DURHAM — Wilma Liverpool hugged Michael Williams when she spotted him walking across the grass of Stagville State Historic Site on Saturday, moved by his story of finding his family connection to land she holds sacred.
Liverpool, 65, said she comes to Stagville to pray and to touch the impressions of fingertips left on the bricks of the former slave houses still standing. Stagville was one of the largest plantations in the South before the Civil War. The state maintains some of the property as a historic site.
“Blood from my ancestors is on this ground, in this ground,” she said. “It puts me there, too. These were my people that were enslaved.”
Liverpool, who lives in Durham, doesn’t know if she is a direct descendant of Stagville’s enslaved families, but she came to the celebration of Juneteenth to meet and listen to Williams, a 35-year-old New Yorker who discovered that roots of his family tree run through it.
As part of its Juneteenth commemoration, the annual celebration of the end of slavery, Stagville had on display in one of the former slave houses the state’s copy of the 13th Amendment, a fragile document that had been locked away in the State Archives. North Carolina ratified the amendment that formally abolished slavery on Dec. 4, 1865.
Williams stood outside in the grassy space between the house that held the 13th Amendment and another house where his ancestors lived to tell his story.
Stepping foot on Stagville for the first time Friday was “surreal,” he said.
Williams discovered at age 12 that he was adopted. At 18, he decided to look for his birth mother.
“I was just ready,” he said in an interview. “I wanted a deeper sense of knowledge of self.”
He met his birth mother on Christmas 1996, and after many more years of meeting and talking to relatives, he met one who had a family booklet compiled in 1972 that traced his mother’s family line to Stagville. Williams dug deeper, using census records and an online database of Stagville families to find out that he is an eighth generation Stagville descendant.
Williams said the discovery changed him.
“I feel the ground beneath me,” said Williams, who lives in Pittsburgh. “There’s an assurance of self in the knowledge of my heritage. It’s so important to really understand the legacy that you come from.”
Juneteenth commemorates the discovery by slaves in Galveston, Texas, in June 1865 that the Civil War and slavery had ended. The news reached them more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Stagville is part of that history because enslaved residents there didn’t know that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed, said Jeremiah DeGennaro, Stagville’s assistant site manager.
The slave narrative of Cy Hart tells how Stagville’s enslaved population didn’t find out they were free until April 1865, DeGennaro said.
Confederate foragers came through the area looking for food, money and valuables, according to Hart’s narrative. They fought with Union foragers looking for the same things. The Union foragers drove off the Confederate foragers, and the captain asked Hart’s mother to cook them a meal. After she did, he paid her and told the people they were free and didn’t belong to the plantation owner Paul Cameron anymore.
Stagville gets frequent calls from people looking for relatives and asking about the research on the families, said site manager Stephanie Hardy. Many more people that employees will never know use the database, she said.
Some families return to Stagville for reunions.
Williams would like his family to hold a reunion there but said that may be a long time coming.
The family is dealing with a quick succession of deaths, he said, and some of the younger relations aren’t interested in such a deep dive into the past.
“It’s not an easy thing to try to go into the past,” he said. “Not everybody wants to do that.”
Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner