The Bonds of History
When it comes to this country’s deepest trauma, the American landscape is still largely silent. But more and more, the slave past is making itself heard.
By Adam Goodheart | From Preservation | September/October 2001
Nostalgia and amnesia both hang heavy in the air of Natchez, Miss.—sweet and contradictory scents, drifting across lawns and porches like the odor of verbena at dusk. Natchez has often been described as a place that dwells in the past. "It is the fragile, frozen embodiment of a dream that ended long ago on bloody battlefields," a visitor wrote in 1940. "Natchez lives with its dead." But this observation is not true now, and never was. Natchez lives neither in the past nor in the present, but somewhere outside both, in a dreamtime of its own invention. Its dead sleep as soundly as dead men anywhere, and if any unquiet ghost occasionally rattles the china or tiptoes down the servants' corridor, it is only for the benefit of the tourists.
Until I visited Natchez, for instance, I had never heard of slave cabins with Jacuzzi bathtubs, dedicated-modem lines, and four-poster beds.
"Welcome to Monmouth Plantation," purred the blonde receptionist when I arrived. Plantation. A loaded word if ever there was one. As she pronounced it, though, it spoke of nothing but charm and Spanish moss and the promise of mint juleps before dinner. Monmouth is a bed-and-breakfast now, and an expensive one; a few years ago, Glamour magazine rated it "One of the Top 10 Most Romantic Places in the U.S.A." Behind us rose the big house, white-columned, canopied by magnolias and live oaks. A black man stepped forward—small, clean-shaven, dressed in a red vest and black bow tie—and led me off to my room, an air-conditioned suite decorated in an excess of chintz and ruffles and housed in a reconstructed slave cabin.
On the porch of the next cabin over, a middle-aged white couple in madras shirts sat sipping cocktails. "Hey," the husband called out cheerfully as he saw me arrive, "are you another one of the slaves?"
It was all a bit more than I'd bargained for. I'd come to Natchez as the first stop on a journey in search of something like what the French historian Pierre Nora called "places of memory"—the seeds of a nation's identity. The places I was searching for were the ones that spoke of the early, enduring trauma that shaped America, shattered America, and in a sense created America, too: the trauma of slavery. I wanted to see how people today live with the memories of that difficult past in places still haunted by it, to hear the stories they tell—and to listen for the stories told, often in the merest whisper, by the places themselves.
The idea had taken root a couple of summers ago, when on a weekend road trip to nowhere in particular, I'd happened to pull into the driveway of Stratford Hall, the northern Virginia plantation that was Robert E. Lee's boyhood home. On the tour, our guide regaled us with information about the Lee family, their house, and its furnishings. But when I started asking questions about the dozens of other families who'd lived and died at Stratford—the Lees' slaves—her answers were crisply uninformative.
This was, I've since discovered, a typical experience. The Civil War remains a national obsession, of course, its great events continually reconstructed and reenacted, its battlefields and monuments tended with care. And yet when it comes to slavery itself, the American landscape seems largely silent, inscrutable. Partly, the silence is rooted in a paradox: Some of this nation's cruelest places can also be its most beautiful. Natchez does not look much like Dachau or Buchenwald.
A green necklace of 19th-century estates encircles the old river town, and one of the greenest and loveliest of them is Monmouth. Shortly after I arrived, I took a house tour, wandering through cool and elegant parlors as the theme from Gone With the Wind issued softly from hidden speakers. A docent named Marguerite Guercio, a long-time employee, proudly showed off the embroidered fire screens and crystal chandeliers, the portraits of rosy-cheeked girls and the gilt sword that belonged to proprietor John A. Quitman. How many slaves did the family own? "I don't know, but it was quite a few," Guercio replied. And what sort of masters were the Quitmans? "Oh, they were good, good, generous, kind people." (Later that day, I asked a local historian with the National Park Service the same question. "Well, I'll tell you this," she said dryly. "At the first sign of blue uniforms during the war, all their 'faithful servants' disappeared.")
