Cook Center Students visit Historic Stagville Plantation

Durham, NC – On Wednesday, February 7, students from the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity’s History of Inequality course—part of the Center’s Inequality Studies minor—traveled to North Durham for a tour of the former Stagville Plantation, once one of the largest plantations in North Carolina. This trip, led by instructor Will Damron, a postdoctoral associate at the Cook Center, illuminated for students the historical roots of racial and economic disparities and showcased the legacies of slavery that shape modern society.

Now preserved by the state, Historic Stagville stands as a monument to the lives of more than 900 enslaved individuals who resided across its 30,000 acres. The tour, led by Historic Interpreter Bill Bryant, invited students to learn about the realities of slavery, examine the specific developments (and absent developments) of the post-Civil War Reconstruction, and connect those periods to inequalities that persist today.

During the tour, Bryant centered the stories of the enslaved people of Stagville and "their lives, their labor, their culture, and their resistance.” He recounted the stories of Emma and Dempsey Henderson, who were enslaved on the plantation and later became some of the first Black landowners in North Carolina, as well as the resistance of Mary Walker, who escaped north to freedom but then spent seventeen years trying to free her family from Stagville. Walker’s struggle, Bryant emphasized, was a reflection of why the slaveholders encouraged families and child-rearing among the slaves: the presence of family members on the plantation complicated, and often delayed, their pursuit of freedom.

A significant portion of the tour focused on Horton Grove. Built in 1851 in response to a malaria outbreak, Horton Grove was a “showpiece” construction that the owners of Stagville, the Bennehan-Cameron family, used both to demonstrate their wealth and to peddle the notion that housing conditions for slaves were humane. Even in these larger houses, though, the buildings were cramped: Four families resided in each building, with an entire family living in each room. (Bryant noted that, in order to have enough room to give tours, the recreated dwellings have a “fake sense of space.”)

 

At Horton Grove, students view fingerprints of the formerly enslaved on bricks set 173 years ago, as well as what is believed to be a child's footprint, positioned at head height.
At Horton Grove, students view fingerprints of the formerly enslaved on bricks set 173 years ago, as well as what is believed to be a child's footprint, positioned at head height.

Bryant also explained how the strategic decisions of plantation owners sometimes led to surprising living conditions. In particular, the provision of basic needs like fresh produce and poultry to enslaved workers was not a reflection of the slaveowners’ generosity. Rather, it was a calculated measure to enhance productivity by maintaining a healthy workforce. “The enslavers made decisions based on what would be the most profitable for the plantation enterprise,” said Bryant, detailing the economic incentives that can underpin and justify systems of oppression.

The trip also delved into challenges following emancipation, such as sharecropping. The unfair contracts that the newly-freed sharecroppers were forced to sign closely mimicked the realities of slavery, continuing the racial economic disparities that still persist today.

 

At Horton Grove, a look inside the longstanding barn built by the formerly enslaved.
At Horton Grove, a look inside the longstanding barn built by the formerly enslaved.

Bryant’s tour concluded in the one of the barns of the former plantation, an enduring structure that continues to highlight the importance of remembering and honoring the enslaved persons who built and sustained these plantations. “Barns usually don’t last this long,” Bryant said. “This not only stands to emphasize craftsmanship, but it stands as a testament to those who were here.”

The decision to take the students on the tour was largely driven by the chance to engage with the situational learning of Historic Stagville. “Visiting Stagville provided our students with a profound opportunity to delve into the heart of American inequality, concentrating on the lives of those who were enslaved and labored in Durham. The opportunity to see the spaces in which enslaved people and sharecroppers lived and worked helped contextualize the primary and secondary sources we have studied in class,” said instructor Damron.

“It was an invaluable journey into the past, enabling a deeper understanding and appreciation of the complex layers of history that have shaped our present,” Damron continued. “This experience, made possible by the generosity of the Hart family and the Descendants Council, highlights the vital role of community engagement in academic exploration. It is a compelling example of how immersive educational experiences can illuminate the intricacies of inequality, inspiring students and educators alike to contribute to a more equitable society.”

To read more about the Inequality Studies minor, please view the Cook Center’s website here.

You can learn more about Stagville Plantation and the Historic Stagville site here.