Research in the South: The Unavoidable RealitiesOn May 16, 2014 Southern Genealogy 15 Comments Tags: Cheri Hudson Passey, Family History, Genealogy, Our Stories, Southern Genealogy, the NextGen Genealogy Network
Recently, I had the privilege of being able to visit the plantation that once belonged to my ancestors. Built in 1792, the site has had a succession of owners.
My 4th great-grandfather, William Smith, bought Springbank Plantation, located in Williamsburg County, South Carolina, in 1807 [i]. His son Henry, my third-great-grandfather, inherited it after his father’s death. The plantation is no longer in the family. Today it is owned by an Ecumenical Trust and is used as a spiritual retreat run by a group of Nuns.
Walking the property where my ancestors once walked was an incredible experience. Original structures still remain, along with those that have been modernized. There are massive Live Oaks that have survived the test of time and have been a part of the land for many hundreds of years. Partial remains of a log cabin and stables still exist as well as a brick wall that seems to have separated the main house from the fields below.
Although the plantation house burned in 1947, an attempt was made to rebuild it to its original beauty. Sitting on the porch with the long white columns, looking down the tree lined avenue with its Live Oaks and Magnolias, I felt a closeness with my ancestors, and wondered about their lives here, and what it would have been like to live in this beautiful place.
A different side of Springbank is found further into the property. A walk back to just before the start of the swamplands is a cemetery: a slave cemetery.
Yes, my ancestors owned slaves. I knew that before I arrived, but standing on this sacred ground, I could only imagine the lives that had been worn out serving the owners of Springbank Plantation. If the graves were ever marked, there are no signs of it now. Crosses have been placed over the years by the Nuns as they have tried to determine from the sunken areas of the ground where burial places may be.
There are a few graves with stones from the 1930s belonging to those who died in their 80s. Perhaps they had chosen to stay on after emancipation.
As I stood there, I thought about these men, women and children who are all but forgotten. I wondered how they had been treated. Had they been fed and housed well or were they mistreated and beaten? Was this land as tranquil and peaceful as it seemed now, or would the trees tell horror stories if they could talk? As a Southerner, you hear stories of “good” and “bad” owners. How I hope mine were “good.”
The reality is, they owned slaves. Human beings forced into labor and deprived of any rights. There was no “good” in that.
The reality is, when you do research in the South you are most likely going to find a slave owner among your ancestors. -Surprisingly, even the poorest of people may have owned a slave or two.
So how do we deal with it? That’s a hard question. Looking at the generations that have gone before and trying not to judge them for the culture and time period that affected their lives helps but does not excuse.
Honesty about my heritage and those who went before me is important. Too many seem to try to hide, brush aside, or sugarcoat the facts, whether it is slavery or another issue. Some are embarrassed or are ashamed. In the end, history is history, facts are facts. Our families are what they are and we need to acknowledge the good and the bad.
Before leaving, the Nuns gave me some information that had been gathered about the succession of owners and a little history of Springbank. Included was a paper entitled “List of Slaves of Henry J. Smith.” No source information was given as to where the list came from or who had transcribed it.
On the list it is amazing to see not only names, but birth dates and some death dates. Further down the page is a list of children born to slave mothers with their birth and death dates. No fathers’ names are given, but fifteen different family groups of mothers with their children are listed. The dates range from the late 1700′s to the early 1900′s.
Looking at these names made it even more real. What if anything could be done on behalf of all these names by the descendants of the Smith family?
There are ways we can help. The cemetery needs cleaning, and the graves need to be foundand marked. The names, dates and relationships of those in the slave list need to be transcribed and placed where those connected can find them. My vision is to enlist the help of not only my children in this effort, but other descendants as well.
Will this make up for the wrongs that were done to these people? Absolutely not. It may, however, be a profound teaching moment that will bring our history to life and preserve the memory of those who also lived at Springbank Plantation.
Cheri Hudson Passey has been researching her family and helping others get started with their own research since the early 1980’s. Born in Camden, SC, the majority of her lines come from many counties in SC, including, Aiken, Berkeley, Clarendon, Darlington, Edgefield, Florence, Georgetown, Kershaw, Lee, Richland, Sumter, and Williamsburg. A line also comes from Iredell County, NC. Truly a “Carolina Girl” for many generations! A love of History and Genealogy has grown into collecting not only names, dates, and places, but family pictures, stories, and ephemera as well. Her mother calls her “The Keeper of All Things”. Cheri is a member of the National Genealogical Society, Association of Professional Genealogists, The NextGen Genealogy Network, South Carolina Historical Society, South Carolina Genealogical Society, several SC County Genealogy Societies as well as her local Grand Strand Genealogy Club. She is also active in the Genealogy Community via several social media platforms including Facebook, Google +, Genealogists in Second Life, and Twitter. Her Blog “Carolina Girl Genealogy” has been instrumental in connecting with and sharing information about her family and the research process.
[i] 1) Williamsburg, South Carolina, Deed Book A: page 3, 67 & 68, SC State Archives.