In the mid-19th century, the mansion stood just a few hundred yards from the second largest slave market in the United States, a place where thousands of blacks were sold to the cotton plantations up and down the Mississippi. On warm days, the Quitman ladies on their veranda could smell the human reek of the overcrowded slave pens. Guercio didn't mention this on our tour. In the former house-servant quarters above Monmouth's gift shop, now turned into guest suites, she told me that she thought the plantation's current-day visitors "all want to live back then for a night or two." But, I asked her, didn't anyone find it hard to sleep in rooms where people were once kept in bondage? She demurely pretended not to hear the question: "Now, just look at this woodwork over here; this is all original … "
"Oh God, he's staying at Monmouth!" said Ron Miller. His wife, Mimi, looked at me and pretended to weep. I couldn't help smiling.
When I'd ventured into the offices of the Historic Natchez Foundation, I hadn't known quite what to expect. Based on what I'd seen so far, I expected the town's leading preservationists to be sipping tea and planning garden parties. Instead, I'd found the Millers, a warm, energetic couple in their fifties who immediately made their sympathies clear. "There have actually been African Americans who've checked into Monmouth and then immediately checked out again because they're so uncomfortable with it," Ron said.
The Millers have run the foundation for more than 20 years. "When we got here, the board was all rich white women," Ron said. "First we took the 'women' out of that formula by getting some men involved. And then it gradually became racially integrated, too. About a third of the board is black now. It's taken some time and some work, but I think the awareness of history here is gradually broadening."
Natchez is a complicated place, more so than it first appears. In some ways, it seems almost a cartoon version of the old South: a town where the gentry regularly parades in public in gray uniforms and hoop skirts and where the most popular local lunch spot is a restaurant called Mammy's Cupboard, which is shaped like a 30-foot-tall black woman holding a tray of biscuits. Natchez's most important commodity is the past. During the antebellum era, it was a bustling river port that lay at dead center in the world's richest cotton-planting region, with more millionaires per capita, according to local lore, than anywhere else in America. Across the Mississippi in Louisiana, the cotton kings owned vast farms, which they rarely visited, preferring the opulent suburban villas that they built on the outskirts of Natchez. Today, those old Natchez houses are big business, anchoring a tourist industry that brings $79 million a year to Adams County and its 34,000 residents. History is dispensed like communion wafers in that strange modern ceremony, the guided tour, whose perpetual lesson is, This is important, and that is important, and something happened here.
And yet … celebrants at the annual spring and fall Pilgrimage, when the owners of historic houses parade themselves in Confederate regalia to welcome paying visitors, would never guess that Natchez was actually a pro-Union stronghold. The millionaire planters had too much to lose; when federal gunboats steamed up the Mississippi, the planters surrendered Natchez without firing a shot, and their wives and daughters traipsed onboard to dance with the blue-coated officers at a festive ball. Natchez's proud rebel past was a 20th-century invention. Even today, many of its most gung-ho Confederates aren't southerners. The owners of Monmouth—I'd seen pictures of them in one of the bedrooms, dressed in full Rhett-and-Scarlett array—are a California real-estate developer and his wife. And the town's antebellum wounds have healed less than most residents would like you to think. This is a place where downtown businesses hang rebel flags in their windows, and where a prominent black physician until recently drove around in a pickup truck with a license plate that read "ex slave."
Natchez's African-American past, too, is a far from simple story. On the one hand, it was the capital of the cotton kingdom, which represented slavery in perhaps its cruelest guise: vast plantations on which hundreds of field hands labored from dawn to dusk. But the slaves who lived in town were mostly house servants and artisans, whose lives could be considerably better. It also had many free African-Americans. One of the most important documents of antebellum Natchez is the diary of William Johnson, a freed slave who became wealthy as a barber and acquired slaves of his own—whom, according to his journal, he was always ready to flog when they misbehaved. Such stories defy easy explanation, which perhaps makes them all the more worth telling.
