|our party in the front row, from right to left: Taneya, Kaleya, Jane|
Although I’d soon learn that the restaurants and shops in Edenton would be closed on July 4th, one Washington County historic attraction that is usually closed on major holidays was open.
Months earlier, I’d learned that genealogist Taneya Koonce would be visiting family in Plymouth on both Memorial Day and the Fourth. I’ve wanted to meet Taneya for some time, and since it’s unlikely that I’ll be getting to Nashville any time soon, and I couldn’t travel south in May, meeting her at Somerset Place in Creswell became central to Saturday’s schedule.
Operated as a state historical site, Somerset Place is a partially-restored plantation established on the shore of Lake Phelps in the 18th century by Josiah Collins and investors to grow rice. In the span of its 80-year history, Somerset Place maintained an enslaved population that totaled more than 850 slaves, the first of whom were transported directly from the West Coast of Africa to the Collins plantation in 1786.
I’d visited Somerset Place last fall in the rain, on a day when I was the sole visitor, who did not get the guided tour, and expected that this visit would be different. Taneya and her daughter, Kaleya, arrived shortly after I did. We were soon joined by Jane Chesson, a fellow researcher of my maternal line and a seventh cousin. It was 10:00 a.m., sunny and already very humid and very hot.
Prior to joining a tour, Taneya, Jane, Kaleya and I walked the grounds and spent time in the shade, getting to know each other a bit and enjoying the behavior of a curious goat.
As the tour began, docent Dan Simpson led us through original and reconstructed structures where the enslaved community had lived, worked, cooked, been treated when sick, been preached to about obedience by Episcopalian clerics, been punished or jailed. As the 19th century life of the enslaved community was presented to us in detail, more tourists joined our group. The tour concluded with a walk through three stories of the plantation house.
There is something surreal and haunting about Somerset Place, even without the tour. I’d read about its history and development in Dorothy Spruill Redford’s book, Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage and longed to feel how Ms. Redford – who spent 10 years of her life researching the plantation and bringing it to its current status as a public historic asset -- could stick with an under-appreciated project for so long, yet prevail.
But a fact-filled guided visit was different from my sole wanderings in the rain. The remnants of the plantation beg many questions across two centuries, beginning with how many slaves actually boarded The Camden in West Africa before 80 of them arrived in Edenton on June 10, 1786?
Many of my own questions focused on the roles of women. How had Mary Riggs -- a Yankee from Newark, New Jersey -- become the mistress of a plantation with a house staff of 25 slaves? Who was with her long-time assistant, Charlotte Cabarrus, a free woman of color, when she died? How is it that at any given time, 60 percent of the Somerset field hands were women, and yet we don’t automatically picture 18th and 19th century Southern agrarian life carried on the backs of women? Why didn’t I know before July 4, 2015 that the monetary value of an enslaved women was based in her multiparous status?
I’m glad that before I went to Somerset Place this time, I read Margaret Biser’s June 29th piece from Vox posted on Facebook by author Michael W. Twitty.
But I was not fully prepared for the group experience. I had no way of actually knowing how this long, hot, tour might be simultaneously experienced by descendants of slaves and slave owners.
And I had no understanding of why, against the backdrop of America’s deep and most difficult history, a twenty-something in our group was posing at every stop on the tour for a selfie, indifferent to the context of the docent’s narrative. Her experience was spatial, it seemed, as she tied her large scarf into a sarong, and then a shawl, affecting a glamorous pout or smile against the backdrop of another century, over and over.