Horton Grove, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, is considered one of the most well-preserved slave quarters in the South.
photo: Historic Stagville
Historic Stagville gives visitors a peek into slavery’s past in Durham
by Danielle Jackson
Slavery is never something to be celebrated. But at Historic Stagville in Durham, it’s highlighted in a way that showcases the true, hardworking daily lives of the 900 slaves who labored on pre-Civil War North Carolina’s largest plantation.
Formerly owned by the influential Bennehan and Cameron families — whose stamp can be seen in everything from Raleigh’s Cameron Village to UNC’s Memorial Hall — the state-run historic site consists of 71 acres in three separate tracts that include the late-18th century Bennehan family plantation home and cemetery; four two-story, four-room enslaved family dwellings that make up Horton Grove; a pre-Revolutionary War yeoman farmer’s home; and the timber-framed Great Barn, which at one time was the largest agricultural structure in the state.
“There’s so much to see here,” says Alton Mitchell, site manager. “It’s one of the only places in the South where you can see well-preserved plantation and slave homes and look at antebellum life in North Carolina.”
A storied past
The Bennehan and Cameron families left quite a collection of personal and business papers detailing the property, which are available through the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina State Archives. Stagville’s staff continues to use these documents to piece together various aspects of life on the plantation, including compiling detailed information on the families who once lived there.
So far, they’ve only been able to scratch the surface of those who occupied the property. Inside Stagville’s welcome center is a wall-to-wall family tree that highlights information on more than 150 of the slaves who worked the plantation before the Civil War.
After the Civil War and the subsequent emancipation of slaves, the Cameron family began selling off parcels of land. In 1954, Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. purchased a significant portion of the property, including the Great Barn. In 1976, it donated Stagville to the state, which originally planned to turn it into a center for preservation technology to train aspiring renovators and conservators through seminars, workshops, and conferences on historic preservation, African-American studies, and landscape history.
Today, tours of the site are offered as a way to showcase early colonial life in North Carolina. Last year alone, more than 15,600 people visited Historic Stagville to take a peek into life in pre-Civil War North Carolina.
A changing landscape
While much of Historic Stagville’s early landscape has been altered over time — the original plantation consisted of almost 30,000 noncontiguous acres spread out among five counties — many of its foundations remain intact. It’s these foundations that form the site’s extensive educational component.
During free tours, visitors can wander through Bennehan House, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973; the Great Barn, which was constructed by enslaved people without the use of nails; and Holman House at Horton Grove, a series of former slave quarters that was added to the National Register in 1978.
“We interpret the period through the Civil War, so visitors can learn everything from plantation life to colonial living on tours,” Mitchell notes.
“Historic Stagville truly is one of the unique treasures of North Carolina.”
Danielle Jackson is editor of Fifteen501, Wake Living and Triad Living magazines.
If you go
The Historic Stagville State Historic Site, which is administered by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources’ Division of State Historic Sites, is located along a long gravel driveway off of Old Oxford Highway in Durham. Admission is free, and hourly tours are offered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. To learn more, call (919) 620-0120 or visit www.stagville.org.