There's one place where you will hear stories like Johnson's: Melrose, an 1840s mansion that has been run by the National Park Service for the last decade. Its guided tours include a discussion of slavery in Natchez and on the estate (focusing on certain house slaves of whom the owners were especially fond). The Park Service is also working on restoring Johnson's downtown house, which it will use to interpret black history. But other than that, most local historic sites discreetly ignore the subject. Even the town's small, poorly funded Museum of African-American History and Culture focuses on the era between Reconstruction and World War II. "A large portion of the black community agrees with the white community that they'd rather leave slavery in the past," said Shirley Wheatley, the museum's lone, part-time employee.
But there is at least one black Natchezian who'd rather not forget. I met Ser Seshshab Heter, or Clifford Boxley, as most people know him, several days later. A big, bearish man in a Malcolm X T-shirt, Boxley returned to his hometown several years ago after more than three decades in California, where he'd become a political activist and follower of the Black Consciousness movement.
As a boy, in the 1950s, he'd sell daffodils and pralines to the white tourists during Pilgrimage, out on the front lawns of the historic mansions. When he came back to Natchez as an adult, he found that ways of thinking had changed little. "I was shocked that there had been such a proliferation of plantation history here," he told me, "history that was built off the backs of our African foreparents—and where were they?" And so Boxley became a preservationist quite unlike any the town has known before.
He hadn't been back very long before he heard about the site that has become his personal crusade: the Forks of the Road. This is the slave market that stood at the edge of Natchez near Monmouth.
When Boxley took me to see it, I realized I'd already passed this spot several times during my stay in Natchez, without noticing anything there. It's nothing but a bleak, sun-bleached intersection just off the state highway, fringed with a few half-derelict modern buildings: an auto muffler shop, a shuttered bar, a shabby apartment house. And yet for many Americans, this is, in a sense, their Ellis Island—or some hellish version of it.
Between the 1810s and the 1850s, with the cotton economy booming, hundreds of thousands of enslaved blacks were sold from the financially struggling tobacco plantations of Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas and sent southwest. Usually they were marched overland by armed slave traders in groups known as coffles. The journey, along stage roads and old Indian trails, could take several months. Men walked ahead in single file, linked together by iron collars and chains. Women followed, tied together with ropes. Children were herded along in the middle, although most slave dealers preferred simply to leave them behind because they slowed the journey and fetched little profit. Once the coffles reached the Natchez market at Forks of the Road, the enslaved African-Americans were washed, inspected, and trained in how to behave in front of potential buyers. Then, one by one, they were sold at auction and sent off to plantations up and down the Mississippi.
Standing on the cracked, trash-strewn pavement, with traffic roaring past him, Boxley explained the lay of the land. "The market buildings were just about where those Jeeps are," he said, pointing to the parking lot in front of a business called Natchez Exhaust. "This road here was the termination of the Natchez Trace, which connected you to Nashville, Virginia, and the Chesapeake. That's how the land coffles got here. My great-great grandfather Madison Boxley, who was born in Spotsylvania County, Va., probably came down there when he was brought to Natchez around 1830. Then that road, there"—the one that's now opposite the E-Z Credit Motor Co.—"connected you to the land routes to Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. And the street we're on, St. Catherine Street, leads right down to the waterfront. If you were brought here by Mississippi steamboat or barge, you'd be unloaded and marched up here. And once the enslaved people were sold, they were taken down this street to be shipped downriver."
There's nothing left standing of the Forks of the Road market, nothing to commemorate it except a state historical marker that Boxley managed to get installed a couple of years ago. And yet, somehow, despite the squalor, or perhaps because of it, I'm more moved by this place than I have been by immaculately tended mansions. Boxley wants the city of Natchez to buy the land to build a museum and memorial. Last year, to the astonishment and annoyance of Natchez's established preservationists, he managed to snare a $200,000 state grant to acquire the site. Many think that's a waste of money: Forks of the Road has been graded and paved so extensively that even archaeology is unlikely to yield much, they say. And there are many still-standing sites around Natchez that are in urgent need of rescue.
