During the Civil War, Durham wasn't yet a place - or at least it wasn't yet the place we know today. At the time, Durham was merely a railroad station. But nearby, in what is now Durham County, one could find the expansive Stagville Plantation, one of the largest plantations in the South. Today, Stagville still stands as a historic site providing a glimpse into what many African Americans experienced in the area during the Civil War.
Stagville was at its largest in 1860, just before the Civil War began, holding approximately 900 slaves and almost 30,000 acres of land across 47 square miles. A plantation of such size was a rarity for the region. "North Carolina had a different economy" than the wealthier Deep South, says Stephanie Hardy, site manager of Historic Stagville, now a state historic site that has been preserved for visitors to see and tour. "There weren't many people in this area in the early 1800s."
But at Stagville, the large number of slaves gave birth to a robust African-American community, despite the harsh conditions of slavery. Though Stagville's entire enslaved population was born in America, many African traditions survived on the plantation, as well as artifacts - like cowry shell necklaces, divining rods, and more - giving evidence of West African cultural traditions practiced in the slave community. Hardy also explains that the slaves worked not just as fieldhands, but as skilled laborers, even building many of the plantation's buildings.
Due to uncommonly complete records, Stagville is able to play a role in disclosing African-American history from the Civil War. "The fact is that through slavery it's hard to trace back families because people's names change, people are bought and sold, and, after emancipation, people are dispersing," Hardy says. "But we have very meticulous records, so we know the names of just about everyone who passed through Stagville, and from that we have a large descendant population that is around."
As a result, today Stagville's staff is able to collaborate with Durham residents to fill in gaps in family histories, while also filling in gaps in the history of the site. One example is Virgil, the butler to plantation owner Thomas Bennehan, and the only slave to be freed from Stagville. Upon his death, Bennehan passed the plantation to his son-in-law, Paul Cameron, but only on the condition that Cameron free Virgil and his family, give them $500, and provide them with passage to either a free state or to Liberia, the country that had recently been founded as a nation for former slaves. In 2014, a descendant of Virgil's brother came to Stagville and was able to provide additional details and family stories.
Following the family histories, such as that of Virgil, helps Stagville trace what happened to the enslaved population after the Civil War and emancipation. Many stayed on as sharecroppers, continuing to work the land and making up a significant part of the population during the early stages of Durham's development. With its combination of preserved records and buildings, including original slave quarters still standing in their original location, Stagville offers a clear view into the experience of African Americans in Durham during the 1800s.
"It's rare, for people of any race, to have that tangible history," Hardy says.
An interview with site manager Stephanie Hardy about her role and the significance of the site. Read More