Today we welcome a guest post from Tiya Miles, author of The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story. Last weekend she attended a gathering to celebrate the historic plantation home and held a signing event for her new book. Over the course of her day, past and present were juxtaposed in an experience that truly gave life to history.
Each July at around the time of its anniversary as a restored state historic site, the Chief Vann House, the original early 1800s plantation home of the Cherokee leader James Vann, celebrates Vann House Days. This year, despite low morale in the aftermath of state budget cuts that drastically reduced staff numbers and operating hours at historic sites, the event drew a full-house crowd of people with wide-ranging interests.
The 19th century historical re-enactors are a familiar sight at the annual event. They attend in large numbers and camp on the rolling rear plantation grounds, displaying their antique guns and blacksmithing and soapmaking skills in period dress. This summer the young daughter of one of the re-enactors had set up a tent labeled Vann’s Tavern, from which she was selling homemade lemonade. Since the temperature reached 97 degrees and the air conditioner of the site’s museum petered out from the pressure, she did a brisk business.
Two special events were scheduled for the morning. The Society of Colonial Dames of America Keetoowah Chapter was dedicating a granite marker for the site at 10am, and I was scheduled to sign copies of my new book, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, at 11am. I wondered who among these historical re-enactors and colonial society women would have interest in my book, which was about the power-laden interrelations among Cherokees, blacks, and white missionaries in the context of American colonialism and expanding chattel slavery. I wondered how many of these white celebrants of the site would trust the account of a scholar who appeared different from them in so many ways—racially, regionally, perhaps politically. I had been told that my book signing would take place in the formal dining room of the Vann home. I expected a thin crowd.
The Colonial Dames were up first. In their long white gloves and pastel skirts, they conducted a formal ceremony. There was prayer, a speech, the recitation of the 23rd Psalm, and the performance of the song “Home Sweet Home.” The keynote speaker, a descendant of the well-known 19th-century Cherokee Hicks family, gave a moving speech that urged listeners to recognize: “We are standing on beautiful history.” The Vann family, she said, might have had a picnic under the very spruce tree that was shading us in that moment.
The speaker, who expressed herself with great and infectious feeling, repeated some of the notions that were familiar refrains at this site. She described the violent slaveholder James Vann as a praiseworthy man who brought missionaries to his people, and she lamented his murder in 1809 as a tragedy. She expressed gratitude that the missionaries had come to the Cherokees, making them the “educated and civilized tribe that [they] are today.” But to my surprise, as someone who had visited the site for years and lamented the invisibility of black people’s experience there, the speaker also told the crowd to remember all who had walked those grounds: “slaves, Indians, and Moravian missionaries.”
The Dames unveiled their marker and placed a wreath beside it. The inscription read: “Home of the Cherokee Chiefs James and Joseph Vann. On these surrounding acres Cherokees and Moravians as well as enslaved and free laborers toiled together. We honor the memory of these people.” A member of the Friends of the Vann House association tapped my shoulder. People were beginning to line up in the dining room, he said.
It turned out that residents of nearby Georgia and Tennessee towns had read about the book in the local newspaper and had come to learn more about the Vann plantation, known in the 1800s as Diamond Hill.
“Is this the whole story, about everybody who was here?” an older white man with a thick southern accent asked me, “Because I want the whole story.”
Colonial Dames members and Vann House donors were also eager to read the book. Locals bought copies for their grandchildren. A couple bought the book to celebrate the husband’s 71st birthday. A white haired historical re-enactor came into the dining room’s side door to offer me cool slices of cantaloupe. But even more surprising and gratifying than this warm reception was the presence of descendants of the Vann plantation family.
For three years Vann family members had been planning a reunion to be held in Atlanta and at the Vann House site. I had received an email from them out of the blue because of my previous research on the Cherokee Shoeboots family. What I did not realize–and what Vann House staff members who had also been contacted did not know–was that these were not the same Vanns who had held reunions at the site semi-regularly up until around 1999. This was a different branch of the Vann family: descendants of black Vanns whose ancestors might have been slaves on this plantation.
Seeing these Vann family members walk through the house and across the grounds where I had scarcely seen black people before felt miraculous. Vann children with cornrowed hair were playing on the grounds, walking between the brick house and log cabins and corn stalks. I was sure that the Vann House site had not seen so many people of African descent since the Civil War.
Lorraine “Rainey” Taylor, the organizer of the reunion, had invited me to come down to the Marriott Hotel in Atlanta to speak at the reunion banquet that evening. Stalwart Vann House staff member Chase Parker and former staff member Julia Autry, who had developed the site’s new exhibit on African American history, volunteered to accompany me on the one-and-a-half-hour drive. We passed by Confederate flags hanging from people’s porches on the two-lane highway that started our journey, but we also glimpsed a rainbow through the mist of a brief summer shower.
At the banquet where black Vann descendants had gathered, a man named James “Toot” Vann Jr. described his experience of going to the site earlier that day. “I had never known about that history. I cried,” he said. “I will never forget it.”
After Mr. Vann shared his reminiscences and I spoke about Diamond Hill history, the Vann family celebrated with dance. Julia Autry leaned over to me and whispered. “It’s them. They’re here.” She was thinking about all of the slaves on the Vann plantation whose names and lives we had so carefully researched for my book and the new black history exhibit. And we did feel, as we sat in the banquet hall with the Vanns, that the past was in the present that night.
Tiya Miles is associate professor of history, American culture, Afro-American studies, and Native American studies at the University of Michigan. Her first book, Ties That Bind: The Story of An Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, won the Organization of American Historians’ Turner Prize and the American Studies Association’s Romero Prize.