To Boxley, all this is almost beside the point. "There's a whole history and reality and spirit out here at this site," he said, his voice husky with emotion. "That's what I'm here fighting for. That's what you're preserving, preservationists. If you can't see that, then you're just preserving sticks and stones and bones."
The Forks of the Road isn't the only place in Natchez where the unwelcome past has started to work its way up through the cracks. For more than 30 years, a white historian named Ronald L.F. Davis, a professor at California State University at Northridge, has been researching the town's African-American heritage. Sometime in the early 1990s, an employee at the county courthouse happened to mention that there were some locked rooms in the basement full of old documents that Davis might be interested in. Those archives, which now fill several storerooms at the Historic Natchez Foundation, prove the falsehood of the claim—one I encountered time and again at the historic sites I visited—that there isn't documentary evidence about the lives of individual slaves.
Davis happened to be in Natchez during my visit, and leading me into a basement room lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves and ancient iron filing cabinets, their drawers labeled with 19th-century dates, he showed me his recently discovered trove. "What we've got here are records of every single court case from the Spanish colonial period in the 1790s up through the 1930s," he said. It's literally millions of pages, which Davis and his students, who come to Natchez every summer, are only beginning to catalog. And many of those pages, from criminal depositions to probate settlements, discuss slaves. Davis pulled down a huge slablike ledger and opened it at random. "See, look at this entry," he said. "State v. Martin, a slave. It's a runaway case. It tells you he ran away on Aug. 8, 1837, whom he belonged to, when and where he was captured. There's probably a corresponding case file somewhere that might have depositions and records of testimony, or even pieces of evidence. In some of the murder case files, we've even found things like bullets recovered from the body."
Though Natchez's court papers may be an exceptional collection, Davis believes that there are "many, many historical records out there, if the people who run sites care to look for them. Even the Mississippi census data list every slave on every plantation by age and gender, and sometimes even name. Not talking about slavery isn't a question of not having the information. It's a question of what you decide to selectively remember."
In 1860, the United States had more than four million African-American slaves and nearly 400,000 slave-owning white households, mostly in the South. In the previous century, the northern colonies had thousands of slaves, too. This means that almost no area in the eastern half of the country was wholly untouched by the legacy of slavery.
Just over the past few months, reports from various parts of the country have suggested that more places are remembering that legacy. Savannah is building a slave monument at its harbor. A slave dwelling in Brooklyn is being investigated and restored. Montpelier, the Virginia home of James Madison, owned by the National Trust, hosted a reunion for hundreds of descendants of the plantation's black families. Even Robert E. Lee's Stratford Hall is holding a conference on African-American history.
In my own city, Washington, D.C., perhaps the most notable former slave dwelling is the White House itself: At least five early southern presidents brought black servants from their plantations to live there. The official White House tours, which include minimal interpretation, in any case, don't mention this fact. Just across Lafayette Square, however, researchers at Decatur House, also a National Trust historic site, have started to unearth that 1818 mansion's slave past. Renovations have revealed that a room previously portrayed as a parlor was actually a kitchen where African-American cooks worked; it is being restored to its original identity.
Several months ago, Decatur House historians delving through the District of Columbia's judicial archives made a more dramatic discovery: a forgotten case in which a black woman belonging to Henry Clay (one of the mansion's more famous occupants) sued her owner for her freedom. The woman, Charlotte Dupuy, lost her case, but not before causing Clay some political embarrassment. "It's a perfect example of how white and black history are invariably entwined together," said Paul Reber, Decatur House's director. "To suggest that you can tell a story about whites and not talk about blacks, or blacks and not talk about whites, is preposterous."
