New start for state historic site

jwise@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2013 

Something about Historic Stagville inspires passion in anyone who gets involved there, said site manager Stephanie Hardy.

“The stories,” Hardy said. “Everything we have here, I think it fascinates anyone who will listen.”

Stories are a repeated theme in talking to Hardy and Jeremiah DeGennaro, the site’s assistant manager.

“Stories that cover a broad array of experiences, but also a very broad array of time,” said DeGennaro. “The 17th century all the way to the 20th.”

Stagville State Historic Site, in northeast Durham County, is a 160-acre segment of what was North Carolina’s largest antebellum plantation. An 18th-century “big house,” a monumental “Great Barn” and a slave quarters occupied into the 1950s remain from that era, while the site is crossed by a prehistoric Trading Path.

Hardy and DeGennaro’s presence at the site is a story in itself. Their predecessors, along with the maintenance chief, all left last fall, according to Dale Coats, deputy director of state historic sites.

For some weeks, keeping Stagville open was up to volunteers, board members and other historic sites’ employees – Coats included – who could spare some time. Hardy, formerly manager at Kidzu Children’s Museum in Chapel Hill, and DeGennaro, formerly assistant site manager at Bennett Place in Durham, started their jobs the same day, Dec. 11.

“It’s been sort of a bonding experience,” DeGennaro said.

Hardy is Stagville’s fourth manager in the past 10 years. Not for any one reason, Coats said: Two left to manage other historic sites, the other for personal reasons. The former assistant manager and the former maintenance chief left for jobs closer to home.

Last year’s managerial hiatus was one more twist in Stagville’s hard-luck story.

In the mid-1970s, the Bennehan House, its 1787 manor home, was ramshackle and overgrown. Its salvation, and donation to the state, was the first project and first success of the Historic Preservation Society of Durham (now Preservation Durham).

But then, for 25 years Stagville hung in a bureaucratic limbo, attached to no particular division in the state Department of Cultural Resources and with a shrinking budget that eventually couldn’t pay for even cutting the grass. Finally, in 2003 it was adopted by the historic sites division and gained fresh energy from its succession of enthusiastic managers and its private Stagville Foundation.

“Stagville is a challenging site, but it’s got a lot of potential,” Coats said.

Location is one of the challenges. Stagville straddles the Old Oxford Highway, seven miles from its junction with North Roxboro Road and seven miles from the closest exit on Interstate 85.

“It tests the visitors who come out here,” DeGennaro said. To address that, he said, he and Hardy want to build closer connections with Durham’s other two state historic sites, Duke Homestead and Bennett Place, and with cultural organizations such as the Museum of Durham History.

They’re organizing a Durham Scavenger Hunt on May 18, in collaboration with the two other sites to attract visitors to all three on the same day. Another Stagville first comes April 20, with tours of the Trading Path route led by Durham historian David Southern and Tom Magnuson of Hillsborough, who founded the Trading Path Association in 1999.

With no carryover staff to say how things have always been done at Stagville, “We get to start off basically from scratch and bring in our own ideas and emotions,” she said.

The Juneteenth festival in June, commemorating news of Emancipation arriving in Texas, remains on their schedule, and December’s Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters event will return after its cancellation last year.

Stagville Under the Stars, a stargazing series led by Morehead Planetarium staff, continues, next on Feb. 22 with the addition of a program on African folklore about the sky. DeGennaro said they’re also thinking of a future “film dissection” series on movies dealing with slavery in the American South.

“Everyone we’ve talked to since we’ve gotten here has told how much they love this place,” said Hardy, who has written a master’s thesis on interpreting black history at Tryon Palace in New Bern. “Everyone who has come through here still feels tied to this place, still wants a relationship with this place, has still offered in any way they can to help us.

“Right there, that says what Stagville is all about.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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