I found out about Stagville State Historic Site during a Google search of former slave plantations near me. Immediately intrigued I decided to visit the plantation and participate in the guided tour. I arrived just as the tour began and joined the group as they walked towards the first visible structure you see when you arrive on the premises.
The plantations preserved at Stagville were owned by the Bennehan-Cameron families. By the end of the Civil War several thousand slaves had lived on their plantations, which stretched across 47 square miles of land. In April of 1865, some thousand or so slaves were emancipated from these lands. When the first house was erected in the 1780s and the Bennehan family moved into it, they already owned close to 30 people. While no original slave cabins rest on that part of the property, excavations have uncovered evidence of where those slave cabins once stood.
The original “Big House” was a two-room structure, which the family renovated into a larger home as they amassed their wealth into the 19th century. The tour guide, Vera, was exceptional. She was knowledgeable and answered any questions that the guests on the tour had with confidence. It was clear that she was not just reciting the information from a script, but that she has done extensive research as one of the historians on the property.
She recounted a tale about a former slave on the plantation, Mary Walker. Mary’s family had been enslaved by the Bennehan-Cameron’s for generations prior to her birth. Duncan Cameron assigned her to be a caretaker for his sick daughters, who had contracted tuberculosis. During her time as a caretaker, Cameron travelled to Philadelphia to seek out the best medical care for his sickly daughters. Vera notes that during this time, Pennsylvania was a free state and although travelling to a free state did not affect Mary’s slave status, it was still risky for her master because the abolitionist movement was strong there.
By this time, Mary had 3 young children and an elderly grandmother on Cameron’s plantation. Although her desire for freedom was strong, the fear of the unknown of what her running away would mean for her family back home was even stronger. Mary travelled to Philadelphia twice with the Camerons without incident. However, on her third trip she argued with her master for an unknown reason and he threatened to separate her and her family, either by sending her deeper south into Alabama or by sending her family there. It was this threat that gave Mary the push she needed to run.
Mary escaped successfully and is the only recorded case of a runaway slave to leave the Bennehan-Cameron’s never to be captured and reenslaved. While the next 10 or 15 years were especially difficult for Mary, as evidenced by the diary she kept, she did live to see the end of the Civil War and was reunited with 2 of her 3 children upon their emancipation.
Following this story, the group is instructed to drive a half a mile down the road to Horton Grove, another plantation held by the Bennehan-Cameron family. While most of the slave quarters have been destroyed, this part of the plantation holds 4 original slave cabins. These are atypical from what most people imagine a slave cabin to look like and what most slaves actually lived in. The slave cabins on this property were completed around 1851. They housed 4-5 slave families, which equaled about 20 or 30 people. This means that Horton Grove held approximately 90 or 100 people in bondage. The most incredible part of this portion of the tour is that the tour guide points out that if you look close enough at the bricks that make up the chimney, you can see fingerprints of the enslaved people that helped to build those structures.
Those slave quarters were inhabited into the 1940s by descendants of the enslaved people, who became sharecroppers following emancipation. The feeling of standing inside the slave cabin is truly indescribable. As someone who is a descendant of slaves it is difficult to imagine your ancestors living and working in bondage. However, to see what the enslaved people were able to create in terms of the structures they built and the communities they must have created is incredible.
The final structure at Horton Grove is the Great Barn, which was completed in 1860. Two things stand out about this structure, first its astonishing size. Upon completion, it was the largest barn in North Carolina. Second, as previously noted, the structure was completed in 1860, just a few months before the start of the Civil War. In retrospect, it is obvious to us that the end of the institution of slavery was near, but to the Cameron family, it was probably impossible to imagine a world without slavery. Their investment in infrastructure and expansion of their lands is indicative of this.
It is difficult to ignore the harshness and brutality that was American chattel slavery, especially when you are standing in what would have been the living quarters of former slaves. The Bennehan-Cameron families amassed their land and fortune on the backs of their enslaved property. Preservation of these lands and structures is an important part of remembering the history of African Americans in this country. To be able to stand inside one of these structures is much more effective than seeing them in pictures, in terms of proving their significance. Situated in Durham, North Carolina, Stagsville is definitely worth the visit!