At the average historic site, though, despite the huge strides that scholars have made in uncovering African-American history over the past 30 years, it might as well still be 1960, if not 1860. John Michael Vlach, an anthropologist at George Washington University and an expert on slave architecture, has visited dozens of plantations for his research. "But after a certain point, I don't even want to see them," he told me. "I'm tired of the familiar old dance of avoidance. I'll be traveling somewhere, and I'll see a brochure or a sign, and I'll just ignore it, because I don't want to end up gagging or punching somebody."
Late one afternoon during my stay in Natchez, at the suggestion of Ron and Mimi Miller, I crossed the river into Louisiana to visit a privately owned cotton plantation called Canebrake, which lazes amid the black alluvial lands along a lonely bend of the Mississippi levee. For the past hundred years or so, the farm has been in the family of Barry Maxwell, a 52-year-old banker in Natchez, who lives in the renovated overseer's house with his wife, Anne.
Anne Maxwell was working in the house's brightly modern kitchen, originally its back veranda, when I arrived. "Barry's not home from work yet," she said, "but if you'd like to take a look at the slave quarters, they're right out back."
And there they were, in fact, past the end of the driveway, beyond a rusting basketball pole and a cement birdbath: a pair of small wooden houses, half smothered in vines and thorn bushes. According to the Millers, they are quite probably the only two field-slave cabins left standing in the entire Natchez region. In town, I'd seen well-preserved house-slave quarters, which have more frequently survived because they were often made of brick. But of the simpler frame houses where the vast majority of antebellum blacks lived, only a handful remain anywhere in America. "And most of the ones left," says John Michael Vlach, "are being left to rot."
As I stood in the driveway, Barry Maxwell pulled up in his car. "I remember when I was a kid, there were probably four or five cabins on each side, all the way up to the end of the cotton field there," he told me. "We called it the 'quarters street.'" He pointed to an overgrown pile of rubble. "That one used to be standing, till just a couple years ago. Then my son snagged a vine with a corner of the riding mower, and the whole thing came down."
Canebrake was originally developed in the 1840s, by a rich planter who lived in Natchez and rarely visited the remote farm. A century later, when Barry Maxwell was a boy, the old cabins were still inhabited by the black farm hands who worked his grandparents' cotton fields. "But things changed pretty fast around here," he said. "At one point, this plantation probably had 20 families working on it. These days, a guy comes in with a harvester, picks all the cotton in two days, and he's gone."
I picked my way through brambles into the first cabin. It was a two-room clapboard house, raised on crumbling brick piers, with a single chimney in the middle. Typically, an entire family would have lived in each room. Now these rooms seemed bleak and empty. But then I heard a faint rustling from the far wall—not a ghost, but a hanging strip of something stirring in the draft. And as my eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, I saw that the inside of the cabin was covered with pictures. Sometime in the 1930s or 1940s, the field hands had apparently papered their rooms with the pages of magazines, pages that now formed a decaying collage, like an image from a Walker Evans photograph. Among the blighted spots of wasps' nests and mildew I could make out the faces of debutantes and congressmen, aviators and comic-strip heroes, Roosevelt and Stalin—faces falling gradually into compost on the 150-year-old floorboards.
When I emerged a while later, I was alone on the plantation; the Maxwells had gone into town on an errand, and the sun hung low in a dreary sky above the fields of young cotton. I walked over to the other cabin but didn't venture inside—its rotting frame was held up by a single corner post, which looked as if the first summer storm would bring it down. Beyond, along the now-vanished quarters street, the churned-up earth revealed chunks of brick, fragments of china, a hand-forged link of iron chain.
Past the basketball pole, in the half-light of sunset, the Maxwells' house looked newly sinister. There was no way to play Scarlett O'Hara on this plantation. I could think only of the crushing boredom, of the backbreaking labor, of the impossibility of escape, of late dusks and early dawns, of children and illnesses, and of all the generations conceived and born in these rooms—rooms and generations, both returning to the dust.
