A Walk in the Past.
Yesterday was a special day for us. The cast and crew of LET THEM BE HEARD took a tour of Historic Stagville. For many in the group it was their first time at the site, the remnants of a plantation that used to be one of the largest in the South.
At the start of The Civil War, Stagville covered 30,000 acres (about 47 square miles) and stretched across what is now northern Durham County. At this time there were over 900 enslaved African-Americans living and working on the plantation.
Our tour was led by my father, Gil, who is a retired high school English teacher and a docent for Historic Stagville. Originally, he was going to give the group our own tour, but at the last minute we were joined by a large group that was touring historic sites in Durham.
Gil is a natural educator, and Stagville and the history of slavery in America are subjects he is passionate about. He first led us to the Bennehan House near the visitor’s center, which was built by Richard Bennehan in 1787.
The Bennehan House is not what most people think about when they imagine a southern slaveowner’s household. It is not the vast manor of Gone With the Wind. Instead, it is a simple 2-story house not too different in outward appearance from houses of today. However, this house was typical of its time and thus was not as large and ornate as the later estates of the deep south.
More remarkable is what is inside – pieces of original furniture and even a Thomas Day dresser, a rope bed with canopy, and even exposed wall showing original mortar with visible pig’s hair in it. Walking through the small food preparation room, we could see where slaves would have served meals that had been cooked in a separate structure. In the dining room, the table was set as it would have been in the 19th century.
I noticed that Kyma seemed lost in thought, taking in these rooms. I asked what she was thinking and she said, “I can see it.” She was referring to one of the stories her character, Fanny Cannady, tells in which see saw her mother slapped for spilling some coffee as she served it to the master and his wife. Fanny did not live at Stagville, but the empty table with its china all set out gave us a clear picture of what that scene might have looked like.
The second half of the tour covered Horton Grove, where LET THEM BE HEARD will take place. Horton Grove is about a half mile away from the Bennehan House, and we had to drive to it. Horton Grove is where a large group of slaves were housed, and the buildings remain today.
We began the Horton Grove portion at the slave quarters, where the first half of LET THEM BE HEARD will be performed. To me, this is the most amazing part of the tour. First, it is remarkable that these cabins still stand – most slave quarters on plantation historic sites are long gone. This is partially a testament to Paul Cameron, the subsequent heir of the Bennehan and Cameron fortunes and the man who brought Stagville to its peak in 1860.
Cameron realized that the typical slave huts of the time were unhealthy to the workforce. Those houses tended to have dirt floors, no ventilation, and thatched roofs that leaked, creating damp, insect and varmint-ridden conditions that would alternate between freezing cold in the winter and stiflingly hot in the summer.
Paul Cameron had these cabins built with raised floors, wood shingles, and windows, allowing better protection from the elements. While these were vast improvement over slave dwellings on other sites, they are still austere and crowded living conditions. Each building like the one pictured above housed four slave families, each with one room only, and families would usually number around 8-10 people.
Gil noted that Cameron’s improvements to the living conditions were not necessarily benevolent in nature – this was a way of safeguarding his investment, and by keeping his workforce healthy, he was able to maintain a highly productive plantation.
One of the most human and amazing sights at Stagville is the chimney on the first slave cabin. The bricks are original, and were made of North Carolina clay that would be cut into blocks and set in the sun to dry before they were fired. Occasionally the bricks would be grabbed too early, and finger imprints would be made in the still-drying clay. These imprints, and even a foot imprint can be seen today in the chimney at Horton Grove.
Inside the cabin, we were able to verify that groups slightly larger than we calculated could fit into the rooms and still give the actors room. This is great because we will be able to accommodate a few more people per group on the night of the show.
The atmosphere in that cabin is amazing. You really feel that you have been transported in time there. For me, imaging the crowded conditions with children sleeping on the wooden floors gets to me. It will make for an extremely intimate first half of the show.
Moving on, we walked down the gravel dirt road known as Jock Road to The Great Barn, where LET THEM BE HEARD will conclude. This mule barn, hand-built by slaves, was the culminating point of Paul Cameron’s dream. It is a massive structure that was constructed without mortar foundation, and it was built with shipbuilding techniques, which may help explain how the building has lasted for over 150 years.
When the folks who were touring historic sites realized they were on this tour with the cast, they asked to see a bit of the performance. Warren treated them to the beginning of Andrew Boone’s monologue when we got inside The Great Barn! Several of their group will be joining us I think for June 9th, so thanks, Warren!
The four men who will be performing in the barn will have much more room to play in, and with lantern light only, the atmosphere will be intense. I can already see the shadows flickering on the huge hand-hewn wooden beams, and I think the guys really enjoyed being able to walk that space.
Some of the cast and crew had to leave after seeing the barn, but the rest of us stayed and looked at the other slave cabins and Horton House, which was built in 1770 by a previous landowner.
The fact that these structures still stand after all this time astounds me. Driving to and from Stagville, I’ll notice old barns and wooden buildings collapsing off in the woods, and I can’t help but wonder if these were originally part of Stagville as well, lost to time and nature because they were not maintained.
That such history could be and has been lost so easily over the years is sad to me. This is why it is so important to me to tell the slave narratives and to encourage people to see Stagville. The more awareness of this resource, the more difficult it will be for state legislators to slash funding for the site.
It is my hope that LET THEM BE HEARD helps to preserve the stories and the site for many more people to see and learn from. I think cast and crew agree that this will be a truly memorable experience for us and for our audiences.