Recently, I participated in the Community Campus Partnerships for Health Summer Intensive in Durham, North Carolina. The program was called Structural Inequities: An On The Ground View. A group of about 50 people from across the country convened at North Carolina Central University, a historically Black university. The seeds of the recent horrific events in Charlottesville Virginia were planted centuries ago, and can be found in places like Historic Stagville, a plantation we visited as part of this program. CHNA 17 is committed to uprooting these inequities that are embedded into our culture and the very fabric of our country.
Historic Stagville is perhaps 15-20 minutes from downtown Durham. It is what’s left of one of the largest plantations in the pre-civil war south. By 1860, it was almost 30,000 acres and included nearly 900 enslaved people. On the bus ride over, we drove through vastly different neighborhoods, some extremely poor and under-resourced, and others much more upscale. These poor neighborhoods are just one of the living legacies of structural racism as it was imposed in 1860 and continues to play out today.
The tour began at a site where a house for several enslaved people had once been located. The only remaining sign that the house existed were the stones laid out as the foundation. We learned it was a small house, and poorly made. It was located strategically downhill from the plantation owner’s house, done so the slave holder could look down upon the enslaved individuals, and reinforce a sense of dominance. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments for me was hearing the names of the first two people who were enslaved at the location, Phoebe and Ned. They had 3 children. Hundreds followed. Contrary to what is often taught about slavery, I learned that the enslaved people were highly skilled as blacksmith, woodworkers, and seamstresses. And despite the belief that most were illiterate, many learned to read. They had to in order to deliver goods across the region and keep records.
The picture here shows the imprint of a child’s foot in a brick that a was made at the plantation. The child probably ran across the brick and the brickmaker might have been too tired to smooth it out, or perhaps did not notice the footprint. The brick is part of a larger, much nicer structure that was built later on to house enslaved people. There are two theories about why the nicer houses were built. One is that contagion was a problem and the owners wanted to keep people alive and healthy enough to work. The other is that times and sentiments were changing and there was a growing movement against slavery. These houses were a way for the plantation owner to show how well he treated the enslaved. The houses were located very close to the main road.
I will be doing a lunch and learn on August 23 from 12-1pm (most likely in Arlington or Somerville) to share some of what I learned from the Summer Intensive. The intensive also included a presentation by the Racial Equity Institute, tools of the Community-Based Participatory Research approach, and a look at communities in partnership. Please register here , and be sure to bring your lunch! As we sat together after touring the plantation, the following poem was read aloud. I’ll leave you with this…Won’t you celebrate with me
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.