It was Abigail Adams, perhaps, who first noticed the paradox of Virginia. In a letter to her husband in the spring of 1776, she remarked how odd it was that those patriots with the strongest "passion for Liberty" were also "those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs." This contradiction is one that Virginia—the cradle of American freedom and the birthplace of American slavery—still lives with today.
Actually, the paradox began long before Adams' time, in 1619. In July of that year, British America's first representative assembly met at Jamestown. In August, the first ship carrying a cargo of Africans anchored at Jamestown wharf.
Jamestown today is a city of the dead, abandoned long ago to the marshes and forests. Its shoreline is, however, thickly populated with monuments. John Smith and Pocahontas strike noble poses in bronze. There's a shrine to the first Anglican priest in America, and a Department of Commerce marker on the site of a glass blowers' workshop. ("From these humble beginnings, America's great glass industry has grown.") There's even, somewhat unexpectedly, a monument to the 750th anniversary of the Magna Carta. But there is no monument to the fact that American slavery began on this spot. Nor do slaves receive much attention in the interpretive signs erected by the National Park Service—just a passing reference in a panel blandly titled "The People of Virginia." ("Tobacco" and "Maize" get their own separate signs.)
Farther along tidewater Virginia's historic pilgrimage route, there's hardly a word about slavery at many of the 18th-century plantations along the James River, places where buses disgorge hundreds of 21st-century tourists each day. A number of these estates are still in the hands of their original white families, which can make the subject a rather delicate one.
A kid-gloves approach also prevailed, at least until recently, at the heavyweight of American historic sites: Colonial Williamsburg, the town where it is, famously, always 1774. But over the past couple of decades, facing increasing criticism for excluding slavery from its tidy portrayals of 18th-century life, Williamsburg has added many programs about African-American issues, including, somewhat controversially, slave patrols and whippings. Early performances were so effective that on one occasion, a tourist attacked a "slave patroller" and tried to wrest away his wooden musket.
There weren't any beatings or patrols scheduled during my visit. But I did witness a young African-American man, dressed in colonial garb and manacled at his hands and feet, being led into the courthouse and sentenced to death for stealing some turkeys. The theater of it was surprisingly effective: When the all-white judges' panel pronounced its sentence ("You shall be taken to the place of public execution and hanged by the neck until you are dead."), I felt a cold prickle up my spine. Later, I toured Carter's Grove, a Colonial Williamsburg-owned plantation where the slave quarters have been reconstructed. Two costumed, African-American guides—they weren't supposed to be slaves, they told me pointedly—sat outside one of the cabins answering questions from visitors, giving them vivid details about the lives of black Americans in the 18th century.
That week, Colonial Williamsburg happened to be hosting a conference of living-history-site administrators from around the country. While I was chatting with the slave-quarter interpreters, some of the conference-goers stopped by to snap pictures. "Thanks, this is really going to help us," one woman said. "We're fighting a battle down where we're from." She helps manage a site in the Deep South, she explained, a place where black history is largely ignored and where her boss refuses even to hire black guides. "It's wonderful to see how you've changed things up here."
Yet while Williamsburg has served as an inspiration to other sites, it still leaves some of its visitors cold. On my first morning, I went on something called The Other Half Tour, an hourlong presentation about African-Americans' role in colonial and Revolutionary history. In our group was a black family from Cincinnati: Reginald and Renea Lewis and their two children, 11-year-old Jonathan and nine-year-old Olivia. The tour was done pretty well, and the Lewises seemed to enjoy it; Jonathan kept jumping in to answer the guide's trivia questions about colonial history. So I was surprised when I talked to the Lewises afterward and discovered that actually they were quite angry.
"There's a fine line between being cynical about the whole thing and accepting it," Renea Lewis said. "But it's hard to listen to the things they say here when we know that Independence Day didn't mean anything for people of color."
