Thursday, August 28, 2008
Forgotten, but not gone
By Bobby Mitchell
The history of Strawberry Plains and the families so intimately connected with it through its long history have been largely forgotten in recent decades. While forgotten from our collective and most individual memories, the history itself was not gone; it was still there waiting to be rediscovered.
In 2004 Strawberry Plains Audubon Center director Madge Lindsey saw the need for a written history of the plantation and its benefactors, the Finley sisters, Ruth Finley and Margaret Finley Shackelford.
There was only one person with the credentials to undertake this history, someone with personal knowledge of the intricate familial relationships and geographic setting of the original Strawberry Plains plantation and its subsequent additions.
That person was Holly Springs’ native son, historian and a former Pulitzer Prize nominee, Dr. Hubert H. McAlexander, Josiah Meigs Professor of English at the University of Georgia.
Dr. McAlexander has woven a second tapestry of Marshall County fabric with this volume. Covering a 400 year period, the last 170 years very intensively explored, a vision of many generations is quietly revealed as the sisters eventually chose the Audubon Society as the recipient of their gift to the nation.
One can feel as he reads that the author is not just compiling and editing reference material and information that many assisted with and supplied to him, (all of whom are abundantly credited with their help), but that the book is the result of a lifetime friendship with the families, and a continual stream of information gathered over of a period of more than 50 years.
For instance, on the day that I received my copy of the book, I read, by coincidence, some old South Reporter clippings in my files, and 50 years to the day, McAlexander had published a lengthy essay about Strawberry Plains.
The book, “Strawberry Plains Audubon Center: Four Centuries of a Mississippi Landscape,” published by the University Press of Mississippi, is well organized and presented in a logical and informative manner.
Within the constraint of the publisher he covers the four hundred years historically, geographically, genealogically and racially, connecting the contributions of three races, Indian, white and African American, to Marshall County, and particularly to the Strawberry Plains and surrounding area .
While the portion of the book dedicated to the War Between the States is not extensive, since this is not a military history, readers will find for the first time some connections between Marshall County’s gentry (and Audubon Society lands) and families in Maury County, Tennessee, which led to Gen. Earl Van Dorn’s assassination in May, 1863, in Maury County.
Among the illustrations used in the book three are notable. One illustration is a newly designed map of the area under study, with names and places clearly shown, for the reader who might not be familiar with the geography described.
A second set of illustrations consist of several genealogical charts showing the relationships of the various families, both African American and white, historically connected to the land.
The third illustration is a photo, an 1854 ferrotype, showing the southeastern corner of the courthouse square in Holly Springs, which includes a building owned by the John Finley family at the time.
This is the oldest known extant picture of Holly Springs. Dr. McAlexander remembered seeing this picture in the 1950’s, and with some effort, and luck, the picture was tracked to the present owner, Henry Dancy, in North Carolina.
The treatment of the Finley family shows a long tradition and heritage of preservation and conservation of their lands. One can sense that the donation of the Finley sisters was the culmination of this long tradition, and was not done for self aggrandizement, but to perpetuate their family’s ideals for the benefit of the American public.
As always in Dr. McAlexander’s work, abundant footnotes and references are included for each of his assertions, and as noted earlier, he is copious in his crediting those who assist him in his work.
Dr. McAlexander will be present at the Hummingbird Festival, Sept. 5-7, and will be autographing copies of his book, which will be available for sale at the event.
This is a volume each person interested in Marshall County will want to add to his personal library.
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