Chew On This

Find the history of slaves at former Stagville plantation

aweigl@newsobserver.comSeptember 17, 2013 

  • Want to visit Stagville?

    There are two upcoming events at Horton Grove, a collection of slave dwellings at Historic Stagville.

    • On Oct. 12, guided tours will be given to the public of the original slave quarters built in 1851, a 1770s farmer’s house that was used as an overseer’s dwelling and the Hart House, a slave quarter that was modernized as a sharecropper’s house in the early 20th century. The tours will last one hour and start at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.

    • At 2 p.m. Oct. 13, Joseph McGill, a field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will speak about his Slave Dwelling Project.He has stayed in almost 40 slave dwellings in a dozen states to raise awareness about the need to preserve the homes of enslaved people.

    Both the tours and the talk are free and open to the public.

    Historic Stagville is in north Durham County: 5828 Old Oxford Highway. 919-620-0120. stagville.org

I have witnessed many things as a newspaper reporter.

I once flew to Hatteras on a helicopter after Hurricane Irene ravaged the Outer Banks and washed away Highway 12. I twice flew on President Bill Clinton’s press plane. On one of those trips, I covered the opening of the George Bush library at Texas A&M University and got to see Clinton and three former presidents standing on a stage together.

And a few weekends ago, I witnessed something else I won’t soon forget. I was writing a profile for Sunday’s paper about culinary historian Michael Twitty, who recently did a talk, cooking demonstration and helped put on a fundraising dinner at Historic Stagville, a former plantation in northern Durham County.

Twitty had recently undergone genetic testing to learn where his ancestors came from in Africa. He wanted to learn the results while he was at Horton Grove, a collection of slaves’ quarters at Stagville, which at one time had 900 slaves and 30,000 acres.

I still get goosebumps thinking about watching Twitty react to the news that his mother’s ancestors were the Mende people of Sierra Leone and his father’s ancestors were the Akan people of Ghana. It was not just watching Twitty reclaim an identify and his family history. It was the sacred setting. As one older gentleman said to me earlier in the day: Lots of rich white men’s houses are still standing. The homes of slaves, not so much.

This event was the first I had ever heard of Stagville. I didn’t know that one of the largest plantations in the pre-Civil War South was a 30-minute drive away, let alone that these buildings built by and for slaves have survived more than 150 years.

I’m delighted to know that there are plans to repeat and expand the event that happened earlier this month. The event was the idea of Jerome Bias, a historic interpreter at Old Salem and a member of the site’s board of directors.

Bias said the idea was in reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin. The narrative that Bias heard after Martin’s death was that African-Americans were lazy and victims. As a historical interpreter, that’s a mythology about slaves that he constantly combats. In fact, it contributes to why few minorities visit such museums and historic sites.

“Who wants to go out to a place where their people were victims?” Bias said.

Bias works to dispel those myths about slavery. He talked at length during the recent Stagville event about how not all slaves were field hands but many were master carpenters, brick masons and worked on construction crews that built homes and other buildings throughout the North Carolina Piedmont.

Many of the descendants of the slaves who lived at Horton Grove now live in Durham, Rougemont, Roxboro and Bahama. Bias explained that he wanted to see more of them out at the site. He figured one way to do that might be through food, so he invited Twitty to lead a demonstration on how slaves would have cooked communally at Horton Grove. There was fried chicken but also pork roast, potatoes and green beans, corn mush and peach cobbler.

“What we ate Saturday was not what is typically seen as soul food,” Bias said. “I wanted people to see that and to celebrate that.”

Bias hopes to expand the event next year to not only celebrate food but also African-American textile traditions and health with a trail run on the property.

If you can’t wait until next year to check out Stagville, they have a talk and some tours at Horton Grove next month.

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl