We’ve talked about some of the history and about Stagville itself. Now it’s time for a look at the characters – men and women who grew up as slaves, viewed as “property” to someone else.
Tempie is the oldest character in our collection. She was 103 years old in the late 1930’s when she was interviewed by the Federal Writer’s Project. This means that she was in her 30’s during The Civil War, so she remembers slavery differently from the other characters, who were children at the time.
Tempie had a good relationship with George and Betsy Herndon, the couple that owned her, and in her interview she tells of fond memories working in a weaving room with the other slave women (and Betsy). She also recounts her marriage to Exter Durham, a slave from another plantation.
REVEREND SQUIRE DOWD
Squire Dowd was one of the very few slaves who received an education. He remembers being taught to read and write by the white children “as punishment” for the bad things he did. As an adult, he became a Baptist preacher and was fairly well-known in the Raleigh community, where he served in the ministry for 50 years.
Dowd has a self-described “conservative view” of slavery. While he seems to blame carpetbaggers and the Ku Klux Klan for much of the plight of African-Americans after the war, he also recalls several good times he had as a slave child.
Little is known of Fanny Cannady other than from her interview with the Federal Writer’s Project. Fanny and her mother seem to have been very close with her mistress, Sally Moss, but she was terrified of her master, Jordan Moss. She recounts the story of two slave brothers, Leonard and Burrus Allen, who were large strong men who were not afraid of their master. Fanny describes in detail a horrifying chain of events that begin with an off-hand comment from Leonard about Moss’s son. One of the brothers would end up killed by his master, the other whipped mercilessly.
Henry’s monologue in LET THEM BE HEARD is actually a combination of the two interviews given by Henry and his brother Clay. Both men were slaves, but on two different plantations in Raleigh. He talks about being beaten just for being black, saying “I had a whole heap of dem whuppin’s” (Clay’s line). He also recounts slave sales, including the sale of his wife after just one year of marriage.
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Andrew Boone begins his narrative by relating how the Works Progress Administration has cut him off. He says he can no longer work, that he has been squatting in tobacco barns for years, and that he has not had much food lately. Andrew’s former owner, Billy Boone, treated his slaves harshly and Andrew remarks on the fact that his master was a preacher. After slavery, Andrew moved to New York City, where he seems to have found a reasonable amount of success working for the entertainers Crawford & Banhay. While in New York, Andrew married and had children, but these successes appear to have all faded away by the time of his interview.
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Very little is known about Thomas Hall, who was 81 at the time of his interview. After beginning to give some details about his parents and owner, he seems to become more and more agitated and ends up refusing to tell the interviewer his story. He rails against the economic slavery and bigotry that continued after emancipation, and he says he hates Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln for serving their own interests rather than trying to help African-Americans.
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Dave’s narrative is actually a story about his grandparents. Dave was an excellent storyteller, and the first time I read this story it actually made me cry. It is almost Shakespearean in its tragedy. Dave’s grandparents, Cleve and Lissa, lost their infant daughter (Dave’s mother) when they were purchased because their master did not want to also buy the baby and have it impede their ability to work. Some time after this, Cleve realized that the master was planning on selling Lissa. Unable to bear the loss of his wife after losing their child, Cleve decides to resist, knowing full well the consequences.
Reservations are going fast and all four shows will likely sell out. Complete details are available at www.baretheatre.org.
Also, we have a short video about the project on our Kickstarter page. Bare Theatre is donating all ticket sales to Historic Stagville, so we are asking for contributions to help us pay for the production costs.
I was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. I went to Durham Academy in elementary school, and later moved and went to public school. I went to Bulls games as a kid, loved seeing movies at the Carolina Theatre, and I graduated from Northern High School. I thought I knew pretty much everything there is to know about Durham.
Two years ago I was shocked to learn that Durham has a plantation.
Not only does Durham have a plantation, but it was one of the largest plantations in the South. At its peak, Stagville had over 900 slaves living and working on site, and it stretched out for miles over most of the area that is now known as Treyburn.
I found out about Stagville because my father became a volunteer at the state historic site two years ago. When he told me about it, I couldn’t believe it. He told me about the structures that were still standing, and about the significance Stagville had in the 1800’s.
He gave me a tour of the place and I was amazed. Not only does the owner’s house remain (it was built in the late 1700’s, pre-Revolution, but there is a family cemetery plot, slave quarters, and a huge handmade barn. This is a remarkable piece of history that I had no idea existed.
I was surprised and troubled by that.
Here is this incredible cultural resource that can give us insight into what life was like before and during the Civil War, and no one knows about it. Every Durham native or long-time resident I have talked to about Stagville had the same reaction – no one knew the place existed.
What concerns me is that much of the land that used to be part of the plantation is now divided among many different owners. There are many cabins and buildings that would have supported such a huge slave population, and these structures are literally disintegrating. Without care and upkeep, these artifacts are being reclaimed by nature. They are collapsing and rotting.
I wanted to increase awareness. If the public knows about Stagville and recognizes its historical significance, we can generate more support and funding to preserve its history.
The obvious choice for me was to create a piece of theatre. With a live event, we could bring a new audience to Stagville.
I didn’t want to do a story on the slaveowners, however. While the Bennehans and Camerons who owned the place no doubt have interesting stories, I was more interested in the overwhelming majority of people who lived there – the enslaved community.
My father gave me the idea to create a piece based on the Slave Narrative Project, a collection of thousands of interviews the WPA conducted in the 1930’s with men and women who were old enough to remember what life was like under slavery. I began reading the interviews, and I realized this was a story about slavery and its aftermath that I had never seen or heard before.
Many of the stories are absolutely heartbreaking in their descriptions of cruelty and disregard for humanity. Some of the stories are touching in the optimism maintained by individuals who faced bleak circumstances. The Slave Narratives also raise interesting questions about race and the role of government in our lives.
Next Saturday (4/28/12) we hold auditions for this piece, LET THEM BE HEARD. We are looking for African-American actors who will tell these stories as monologues to be presented in the buildings of Stagville on a lantern-lit evening in June.
AUDITION INFO IS HERE: http://bit.ly/BeHeardAuditions
Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you or anyone you know is interested, and I will get you more information.