Past Times

Somerset Place: A bittersweet homecoming at NC plantation

Descendants of the original slave families at Somerset Place gathered for the first homecoming in 1986.
Descendants of the original slave families at Somerset Place gathered for the first homecoming in 1986. N&O File Photo

Thirty years ago this week, the first “Somerset Homecoming” took place at Somerset Place State Historic Site in Creswell in Washington County, bringing together descendants of the more than 20 slave families who had worked the plantation. In the weeks leading up to the event, N&O reporter Elaine Westarp set the scene.

Clara Owens wanted no more reminders of the hard and bitter times. So she chose never to return to Somerset Place.

This was the plantation, after all, where her grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond had been born and sold in slavery. Human lives begun and ended as mere property.

“I don’t like to even think about the idea of slavery. It makes me very sad,” says Mrs. Owens, now a retired schoolteacher in her 70s living in Williamston. “It hurts me to even know that my great-great-grandfather was beaten until his back was bloody,” because of his defiance. The man, family legend goes, had believed himself descended from African royalty and refused to be handled as property.

Her last visit to Somerset Place was as a girl of 11 or 12, hired along with brothers, sisters and elders to “grass corn” in the same fields her ancestors had carved out of this once-desolate swampland.

It has been some 60 years, but in her mind’s eye she can still picture the tall, stately rows of cypress and sycamore rising from the edges of the low, wet cornfields into a big sky.

Stretching across the horizon, the trees drooped elegant green canopies over the roads and canals leading to the grand, three-story plantation house on Lake Phelps, just south of Creswell.

For the child – weaned on her slave grandmother’s tales of struggle and beatings – it was a sadly beautiful place. Too sad. She made up her mind never to visit again.

Until now. At the end of this month, Clara Owens will return.

What will draw her – along with distant kin from around the country – is a remarkable, first-of-its-kind homecoming.

An estimated 2,000 descendants of the plantation’s slave families are expected to gather on the grounds … for a daylong celebration of family history and roots.…

The reunion marks 200 summers since the first boatload of African slaves arrived to tame a remote stretch of thousands of acres of harsh swampland into one of North Carolina’s most prosperous rice and corn plantations.

By the time the main house was built in 1830, Somerset had evolved into a lavish mecca for the East Coast’s social elite. Josiah Collins III – grandson of the estate’s founder – and his wife, Mary, were inexhaustible party hosts, renowned for banquets, music recitals, poetry readings and Christmas celebrations.

The reunion has been planned as a healing event, not a rehash of bitter memories.…

The homecoming is a sort of gathering that most family history experts would have dismissed as impossible years ago. With so many early records destroyed in courthouse fires and lootings during the Civil War, tracing a Southern white family tree would have been struggle enough. Tracing the lives of black people – not even recorded in those days – seemed hopeless. The N&O Aug. 3, 1986

Dorothy Spruill Redford, the organizer of the event, had spent 10 years researching her own family tree and expanded her search to all 21 original slave families on the plantation. N&O reporter Joe Dew wrote about the reunion, which was held on August 30, 1986.

The homecoming brought descendants from across the country – Texas, California, New York, Maryland and the same Eastern North Carolina communities that surrounded the plantation all those years ago.

Many said they were heeding a call to come home. Some wondered if their ancestors had thought of the estate as a home at all.…

Saturday, family after family drove down the cypress tree-lined road that leads to the grounds, wandered on muddied fields their ancestors had worked and stepped into the past. Many said they were looking for something to help them discover more about their identities.…

The crowd toured the plantation house’s 14 rooms and paraded past the remnants of the slave hospital.

Only a few small, plainly lettered signs marked the spots on which slaves’ houses stood. That seemed of little matter to people like Willis Phelps Jr., of Norfolk

Phelps had gathered family members from as far away as Los Angeles. His family stood in front of the few bricks and rocks that mark where the hospital once was, posing for pictures.

“My great-great-grandmother, Annie Norman, was born here – and sold here,” said Phelps. “She was 112 when she died. I was about 8 then.

“She died right here in Washington County. She lived here all her life. That’s the strangest part. I didn’t know the place was this close.” The N&O Aug. 31, 1986

Somerset Place continued to host periodic “homecomings” until 2001. Many of the individual families now hold their own reunions.

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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