One of three state historic sites in Durham, Historic Stagville is a former plantation located about 15 minutes north of Downtown Durham. We interviewed site manager Stephanie Hardy about her job, what makes the site special, and the unique role that it plays for many of Durham's African-American families.
Tell us about your role at Stagville and how you ended up there.
We have 165 acres here, and my job is to make sure everything runs smoothly - that the bills are paid, that our interpretation is up to date and we incorporate any new research, that we have a balanced interpretation so you hear as much about the owner's families as you do the enslaved families.
I have a bachelor's degree in psychology and history from UNC and a master's in public history from East Carolina, which is a field that has emerged in the last 10 or 15 years. My thesis was actually on the interpretation of African-American history at Tryon Palace [North Carolina's first governor's palace], so [Stagville] fit in perfectly with my research.
So what exactly is Historic Stagville? What should visitors know about it?
Stagville was one of the largest plantation complexes in the South. At its height in 1860, the plantation was about 30,000 acres spread out over about 47 square miles. We like to tell kids that it's about the size of Disney World now. There were about 900 enslaved people who worked the lands and lived here. The plantation was owned and operated by the Bennehan and Cameron families.
Aside from the size, which you already mentioned, are there notable historic facts about Stagville?
We have original slave quarters, which are very, very rare. Usually you just see reproductions, or foundations, or they're not renovated for visitors - we have the actual slave quarters from 1851 that people lived and worked in, and we take visitors through, so they get to experience something they may not be able to experience at other plantation sites. We also like to tell both sides of the story. Some sites ignore one side or the other, but we like to give you the entire story of free and enslaved people who lived here.
What do you have to do to preserve the original structures?
You have to make sure you're using similar wood and techniques as the historic ones, because you want to make sure that everything stays the same. The floors in a couple of our slave cabins have been replaced so that visitors can walk through them. There have been a few beams replaced in the great barn, but for the most part all of our buildings have their original materials, so we haven't had to do a lot of reproduction. Actually, 90% of the glass in the Bennehan house is still the original from the 1700s.
What's your favorite thing about Stagville?
It's really interesting working here as an African American and interpreting this history, because 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. 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 nearby. Some are active with the site.
Do descendants often come to you with their stories?
Yes. We've actually had two in the past month. One was descended from Doc Edwards, who was one of the people from Stagville whose story was included in the North Carolina slave narratives that arose in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project. So we have his photo and his words.
And then the only slave who was ever freed from this plantation was named Virgil. His great-great-great... nephew came in, which we loved because you have someone who can trace his history back to the only slave ever freed from here. We didn't know of any of his descendants, so to have someone who is that closely tied to him was really exciting.
What is one thing you think visitors should know about Stagville?
We hope that visitors get a good sense of North Carolina history because I can't tell you how many times people come here and ask for Scarlet O'Hara. They want the Tara experience, and they're thinking of huge, sprawling marble plantation with wraparound porches and African Americans serving you sweet tea and rocking chairs and all that.
North Carolina was a different economy. People were poorer than they were in the Deep South, where they had those bigger plantation homes. They were built later than our house, too. Our house was built in the 1780s and 1790s. So you have a different economy, a different era, and a different region.
How do you make history exciting?
Our special programs are the biggest thing. You want them to come back and get a different experience. Working at a historic site, our biggest fear is that people have a been-there-done-that mentality. "I've seen it, I've done that, and I know everything I need to know." But we like to tweak our special programs each year and make each one a little bit different - give people different performances and lectures so that they keep learning, and they keep telling others about what they've seen and heard.
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