"We've been to plantations and other places up and down this part of the country," added Reginald, "and it always seems like they try to take slavery, this very evil thing, and make it into something as light as possible. Well, maybe this place is better than most. Still, do I, as an African-American, want to see history represented by a slave getting whipped? No. But I do want to see more about the contributions of African-Americans, about how they survived and continued their legacy."
He glared across the town square at a group of Williamsburg employees in knee breeches and tricorn hats, who were gathering for another reenactment: "I mean, what are we supposed to do now, go and listen to Patrick Henry talk about liberty for 45 minutes?"
Time has stopped at Somerset Place, too, but in a different and stranger way than it seems to have stopped at Williamsburg.
The first tropical storm of the summer was sweeping over the Carolina coast as I made my way down the gravel path that leads to the plantation. Rain tossed the branches of the oak and sycamore trees that march in stately procession toward a columned yellow house at the edge of a lake.
But the guided tour at Somerset doesn't begin with that big house, nor with the family who owned it. It begins, instead, even on a rainy day, among the plantation's scattered outbuildings, in a one-room cabin where another family once lived: a husband and wife named Judy and Lewis, along with five of their children, a daughter-in-law, and a grandchild. The docent recounts how, in 1843, one of the family's owners married and moved to Alabama, taking with her a dowry of 81 slaves. Among them were six of the people who had lived in this cabin, who probably never saw their relatives again. Only eventually does the tour wend its way up to the main house, where you hear about the Collins family, who owned the house, the land, and the people who lived there.
Things haven't always been this way at Somerset Place. For the past 11 years, however, the site has been run by a woman named Dorothy Spruill Redford, who has changed the way that history is told there. It is not at all coincidental that she happens to be a descendant of the plantation's slaves.
In 1977, Redford was a social worker and single mother in Portsmouth, Va., when the television series Roots awakened her curiosity about her ancestors. She had no academic training in history, no knowledge of her family tree beyond her grandparents. Still, she began to research her genealogy in her spare time, a trail that led finally to Somerset, which she was pleased to discover was being run by the state of North Carolina as a historic site. But Redford's first visit to the plantation left her saddened and disappointed. "I was no tourist here," she later wrote. "This was my home, my family's home"—yet there was scarcely a word about its hundreds of African-American former residents, merely a rotting sign where the slave cabins once stood.
Redford didn't give up on her ancestral home. In 1986, the 200th anniversary of when Somerset's first slaves arrived from West Africa, she organized a reunion that drew hundreds of their descendants from across the country. And in 1990, the state of North Carolina appointed her to manage the site. Since then, she has rebuilt vanished outbuildings, redesigned the tour, collected photographs, oral histories of the slaves and their progeny, and published books that recount what she has learned about those families.
When I told Redford about my visit to Williamsburg, she scoffed at the idea of an Other Half Tour. "I don't believe in segregation," she told me. "It's all one history. It's all American history." Nor does she believe in holding grudges about slavery. "People are still angry about what happened in the 1960s, but for some reason they find it easier to talk about the 1860s. I don't judge the Collinses. One of their descendants is on the Somerset board, and if you were to ask her why she does it, she'd say, 'I'm working to preserve what my ancestors left.' If you asked me the same question, I'd give you the same answer."
I was reminded of something that a white southern Park Service ranger had told me in Natchez. "We haven't all been slave owners," she'd said, "and we haven't all been slaves. But we've all had families."
At the end of August, Redford will host another reunion: the fifth Somerset Homecoming. She expects nearly 3,000 descendants of the plantation's slaves, including doctors, teachers, a former pro football player, and the majority leader of Maryland's state senate. For the first time this year, there will be descendants of the slaves who were sent away to Alabama in 1843. Members of the Collins family will come, too, from as far away as the West Coast. "It's the weirdest, funniest, most wonderful thing," Redford told me, her voice rising with excitement. As she spoke, I imagined them all, black and white, out on the broad lawn beneath the trees—not ghosts, to be sure, but walking history, living history, just the same.
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