Wilmington, Gould’s diary was published as a book titled, Diary of a Contraband.

Remarkable story.

Even more remarkable is that out of the millions of black people who have lived in North America since the late 1600’s, we have such comparatively few records of their names or their stories. We know some, like Fredrick Douglass, but there were so many more. There was Henry “box” Brown, or Crispus Attucks, or William Gould. Black people have been present and participating in every step of the United States’ evolution and it is when we consider the level of that contribution that we realize how they are disproportionately invisible; so few names and even fewer stories. But if we learn to look closer, there is still a legacy.whole-hand

Trinity Church in New York City was built by black men. So was the U.S. capital. Dozens of universities, Harvard, Princeton, UNC, UVA, were built by black people. We can imagine that somewhere, even if only symbolically, in all these buildings, hiding under the plaster molding, are thousands of signatures just like Gould’s. The dome at Monticello, the columns at Mt. Vernon, and the masonry walls of St. Augustine, all built by people with hidden names. Look for them. Ask about them. On Bourbon Street, in Charleston, or even St. Louis, look for the black people. They were there.

But you have to look.

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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


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1st to College: Black History Month

Back in the 1700’s hardly anyone went to college. Those who did certainly weren’t going there to learn a skill or get a job. They were there to study the classics and become generally versed in history, literature, and science. They were there to become acculturated, spending time with gentrified peers, mixed with some academic luxuriating. College was more or less somewhere to send young, rich, white,  boys.

Then there was John Chavis.15preacher

Chavis, born in North Carolina, was a free black man who fought for the United States in the Revolutionary war. After the war he was tutored by John Witherspoon (who would become the president of Princeton) and then in 1794 Chavis enrolled in the Liberty Hall Academy (which would later become Washington &Lee University). Chavis, a black man, went to college back when most people, no matter their color, did not.

Chavis went on to be ordained a Presbyterian minister and founded a school near Raleigh North Carolina. His school, which taught both black and white, though not at the same time, was regarded as one of the best in the state. It all came to a screeching halt in 1831, when due to white fears of slave rebellions, all black people were barred from teaching, and or preaching.

Chavis’s story serves as a reminder that history is not a straight ascending line. Empires rise and fall, racism ebbs and flows. Chavis was a remarkable man who achieved remarkable things long before the emancipation proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement. Yet because history is not a straight line, Chavis did not really blaze a trail for others to follow. His tracks were swept over by fearful slavers, de-reconstructionists, and time.

Remember that gains can, and have in the past, been lost.

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To Persist and Prosper: Black History Month

Studying the history of Black people in America will uncover two tales, one of surprisingly persistent and cruel oppression, and the simultaneous triumph of persistence and spirit. Black history is an illustration of how the human spirit can defy the odds.

Because the odds have been stacked against Black folk, intentionally so, since America’s founding. Despite this; despite slavery and Jim Crow, despite terrorism and destruction, people keep slipping through and succeeding. tumblr_nj5wjwpsHQ1qksd21o1_1280

There is a laundry list of Black people who have done the remarkable when they really shouldn’t have. They shouldn’t have because there were people and a whole system of government set up to stop them.

There was Richard Allen who was kicked out of church in 1786 for being Black. He responded by founding a denomination that is still thriving today.

Alexander Twilight, a Black man who graduated from college in 1823, a time when almost no one studied past grade school. Not only that, but many of those who had been to college were forwarding arguments that Black people weren’t fully human.tumblr_n0drz1kQ0c1qksd21o1_1280

There was Biddy Mason, a woman brought to California as a slave in 1850. Upon discovering that slavery was illegal in California Biddy sued for her freedom and won. She took to freedom well founding schools, a church, and invested in property. She amassed a fortune.

There have been so many examples of exemplary individuals that we could easily forget the opposition over which such success stories triumph.

Should we be proud of Hank Aaron or ashamed of how White Americans treated him?

Proud of MLK’s anti-violence or ashamed that he was murdered?

The answer is in all cases yes, because this is our American history. It is who we are.tumblr_o1ink0tMlo1qksd21o1_1280


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Black History Month: Sometimes Doing the Right Thing is Harder Than it Should Be

In 1791 Robert Carter III decided to free his slaves.

Carter had been part of the royal governor’s council of Virginia under King George, and then later a firm supporter of the Revolution. Carter owned more than 6,500 acres of land and kept more than 500 people in slavery. He was rich, powerful, and influential. He and Thomas Jefferson knew each other well.CIMG0310

When he started freeing his slaves, began paying them wages, and even giving them land, the other white Virginians tarred and feathered Robert Carter and forced him to abandon his plantation and live exiled in Baltimore.

To quell the troubles Carter sold the rest of the slaves to his lawyer for $1, with the understanding that he would quietly finish off the freeing. This lawyer was then severely beaten.CIMG0304

Carter died in 1804 while the freedom of the people he was trying not to own was tied up in court battles. His appeal was granted in 1808. It took 17 years for an owner of private “property” to try to give it away. No one made such a large scale attempt again till the Emancipation Proclamation.

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Black History is American History: it will take more than a month

Pop quiz: In the year 1776 most of the people in South Carolina were:

a) Rich Land Owners

b) Loyal to the English Crown

c) Peasants of Scotch-Irish Descent

d) Blackstate house

The answer is D. By a long shot. If you did not know this, and have not thought through the ramifications of this fact, we still need a Black History Month.

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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.


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