Lee Smith’s house in Hillsborough is not the Burwell School. A sign in the yard says so.
Both are big, old houses with prominent porches, both are set back from the road and both are quite close to each other. And occasionally Smith gets visitors who mean to be at Burwell.
She recalls waking up one morning to find a 93-year-old woman on the couch, politely waiting for a coffee for retired elementary school teachers. Smith gave her a ride to Burwell.
And one December, Smith was upstairs writing when she heard voices in her living room. She put down her work, went to the top of the stairs, and looked down to see 40 Red Hat ladies who thought they were in the Burwell School.
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave,” Smith told them, but the women wouldn’t budge. It was raining out and they felt the walk to the house merited them at least a look around. One turned her walker around and pointedly sat down, using it as a chair.
“I just said, ‘What the hell? OK!’” Smith recalls, and the Red Hat ladies got their tour.
The landmark the women were seeking, the Burwell School, is a nearly 200-year-old house that hosted one of North Carolina’s first schools for girls. Smith has spent a lot of time there, using Burwell as the model for the fictional Gatewood Academy in her novel “On Agate Hill.”
On Sunday, Dec. 11, Hillsborough novelists Smith and Jill McCorkle and Nashville songwriters Matraca Berg and Marshall Chapman – the “Good Ol’ Girls” behind the musical of that name – will reunite for a Burwell School benefit at Leland Little Auctions.
As a historical site owned and operate by the Historic Hillsborough Commission, Burwell School preserves 19th century history and celebrates the legacy of the school and the household.
Possibly the most historically significant person to live in the house, Elizabeth Keckly, was still young and enslaved when she lived here. She would go as far as the White House, becoming Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, to make her mark.
Keckley (born Elizabeth Hobbs) was owned by the Burwells. Living in the school, she learned to read, but she was also beaten and abused by her owners for being strong-willed. “She just dug in her heels,” Smith says. “She was quite amazing.”
“There’s certainly a history and legacy there of very strong women discovering their voice,” agrees McCorkle, who was married at Burwell School.
Today, aside from its historical element, the building functions as a community hub for the arts, with readings and exhibits. Still, a structure of this age doesn’t just maintain itself.
“When you’re looking at the building from a distance, it just looks so beautiful,” says Kate Faherty, executive director of the Burwell School Historic Site. “When you walk up close, you see where things are really starting to fail.”
The first part of the house was built in 1821, with expansions in 1848. The structure was fully restored in the ’70s, Faherty says, but has needed ongoing care since then: it’s an old building, plain and simple. Its exterior, in particular, needs work. The shutters and paint are deteriorating and some of the solid copper gutters are starting to sag.
“It’s so important to get this done in the coming year,” says Faherty. In 2018, Burwell School will celebrate the bicentennial of Keckley’s birth, and Faherty wants the building to look its best – even if, as she puts it, Keckley’s years in Hillsborough weren’t her happiest. The Burwells eventually gave her to another branch of the family, Smith says, because of her rebellious nature.
Smith was present when Keckley’s historical marker went up in front of the school. She’d never been honored in that way – there are lamentably few mentions, Smith points out, of the contributions enslaved African Americans made to so many households and institutions in the antebellum South.
Keckley bought her freedom by dressmaking. Her slave narrative, “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” was first published in 1868. Hillsborough’s Eno Publishers recently released both a new edition and “The Elizabeth Keckley Reader: Volume One,” containing essays and other works inspired by Keckley.
“As far as we know, we are the only building standing that she lived in that’s left in the country,” Faherty says. “The only other building that is closely associated with her is the White House.”