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Research in the South: The Unavoidable Realities

16 Southern Genealogy 16 Comments

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.

Springbank Plantation, (c) Cheri Hudson Passey

Springbank Plantation, (c) Cheri Hudson Passey

My 4th great-grandfather, William Smithbought 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.

Slave Cemetery at Springbank Plantation (c) Cheri Hudson Passey

Slave Cemetery at Springbank Plantation (c) Cheri Hudson Passey

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

Cheri Hudson Passey

Cheri Hudson Passey

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.


  1. Cheri Hudson Passey, thank you for the work that you are doing. I was born and raised in Williamsburg County. As a youth, I visited Springbank many times however I do not recall the term plantation ever being attached. I would certainly like to know more about your work. Please visit my website at http://www.slavedwellingproject.org

    •  Thank you for your comments and interest in Springbank. I am familiar with The Slave Dwelling Project and will contact you on your web site 

  2. Honesty about this part of the family’s past can be difficult for some to accept – an elder who encouraged me to do family history was adamant that our ancestors had never owned slaves (even though the 1850 and 1860 censuses, basic research sources, proved otherwise).

    I know this is becoming more accepted in the South – an ancestral church, where I was taken frequently to visit my grandmother’s family plots, is now known to have a slave cemetery on the other side of the church from the white cemetery (i.e., “behind” the church).
    http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/10685991/

  3. The “Black Heritage Community Cemetery” (which is owned by Fair Promise A.M.E. Zion Chur ch, First Calvary Missionary Baptist Church and Blandonia
    Presbyterian Church) was landlocked by Buffalo Presbyterian Church cemetery, which granted an easement when cemetery restoration began.

    More information at their website:
    http://www.savemycemetery.com/BHC-Cemetery-Restoration.html

    •  It is surprising to me just how many of my ancestors owned slave. Even those who were poor. We need to acknowledge the past truthfully and get the information out to those who need it so badly. 
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting on the post.and also for sharing your experience with this topic.

  4. Thank you for your article! It is so important that such estates are acknowledge for what they were and that those who toiled are seen as much a part of the estate as the occupants of “the big house.”

    Please publish the names of those who were enslaved. These are the Names that we continually seek and often have no idea where to find them!

    Again, thank you for your article!

    • Angela, I am planning on publishing the names and also giving a copy to the Williamsburg County Archives as well as the SC Historical Society.  I wish I knew who transcribed the original document and where it is today.  
      Thank you so much for your comments. 

  5. Thanking you in advance for publishing the names of the slaves. Someone is or will be looking for this information, which will be helpful to learning more about their family. I hope others will be encouraged to fully share their family history.

    •  Thank you for reading and commenting on the post. I hope that the list will enable someone to connect with their family.

  6. James Chandler - May 16, 2014

    Cheri, check for wills and probate records. They normally listed slave names in probate records to settle estates. Thank you for the idea to list and provide to Historical organizations. Some of my Virginia families also owned slaves. I would like to one day visit Rappahannock County, Virginia and talk to the families that share my maternal mother’s ancestors name. It would be interesting to see if any stories were passed down to them. I am hoping, as you mentioned, that all stories, if any, would be good and not how badly they were treated. Slavery is terrible and you never want to hear of punishment and terror also to any person. My ancestors in Virginia did fight in the CSA and great grand uncles living in Ohio fought for the Union Forces.

  7. “Our families are what they are and we need to acknowledge the good and the bad.”

    I just wanted to be sure you are aware of the blog BitterSweet. The bi-racial working group consists of folks who know about their personal and family historical connections to enslavement … as descendants of enslaved people and of slaveholders. We engage with those who are looking for their connection to slavery, and are set up to host guest bloggers. Your observations would be welcome there.

  8.   Follow up-
     I have added the names from the Slave Cemetery and those from the Slave List in an new  blog post.
     Here is the link:

     http://carolinagirlgenealogy.blogspot.com/2014/05/passing-it-onspringbank-cemetery-and.html

     I truly hope that someone will be able to connect with their family!
    ~Cheri

  9. Priscilla - August 9, 2014

    Hi Cheri,

    I believe my great grandfather is buried at spring bank. I have oral history of my slave ancestors journey from north africa (egypt) to virginia and then to SC with the Smith family. I would love to get a list of slaves born at spring bank. I think i may have came close to finding my great grandfather’s mother who was listed as a wench and was given to a smith when he married the previous owners daughter. That followed the path of the oral history of some of my african american relatives of smith originally coming out of Sumpter SC under a different surname

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