Where there’s ‘Hope’ there’s History

Published 4:46 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2023

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WINDSOR – Two individuals with broad knowledge of African American history and culture highlighted Hope Plantation’s 29th annual Black History Month Lecture held here Feb. 25.

Dr. David Ballew, Associate Professor of History at Chowan University, and Michelle Lanier, Director of the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites and an educator at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies, served as the guest

lecturers at the event held in the Roanoke-Chowan Heritage Center located on the grounds of the historic plantation.

Ballew presented “Plantations, Fields and Churches: Challenges of Writing African-American History under Slavery.” He shared how the Civil Rights Movement inspired a new generation of historians to challenge the status quo interpretation of slavery. The new histories written in the 1970s and afterwards challenged racist stereotypes and explored the ways that African Americans resisted enslavement, created communities, and developed their own religious practices and institutions.

He referenced Winthrop Jordan’s 1968 book – “White over Black” – which defined the dominant attitude that whites had of people of color dating as far back as the Europeans first contact with people living in the African nations.

A lot of that attitude was entrenched within racial bias, which led to how society was structured to prevent Blacks from having the same opportunities as whites.

Ballew said another book – “American Negro Slavery” by U.B. Phillips – further demonstrated the power of white plantation owners over their slaves. In that book, Ballew said Phillips hammered home the point that slaves took their master’s point of view.

“The slaves never spoke for themselves, other than to praise their masters,” he said.

He also referenced the 1959 book – “Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life” by Stanley Elkins.

“[Elkins] compared a slave plantation to a Nazi concentration camp,” Ballew noted. “The slave regime was so brutal that slaves’ personality was crushed to the point of being totally dependent on their master.”

Ballew said a new era of African-American historians (1970s and forward) objected to the assessment made by Elkins.

“They were more prone to look at it from a slave’s point of view,” Ballew stressed. “They shifted emphasis away from slavery as an institution more towards the slaves themselves…people with their own culture, their own sense of community, and their own personality that was separate from slavery.”

Historians John Blassingame and Albert J. Raboteau were Ivy League Scholars, Ballew noted, who put the study of Black History into the spotlight and their work was widely accepted.

“They placed a lot of emphasis on slave resistance; they made the point that slaves were not just passive victims,” Ballew shared.

Examples of non-violent resistance included slowing down their pace of work on the planation, breaking tools, and in a lot of cases, running away from their masters.

Ballew vividly described the different lifestyles the slaves had on a plantation. Those who worked outdoors were housed in buildings separate from the master’s home and away from his sight. There, Ballew said slaves could “drop the act they had to play in front of their master” and could enjoy each others company.

Household slaves lived inside the master’s home and missed out on the “community style life” found in the separate slave quarters.

He added that slaves, through the process of sharing folklore, proved they had an independent mindset.

“I would argue that this new history is the formation of what we call today as African-American History,” Ballew stated. “If you read an African-American History textbook today, this [later historians] point of view is what is reflected. It doesn’t completely invalidate the older history, rather it gives it a more balanced point of view. The slave is not just a dominated/controlled figure, they are an active part of the struggle.”

Ballew also briefly touched on other topics related to African-American History, to include how slaves created their own religious tradition based from a blend of white Christianity and African influence, as well as the roles played by the practice of “conjure” doctors.

“Conjure doctors became kind of a folk hero for slaves because they were not only feared and respected within the slave community but also feared by whites,” Ballew said.

He also presented an old newspaper clipping that was a listing of slaves offered for sale. Another clipping announced a $100 reward to locate a runaway slave.

Lanier focused more of the folklore of African Americans.

“Folklore….people often think of it as simply folk tales. Folk tales are just one element of a larger field. There is an American Folklore Society, there is a Southern Folk Life Collection,” Lanier said at the outset of her presentation.

“Being a folklorist gives me the opportunity to contend with the cultural expression of a people within a community,” Lanier continued. “Cultural expression could mean food such as cracklins and chitterlings. Music and narratives, both written and oral, are considered folklore, as are architecture, textiles – quilts and weaving – are part of folklore.”

Other forms, she said, are spiritual practices and burial traditions.

“Often we have to resist the desire to think of folklore as meaning only rural people or only from a certain period of time,” Lanier said. “Well, it can include hip-hop artists, executives who work for Fortune 500 companies, academics, history buffs….we all have cultural expressions. It’s an expansive, multi-disciplinary field.”

Lanier said that her degree in folklore has allowed her to become a curator, a filmmaker, and write articles, essays, and poetry.

“I have leaned into the wide open spaces of folklore,” she remarked.

She spoke of a “sacred trust” built within families who identify those relatives with whom they will share the folklore to pass down to the next generation.

“Sometimes that can be overwhelming because you are confronting narratives about your own family that are hard, painful, and confusing,” Lanier said. “Then there are narratives that are funny as well as beautiful beyond belief.”

She referenced Bertie County as a place of rich and meaningful folklore, where many cultures come together: African-American, European, and Native American.

Lanier suggested that people need to look more deeply within narratives they may already know.

“I have heard many stop the Harriet Jacobs story at her hiding place, despite that she went on to Philadelphia, Virginia, and Savannah (Georgia), New York and England,” Lanier said of the famous abolitionist and freedom fighter who was born into slavery in nearby Edenton. “She later fought for women’s rights to vote. That story of her larger life is often lost in the horror of hiding in a space so tiny that she could not stand.”

She shared other under-told stories, such as Ruby Apple, born in 1914 in Caswell County. As a child who had dropped out of school, she worked for a white family. Ruby was so short that she had to use a stool to reach the kitchen counter where she rolled out the dough to make bread.

Another story involved a slave in Halifax County, who ran away from her master in 1808. While on the run, Patsy Young (the name she took) cooked for those working to build a river canal and was an excellent seamstress and beer brewer. She married a free man of color in Plymouth before a newspaper advertisement in 1824 listed her and her child as runaway slaves. Rewards were offered for their capture.

Lanier talked briefly about the jail in Edenton, which opened in 1825, where captured slaves may have been held until they were sold.

“There are many, many stories such as this that have not been told. We need to go from naming into knowing,” Lanier closed.

Bertie County native Dr. Ben Speller, a retired professor and dean of the School of Library and Information Sciences at North Carolina Central University, presided over the lecture. He serves as the chair of Hope Planation’s African American History Committee, which has been responsible for staging these Black History Month programs each February since 1993.

“Folklore gives you an appreciation of different cultures and how they are aligned,” Speller remarked at the outset of the program. “Most human groups are not as different in characteristics are we try to make it. It’s just that we’re coming at the same thing in different ways.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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