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Historic Stagville: This Place Matters

The largest plantation in North Carolina stretched for 30,000 acres across the boundaries of present-day Orange, Durham, Wake, and Granville counties. Established in 1787, more than nine hundred enslaved people lived and worked on the plantation by 1860.

Today, the remains of the plantation cover 175 acres in northern Durham County amid a forest of slender trees, which during the plantation’s zenith would have been exposed fields of tobacco, wheat, corn, and potatoes. The preserved site, Historic Stagville, has the only surviving two-story slave cabins in North Carolina, and focuses on the lives of the thousands of enslaved individuals who lived here over the course of the plantation’s history.

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“The Great Barn” was constructed by enslaved people at Stagville in the summer of 1860.

Plan for All organized an early November trip to Stagville for a group of Department of City And Regional Planning students. Plan for All is a student group dedicated to making planning more inclusive. A newcomer to North Carolina, I participated in the trip to learn more about the state’s history. On our minds were questions such as:

  • What is the importance of this site?
  • What is the value of preserving and visiting such a site, particularly from a planning perspective?
  • How can its buildings help us to understand the past, and what role do they play in shaping the future?

As a profession, planning has not always recognized or prioritized the importance of places occupied by the disenfranchised. Our history is full of painful actions that disrupted places – preventing people from living in certain neighborhoods, destroying communities through urban renewal, and creating a built environment that is bad for our health and the environment. We have a lot to learn from our history.

Much of the land surrounding the Historic Stagville site, which previously belonged to the Cameron-Bennehan family, has been sold, incorporated into new towns, and slowly redeveloped (we passed a pharmaceutical building and a few secluded office parks on our drive to the site). The houses at Horton Grove remain as part of Historic Stagville, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1970s. The houses in Horton Grove are the only two-story slave cabins still standing in North Carolina. Built in 1850, they depart from the typical slave cabins of the time.

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A two story slave cabin at Horton Grove, which enslaved people constructed between 1851 and 1860.

The circumstances of their construction adds depth to our understanding of Horton Grove: they are unusual for slave houses, both in the construction material and stature. What was the landowner’s motivation for having these structures built? There are two theories: one, that recent outbreaks of disease compelled the construction of better and more sanitary living conditions. The second is that these were “showpieces” intended to defend the institution of slavery and impress (or appease) visitors to the plantation.

Under much different circumstances, motivations of appeasement and keeping up appearances still plague planning and design today. City beautification programs, debates about affordable housing, and NIMBYism represent our ongoing societal struggles with place: who it is meant for, who benefits from it and gets to use it, and who has control over it.

The buildings in Horton Grove were continuously occupied nearly a century after emancipation by formerly enslaved people and their descendants. Its application for the National Register of Historic Places noted it as a residence until the 1970s, despite a large migration from the community to Durham that occurred in the 1930s–possibly due to the Great Depression, agricultural decline, and new farm ownership resulting in changing working conditions. The decision to continue living in slave quarters might have been unimaginably complex for the freed people. The opportunities for resettlement in nearby Durham and the options for work as a freed black person in the South must have played a role. So too must the uncertainty of finding separated family members and remaining where there was shared history. While a few families are known through the historical record (such as the Hart and Holman families) and genealogical research, we unfortunately do not definitively know about their decisions to stay or leave.

Because these structures have been preserved, Horton Grove brings these big questions into the present day. What do we really know about our places? How does the history of a building shape our understanding of history, and whose story gets to be told (and by whom)? What do buildings constructed today say about power dynamics and motivations of those involved? What makes a place important, worth preserving, and why? How can buildings help us to understand the past, and what role do they play in shaping the future?

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A kitchen outbuilding behind the Horton Home.

Historic Stagville tells this story of buildings and the history of enslaved people prominently, in contrast to many other preserved and historic plantation sites around the nation. A sign in the visitor’s center attests to why these places, and the places of enslaved people in particular, deserve to be preserved, and the significance of witness:

Still standing: why slave dwellings matter. Enslaved workers built the United States from before the founding of the nation to emancipation, but many of the places they called home are now gone. Some still stand. From coast to coast, in every shape and size, these structures bore witness to the lives of enslaved people. What stories can these buildings tell us today?

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A poster inside of the Stagville State Historical Site Welcome Center. Photo: Brian Vaughn

Credit to all photos unless otherwise noted: Karla Jimenez 

About the author: 
Katy Lang is a Masters student in the Department of City & Regional Planning specializing in transportation and land use. She spent seven years in the Washington, DC area and as a result, she has a love-love relationship with DC’s Metrorail and all things urban. She is passionate about pedestrian safety and the pedestrian’s right to the city and the street. Prior to coming to UNC, Katy worked in change management. She likes long runs on Carrboro’s short bike trails and eating popcorn.