Thursday, April 19, 2012
History and hospitality
By SUE WATSON
A gathering of over 50 people enjoyed an elegant evening as the Holly Springs Garden Club and Preserve Marshall County/Holly Springs premiered a new venue – the Behind the Big House Tour.
The event showcased several extant structures in Holly Springs that served as cooking kitchens and slave quarters during the antebellum period. Joseph McGill, with the National Historic Trust, and Rhondalyn Peairs, with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, were guest speakers.
For McGill it was the ninth state and 33rd sleepover in slave quarters since he began traveling to different areas to help preserve the culture and memory of the African Americans’ contribution to community life in the pre-Civil War period. Two of the states are northern ones, he said.
“They don’t consider that slavery existed up north, but it did,” he said.
Many antebellum homes are preserved yet most of the backyard slave quarters are gone. McGill said his interest in preservation of the old houses is “a personal thing.” He does it on his own time. He also is a Civil War re-enactor for the Union side, something he has enjoyed for 20 years.
His message is well received by about 98 percent of people he meets while doing sleepovers, he said.
To keep in touch with McGill’s sleepovers, visit his blog, www.lowcountryafricana.com.
But about two percent of audiences say, “Let sleeping dogs lie, why open that wound, or let’s go forward,” McGill said.
He has traced his own genealogy back to the 1890s in South Carolina, he said.
McGill said he travels about to document the remaining slave quarters to get the message out because people ask why he does it.
“It brings attention to the four million people enslaved in 1860,” he said. “They lived somewhere, so why are we more accustomed to hearing stories of places like this?,” he said, motioning to Montrose with his left arm.
He said museums tell the stories, but he wants to inspire people to stabilize extant slave quarters.
“It is demolition by neglect,” he said.
He said willful intent to let the houses that slaves lived in disappear by neglect “is an attempt to erase part of our history. It’s very easy to deny a story when the place is not there.”
The discussion of slave dwellings and slave life can be extended to interpret sharecropper dwellings or the story of how black neighborhoods are eliminated when interstate highways are planned, McGill said.
He applauded Holly Springs and the Pilgrimage.
“What you have decided to do with the Behind the Big House Tour fits into my plan to tell the rest of the story,” he said. “We can move this from a footnote, to the back pages, to the front and eliminate the need for Black History Month.”
Peairs reviewed her educational preparation for working with the William Winter Institute, beginning as a native of Oxford who attended Rust College and Tougaloo in Jackson. She said Southerners are big on maintaining a sense of place. She said history she was taught in school “did not jive” with what she heard from her elders as she grew up. She said she never felt welcome in antebellum homes or comfortable with the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws.
“They didn’t tell my stories,” she said.
What remained at Tougaloo College was the big house of a Southern plantation, which was the administration building, she said, the first big house she had entered. She thought about where the slaves lived every day, she said.
“You understand on that property that somebody suffered for you to be able to go forward with your education,” she said.
Travel to South Africa, Botswana, Senegal and Gambia helped fill in the blanks as the dark quarters where women and children were held prior to being placed on ships told the story of the suffering of those who were to be shipped abroad. The quarters are reminders just as concentration camps in Germany are reminders of another holocaust.
“We are trying to get into the whole history of all these struggles,” Peairs said.
Work with the William Winter Institute has helped foster reconciliation wherever any person has suffered a kind of alienation, similar also to the type of alienation in apartheid South Africa and the Northern Ireland religious and class struggle.
The institute believes in meaningful dialogue about civil rights history – the unfinished level of reconstruction following the Civil War, which Peairs said led to the modern civil rights movement.
She said the institute believes communities heal themselves – that healing cannot be imposed from the top down.
Chelius Carter, with the Chalmers Institute project in Holly Springs, said by way of wrap-up that the Historic Preservation Commission in Holly Springs can be a conduit for having this dialogue.
“We have a shared history, and there is not a coin that does not have two sides,” he said.
Ralph Howard of Holly Springs said the dialogue is long overdue and he believes it will help with the economy and tourism in the city.
Artist Randy Hayes talked with McGill after the presentations.
“I just told him that I thought what he is doing is art,” Hayes said. “I thought the gathering more truly represented Holly Springs than any social event I can remember.”
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