Thursday, March 8, 2007
History Month feature
By SYLVESTER OLIVER JR.
As part of this year’s celebration of Black History Month, the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum presented a two-day event, February 23-24, at its second annual African-American Fest held at the Eddie L. Smith Jr. Multi-Purpose Center.
This year’s theme, “African-Americans in 19th century Holly Springs” featured a variety of activities such as art exhibits, lectures, music, presentations, genealogy workshop, performances, who’s who biographies, and cultural vendors. There were nearly a thousand visitors in attendance ranging from school children to adults.
A special pictorial view of African-American history from the time of their enslavement in Africa, their arrival in America, and later their arrival in Holly Springs in the 1830s was a major focus of the fest. Below is a verbal summary of the first part of the pictorial multimedia presentation on African-Americans in 19th century Holly Springs before the Emancipation of 1863 which was given during this momentous occasion at the museum.
Part I: Before Emancipation
The history of African-Americans in 19th century Holly Springs is an untold narrative about their identity, struggles and triumphs framed by shared rituals, traditions and notions of common sense both as an enslaved and free people. The markers of this history are not always visible places and sites that tell of their glorious and tragic moments. In reconstructing the hidden, fragmented past of African-Americans in 19th century Holly Springs, two troublesome and interlocking concerns have emerged. First is the question of where is the evidence since so very little on African-Americans was ever written before Emancipation. And second and closely linked, is what has been the nature of African-Americans in the making of Holly Springs’ history from 1832 to 1900, which covers slavery, Reconstruction and the post-Reconstruction eras. This article focuses specifically on African-Americans and their ancestors who lived as enslaved and free people in the city, and is written in two parts: African-Americans in 19th Century Holly Springs Before Emancipation and African-Americans in 19th Century Holly Springs After Emancipation.
In the three decades between the opening of the Chickasaw Indian lands (1832) and the Civil War (1861), more than 50,000 enslaved Africans were sold from the upper South to work the rapidly expanding cotton plantations in Marshall County, with more than 436,000 in Mississippi by 1860. Cotton became an enumerated product; the legislature passed legislation making it a profitable enterprise that had a major impact on Mississippi’s economy. The demand for enslaved African laborers was such that, by the eve of the Civil War, enslaved Africans outnumbered European-Americans nearly two-to-one in the city of Holly Springs and in the county as well. This population consisted of a mixture of young American-born Africans brought from the older slave states such as Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as native-born Africans brought directly from Africa and the West Indies-- most of whom were under the age of 35. Some were Christian chattel, some were Muslims, but all were the sons, daughters, mothers, fathers and relatives of a besieged and forsaken race.
Determining who the first Africans to be introduced in Holly Springs were is a subject of debate. The traditional story had them arriving as enslaved with the pioneering white immigrant families from Virginia who are credited with establishing the town. The original white families with enslaved Africans included the Edmondsons, Elders, Hendersons, Hardins, Hills, McEwens, Masons, Randolphs, and Walkers. Another account from oral history has it that a free black man, by the name of Mr. Holly, along with several other African and Native American mixed families who were farmers lived in the Chickasaw Territory before the white settlers arrived. They lived in a commune near the vicinity of Spring Hollow Park where a spectacular grove of holly trees and clear-water springs were locationed; such display of nature was allegedly how the town was assigned its name. Though it is evident that white settlers developed the town, it is not certain who was here prior to their arrival. And, whatever happened to the groves of holly trees claimed to be plentiful and indigenous to the area is a mystery - the springs are still here. This will undoubtedly remain as one of the mysteries of the town’s early history, much like the actual names of the enslaved Africans who first arrived in Holly Springs with the white settlers.
Shortly after Holly Springs was incorporated on May 12, 1837, hundreds of enslaved Africans were settled into crude slave communities as a part of the city’s domestic class of laborers. From the earliest days of settlement, the primary purpose of these African laborers was to build and maintain the various interests of the white slaveholding population. In order to keep the Holly Springs slave community sequestered and intact, curfews were strictly enforced. If any enslaved African was found outside the slave quarters without permission, he or she risked being soundly whipped. To ensure that the city was prepared for any slave insurrections or upheavals, its northern, eastern and western boundaries (Boundary Streets) were fortified with gates as entranceways into the city.
During the 1840s, some 1,700 enslaved Africans were imported into Holly Springs; more than two-thirds were purchased through the intrastate and interstate domestic slave trade. An 1833 state ordinance prohibited the practice of public sales of enslaved Africans at a town’s auction block or slave mart, resulting in the sales at the edge of town. Enslaved Africans were customarily sold in an area on the north side of the town, outside the city’s gate. This is possibly in the area near where Rust College is today. Some have suggested that enslaved Africans were also sold at an open-air mart along Market Street on the south side of the Square.
Holly Springs became the fourth largest town and one of the wealthiest towns in Mississippi before the Civil War. The town served as the economic and social center for several very wealthy and tastefully cultured families during the final three decades of the slave era. Most of the wealth had come from cotton cultivation produced by the thousands of enslaved African laborers brought to Marshall County between 1836 and 1862. Enslaved Africans annually produced record harvests of wheat, rye and corn and raised the largest stock of swine, sheep and fine cattle in the state, according to the U.S. census. These records also show that Marshall County produced the highest bales of cotton in the state and was one of the highest cotton producing counties in the United States by the early 1850s. Much of the cotton as well as other cash crops were processed and exported by train from Holly Springs.
As early as 1838, Holly Springs was referred to as the cotton and commercial capitol of North Mississippi. The city rapidly became an important center of educational, economic, political, and social influence for immigrant whites. In many ways Holly Springs represented the epitome of antebellum life in North Mississippi, because many of the major plantation owners lived in the city, which meant they enjoyed many of the privileges and spoils that the slave society had to offer them. Ironically, after Emancipation, the city became an influential center for African-American educational, political and social influence. This will be discussed next week in Part Two entitled African-Americans in 19th Century Holly Springs After Emancipation.
By the early 1840s, Holly Springs had become a vibrant location with more enslaved Africans than whites in the town of 2,000 inhabitants. As author Olga Reed Pruitt noted, “the town enjoyed a graceful, leisurely way of life…hewing a town out of a wilderness.” Holly Springs had numerous commercial and industrial businesses throughout the city in which enslaved Africans labored. It was filled with banks, churches, mansions, homes, hotels, schools, colleges, bathhouses, saloons, gambling houses, law and doctor offices, theaters, manufacturing shops and stores. In addition to small-scale manufacturing companies, enslaved Africans produced carriages, wrought iron products, bricks, pottery and other manufactured goods.
Unlike the bondsmen in the countryside, many who lived in Holly Springs were known to have some literacy skills (reading and counting) and often did daily bidding and business on behalf of their slaveholders. Some had learned these skills prior to arriving in the city; others learned them after they arrived. During harvesting season, however, most all the laborers were dispatched to the plantations and farms in the countryside to pick cotton, the source of wealth for many of the town’s slaveholders. Some of the city’s enslaved Africans were hired out while others lived with their slaveholders as domestic servants and housekeepers; some enslaved women even raised mixed-race families for them. None were allowed to work and buy their own freedom – state law prohibited it.
Long before the first group of enslaved Africans arrived in Holly Springs, an intimate knowledge of the African kingdoms and ethnics groups they represented had been lost. However, carryovers of ethnic preferences for certain skilled and unskilled Africans were in high demand in the city. For example, some slaveholders knowingly or unknowingly wanted either Mandes, or Wolofs or both for house servants and artisans mainly because of their ancestral life in Africa as city dwellers. The women, for example, were quite familiar and knew a lot about cooking, cleaning, washing, wet nursing and sewing. The men were familiar with gardening, carpentry, barbering, and livery work.
Like the Mandingos of Alex Haley’s Roots, these groups were considered gentle in manner. New dimensions have been added to define house servants such as skin-color and age variations instead of skill levels. In the countryside, the slaveholding planters favored Bambara, Bakongo or Luango Africans as field workers, much like they did in Virginia, North and South Carolina, primarily because of their agricultural skills and familiarity with the row system and the cultivation of cotton, corn, potatoes, millet, okra, peas and sorghum which they were assigned to cultivate in Mississippi.
Slave life in Holly Springs was different from that of the countryside in a variety of ways. Most of the enslaved were employed in a far greater range of occupations, some of which were industrial and included skilled occupations such as cooks, carpenters, barbers, blacksmiths, bricklayers, coopers, cotton ginners, foundry operatives, hucksters, milliners, potters, sawyers, seamstresses, stablemen, tailors, upholsterers, wagoners, wheelwrights and mechanics. Some of them worked as house servants who took care of the household tasks and the personal needs of the slaveholding family. Domestics or house servants worked in unskilled capacities such as butlers, chambermaids, bakers, coachmen, hairdressers, gardeners, child care, laundresses, and wet nurses. In the 1850s, hundreds of enslaved African men and boys were used as railroad workers to complete the Mississippi Central Railroad from Grand Junction, Tennessee down to Grenada, Mississippi and to complete the Memphis and Charleston railroad line that passed north of the county.
A state ordinance made it not only illegal to teach enslaved Africans to read or write in general, but to teach them how to read the catechisms, Biblical lessons in Sunday schools or provide them with any other form of religious instruction. However, by the late 1850s several protestant denominations such as the Methodists and Baptists had mission centers in the city for religious instruction for enslaved Africans. It would not be until after the Civil War that the first churches for African-Americans were organized in Holly Springs.
To be continued...
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