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Stagville State Historic Site: A Slice of Southern History from Two Viewpoints

By Elizabeth R. Elstien

Stagville State Historic Site in Durham is a significant pre-Civil War plantation. At its height in 1860, it housed the Bennehan and Cameron families, staff and over 900 African American slaves on over 30,000 acres.

Take a tour of the site to get a realistic view of American slavery in the early 1800s, a view that most other plantation sites either completely ignore or barely mention. Explains Managing Director Stephanie Cobert: "With all of the misconceptions surrounding the topic of slavery, it is critical that the public visit sites like ours in order to gain a better understanding. By taking a simple guided tour, our visitors learn how the plantation operated, how the enslaved population lived, what life was like during the antebellum period, and how the Civil War affected the lives of African Americans."

The wooded grounds now surrounding the site were once enormous fields. The main house sits on a hill that would have overlooked the fields around it. Although the main house is of basic Georgian-style architecture and lacks decoration, its glass windows were imported from England clearly showing the family's status. A second home, acquired in 1823 when the family purchased an adjoining 410 acres from the subsistence-farming Horton family, is a small plank house with exceptional beaded ceiling joists built sometime prior to 1775.

Don't forget to tour the Great Barn used to house mules that powered the farming equipment. Cobert says this is "a massive structure built in 1860 by the enslaved craftsmen." Using large timbers from plantation lands, the barn's structural elements were hand hewn. Expensive cedar shingles and rarely seen complex joinery were put in place by the skilled African American slaves.

Then, there is the novel two-story, four-room home for the enslaved as opposed to the more common single-story, one-room structure normally found. Built between 1851 and 1860, this was of timber-frame construction with brick filling the areas between the frame for better insulation and protection from rodents.

Archaeological work on the site has unearthed evidence of several other buildings, while surviving family documents provide further clues of their existence. There once was a detached kitchen and kitchen garden for the cooks, a small milk house, a stable, at least two one-story slave houses and a log smokehouse. Imagine the wide network of roadways and trading networks used to bring news, dry goods and food into and out of this immense plantation complex.

Noted for its in-depth African American slave genealogy project, staff and volunteers are compiling online family trees of those slaves who lived at the Stagville plantation prior to the Civil War. With over 350 surnames to date, this is a massive undertaking. A comprehensive list of last names includes Agga, Ferrabee, Lewter, Minga, Ravis, Tunisia and Zena.

"We also offer education programs for school groups", notes Cobert. "Topics include exhibit design, program development, marketing, interpretation, and research." For these and other programs, Stagville State Historic Site depends on volunteers, interns and donations from its members to keep this educational site open and continue the genealogy project.

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About The Author

Elizabeth R. Elstien has worked in real estate for over 15 years as a real estate...

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