Paying Tribute to the Past at Historic Stagville, NC
Shortly after joining Adam Matthew this year I set off to North Carolina for an archive research trip. Whilst there I had the opportunity to visit Historic Stagville, the site of one of the largest plantations in North Carolina and the pre-Civil War South at its peak during the 1850s and early 1860s. The site and buildings seemed peaceful on a beautiful April morning in the leafy, green North Carolina countryside, but there were stark reminders as we toured the buildings, of the injustices that took place and the difference in quality of life for the plantation owners and the slave community who lived here.
Over 900 enslaved people worked and lived at Stagville, owned by the wealthy Bennehan-Cameron family. Whilst the grand estate house with its gracious proportions and delicate furnishings revealed a story of success for a family made rich through slaves and farming, the sparse timber buildings that made up the slave quarters a mile down the road had stories of their own to tell about the men, women and children who were enslaved here.
The simple, two-storey buildings were built by skilled slave workers themselves and looking closely at the bricks you could see fingerprints where they had been hastily laid before being completely dry. One brick even showed the tiny footprint of a toddler who must have run over the still-wet bricks as they lay drying, I imagine much to the annoyance of his or her parents!
The documents we have collated from archives around the world in collections such as Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice have a crucial role in preserving the first-hand accounts of those who suffered through slavery and their fight for justice. But a reflective morning spent at Historic Stagville also reminded me how important buildings and spaces are in paying tribute to those who lived there, and in telling their stories in a different way. In the physical details of lives left behind and through personal testimonies preserved in archives, we catch glimpses of the real people who suffered through slavery and hear their stories. And with Amnesty International and the ILO estimating that even today almost 21 million men, women and children are victims of slavery and forced labour around the world, it has never been more important to listen.
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