April 24, 2014
Behind the Big
The third annual Behind the Big House tour, held during Pilgrimage, drew lots of interest from locals and from out of towners.
Joseph McGill, one of the organizers of the tour along with Jennifer Eggleston, conceived the idea to bring this event to the City of Holly Springs as a part of the annual tour.
Chelius Carter, president of Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, welcomed visitors to a wine and cheese reception held at The Smiling Phoenix. The evening was catered by Clancy’s of Red Banks.
Carter called PMCHS a flagship organization that advocates for preservation in its many forms in the city. He thanked the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and Ken P’Poole, who was present, for supporting grants to restore and preserve the Chalmers Institute.
“He’s an old friend, my former boss, and a fighter for preservation,” Carter said.
There are many volunteers who staff the Behind the Big House tour and continue to support it. Carter named PMCHS, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, David Person and Alicia McLeod with Gracing the Table, and “our secret weapon, Linda Turner” for educational outreach.
He said it is important to make the historical narrative of Holly Springs accurate, complete and inclusive.
“We have the ‘Big Houses’ and they are important and need to be studied. But that’s only about a third of the story,” Carter said.
“The other two-thirds are the slave populations living in the cottages behind the big house that make that (the Big House) lifestyle possible.”
Vice mayor Tim Liddy welcomed visitors to the reception on behalf of Mayor Kelvin Buck, who was out of town.
“He’s been in our corner,” Liddy said. “Kelvin fought to get us funding back for Chalmers (that was turned back in by the previous administration to Archives and History).”
Liddy welcomed all out-of-town visitors and elected officials, including state Rep. Bill Kinkade, alderman Mark Miller, and Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Humanities. Rockoff just recently took the position and chose to visit Holly Springs for the tour.
“Holly Springs really appreciates what Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, Chalmers, and the Holly Springs Garden Club do to preserve history in Holly Springs,” Liddy said. “The things we have here - we have no natural resources. Our history and architecture is our shining star.”
Rockoff said the Mississippi Humanities Council is affiliated with the National Humanities Council which was founded in 1965 by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The Mississippi Humanities Council was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1972 in a second round of states that received money for a council.
Rockoff is the third director of MHC, which funds all humanities programs over the state and reaches all 82 counties.
“What you all are doing for Marshall County can be a model for the state,” he said.
Carter, who purchased the Hugh Craft House in 2002, said he realized the old kitchen behind the house “was extremely fragile.”
Holly Springs has about 25 existing cottages beside the big houses. His wife knew Joseph McGill at the National Trust. McGill has a “Slave Cabin Project” established and was visiting various dwellings over the nation to call attention to their importance in history.
The name was changed to the “Slave Dwelling Project” as interest in the history of slaves who supported their owners’ homes and projects built.
McGill said there has been a tendency to “leave a void” and that the ancestors of blacks were not honored as were the ancestors of whites.
“I was 17 years into Civil War reenacting,” he said. “I had an experience of making history come alive.”
He said a friend had the attitude of “why don’t you do something about it?”
“So I took his advice and started spending the night in these houses and cabins,” he said. “It was all about the space.”
McGill said he spent nights in the cabins to encourage others to step up to the plate so the stories of the ancestors could be heard.
He said there were people he met who had known people who lived in these cabins that were physically built by the slaves, who worked in the tobacco and cotton fields and upon whose backs the wealth of the landowners was made.
“So, I had to continue what these folks started who were already doing the right thing,” he said. “Let’s do this another year. You guys are taking this to another level.”
McGill has visited 52 dwellings in 12 states, including the city of Philadelphia, Penn., and the state of Connecticut.
“People there do not think slavery existed there (in Pennsylvania and Connecticut), he said.
The historical record is spotty due to the fact that the 1850 and 1860 Census records did not list slaves by their full names, often just by their ages.
He said he does not know if any of the school children who visited the dwellings in Holly Springs have ancestors who lived in these structures. But at least there exists the opportunity for them to do the research, he said.
McGill said some property owners are not comfortable in letting people visit these aging and disappearing structures and in hearing the rest of the story told.
“As we continue to delay, there are buildings that may be gone just through the demolition of neglect,” he said.
“I have not come across any community who has been willing to do what you have done,” McGill said.
The first “Slave Dwelling Conference” is set for September 18-20 in Savannah, Ga.
“You have got to encourage others to do what you are doing and have already perfected,” he said.
To learn more about the conference visit www.slavedwellingproject.org.
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