The Story of Service, Part 7: Somerset Place Plantation

"Service," by Colin QuashieOn July 26, a mural named SERVICE was dedicated at UNC’s School of Government in the Knapp-Sanders Building. The mural depicts a gathering of African-American leaders at the counter of a diner, painted by Colin Quashie as a creative interpretation of the historical 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in. We are featuring each of the eight panels in a series, highlighting some of the people represented. You can read all the posts in the series archive.

The images we see today in panel 7 of the mural draw me back to eastern NC, where I am from.  And each figure comes from, or might have come from, a place very near to a place I have called home.  So, for me, it’s a particularly interesting day of research and discovery.  We start in the background, and work forward through the layers of the painting, to see where they take us.  And, in the background we see the tidy white buildings of Somerset Place.

Somerset Plantation was one of the biggest plantations in North Carolina—the third-largest, to be exact. As the website says, this North Carolina Plantation was established on “100,000 densely wooded, mainly swampy acres bordering the five-by-eight mile Lake Phelps, in present-day Washington County. During its 80 years as an active plantation (1785-1865), hundreds of acres were converted into high yielding fields of rice, corn, oats, wheat, beans, peas, and flax; sophisticated sawmills turned out thousands of feet of lumber. By 1865, Somerset Place was one of the upper South’s largest plantations. . . By the mid-19th century, more than 50 buildings were clustered on the northeast rim of Lake Phelps, serving as the industrial complex and residential community. Included were barns, saw and gristmills, stables, a hospital, an Episcopal chapel, a kitchen complex, and 26 houses for members of the enslaved community. Homes for overseers, tutors, ministers, and the owner’s family—along with a kitchen/laundry, dairy, storehouse, and smoke and salting houses—also stood here.”

In addition to its size and the number of people who lived and worked there over the years, more than 850 slaves, two free blacks, and 50 whites, Somerset is now known for its homecomings.  Since 1986, there have been several Somerset homecomings, where more than 3000 descendants of the slaves have gathered to celebrate the lives of and great sacrifices made by their ancestors.

The organizer of the original homecoming, Dorothy Spruill Redford, wrote about it in her book, Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage.  But it’s a book about much more than that, for the celebration was, in many ways, an unforeseen consequence of her own homecoming and her own search for her identity in the identities of her ancestors who lived and worked at Somerset.  She writes:

“I was here now, at Somerset. I had the names. I had the place. I had to go on, to piece together their existence—as individuals; as a group.

There were no straightforward, firsthand accounts of slave life at Somerset. Only references among the Collinses’ and Pettigrews’ correspondence. Costs of slaves in old ledger books.  Entries of money paid for slave shoes and buttons.

Tiny slivers of reality, mere shavings of the past, disjunctive fragments of time.

I walked to church where my ancestors had sung both before and after they were told they were free. . .I pushed through brambles and sank in mud, hunting for family cemeteries in the woods beyond the plantation, where the emancipated slaves who moved off Somerset after the war buried their dead and I found gravestones that gave me more names, always more names.”

Moving forward in the mural, we find two doctors, one from out east, in Tarrboro, and the other, who lived in Durham.

Milton Quigless (1905-1997) opened, owned, and was the sole physician and surgeon at the Quigless Clinic-Hospital in Tarrboro, NC.  After being denied privileges at the white hospital, and there being no hospital for African Americans, he found a space, purchased and salvaged all the equipment, was the doctor, and dispensed medicine, monitored the staff, paid salaries, and made house-calls.  The number of lives he saved and changed in eastern North Carolina cannot be counted.

Charles Watts (1917-2004), North Carolina’s first African American surgeon, graduated from Morehouse, then Howard.  He founded Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham, which still serves Durham’s poor, and was instrumental in the creation of Durham Regional Hospital, the city’s public hospital system today.  He was medical director at the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, served on numerous national boards, and was a professor of surgery at Duke and director of student health at NC Central University.

To the right of the doctors stands Harriet Jacobs (1813-97). She seems to be walking right into the next panel–toward Dr. King and toward John Hope Franklin–even as she looks forward.

Born in Edenton, just a few minutes from where I was  raised, Jacobs escaped from her owner in her mid-twenties and hid in the cramped attic crawlspace of her grandmother’s house for seven years before making her way north as a fugitive slave.  (I know the street where she hid, remember hearing how tiny that space was—nine feet long, seven feet wide, three feet high.)

In Rochester, New York, she became an active abolitionist, working with all of the major abolitionists, feminists, and literary figures of her day, including Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child, Amy Post, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, William C. Nell, Charlotte Forten Grimké, and Nathan Parker Willis.

Jacobs’s  autobiography–written by her own hand–Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, holds a central place in the canon of American literature as the most important slave narrative by an African American woman.  That is, she is so important both because she was a feminist, abolitionist, and author, and because, unlike so many others who worked for freedom and equality, we know so much about her.

I invite you to read Michelle Lanier’s post on Harriet Jacobs, written on the occasion of the publication of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers.

What we know about Jacobs necessarily makes us think of everyone whose lives we cannot know, like the slaves who worked at Somerset and nearly all of our African American forebears.

Front and center in the panel are an unnamed couple who represent all the slaves whose names we do not know.  Notice that the painter gave this couple a formal place setting and a pair of pink carnations—the flowers of remembrance—to underscore our indebtedness to them.

Note that the man looks directly at the viewer, meeting our gaze, not allowing us simply to watch, but making eye contact with us.  The woman glances back, meeting Jacobs’ gaze.  All this creates a complex web of relation.

Paul Escott writes, in his conclusion to Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth Century Slave Narratives:

“The ability of slaves to defend their humanity under pressure does not suggest that slavery was less than cruel. But is does remind us that the cruelty of bondage consisted of the denial of physical comforts and rewards, the pain of beatings and overwork, and the anguish of subjection to another rather than of mental debasement or destruction. America’s slaves were abused physically, exploited economically, separated at times from their loved ones, denied education and opportunity, and deprived of freedom. Many slaves had to endure lives as beasts of burden, but they did not lose their mental independence.”

Delia Garlic, a former slave, said in her interview, “It’s bad to belong to folks dat own you soul an’ body. I could tell you ‘bout it all day, but even den you wouldn’t guess de awfulness of it.”

But, of course, we must keep guessing at it, keep remembering and researching.  We are confronted by all the figures in this panel who worked for the poor and underserved, and all of whom spent their lives serving others.  They actively challenge us not to forget.

Next week will be our final installment in this series.  Please come back to read about panel 8–Dr. King and Ralph Abernethy.