Thursday, March 03, 2005

Return to the Slave Plantation (Part I)

TODAY, I GOT THE BRIGHT IDEA to take a fieldtrip to a slave plantation. I figured I could make it a daytrip - drive a hundred or so miles, spend a couple of hours, and do research for the next poem in my series on a dark-skinned African-American girl named Kenya.

Then, two thoughts occurred to me: Being 30 years old, fairly well-read, and having lived in Georgia all of my life, it was odd that 1) I, myself, had never visited a slave plantation and 2) I didn't even know the name of a slave plantation.

Since I live smack dab in the peachy pit of slavery, as opposed to, say, Minnesota or Hawaii, I figured it should be no problem for me to find a relatively local one to visit. I mean, there's the major slave port in Savannah, horizon after horizon of cotton, and the fact that, in terms of land area, this is the largest state east of the Mississippi River. Surely, between all of this history and square acreage, I should be able to roll out of bed and timewarp to 19th century slave life, right?

Wrong.

Since my own knowledge failed me, the first place I looked was my friendly neighborhood search engine, Google. I searched for 'georgia slave plantations', which gave me over 58,000 entries, page after page on the history of slave plantations in Georgia - no places to visit. Useless.

So next, I added the word 'tourism' to the search and, voi la!, the first thing that popped up was:

Georgia State Parks - Jarrell Plantation Historic Site

My first thought, Never heard of it. But I was excited nonetheless. So, I double-clicked and eagerly read about what would be my chance to view a slave plantation through my character, Kenya's, eyes.




Nestled in the red clay hills of Georgia, this cotton plantation was owned by a single family for more than 140 years. It survived Gen. Sherman's March to the Sea, typhoid fever, Emancipation, Reconstruction, the cotton boll weevil, the advent of steam power and a transition from farming to forestry.

In 1847, John Fitz Jarrell built a simple heart pine house typical of most plantations and made many of the furnishings visitors see today. In 1860, the 600 acre plantation was farmed by 39 slaves....

Now that I'd found one, I wanted to know them all! This led me to the metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce site. I gave them a ring:

"Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, how may I direct your call?"

"I'm interested in visiting a slave plantation, and I was wondering if you could give me any recommendations."

"One moment while I direct your call."

As I was on hold, something troubled me about the exchange. Was I too direct? I felt like I should be phrasing my request with more sensitivity or reverence. I was asking for recommendations on visiting slave plantations, after all - not good places to get pulled pork.

"Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, how may I help you?"

"Yes, I live in Atlanta and I was wondering if you have a list of slave plantations that I could tour within, say, an hour or two of the city."

There, more words, more... reverence?


"Hold one moment while I search for you."

After about 2 minutes on hold, the operator said, "I'm sorry this is taking so long, my system is very slow today."

I must admit that I did not expect this. I expected that the Chamber of Commerce would be swimming in the names of plantations. I figured that it would be like asking about where to find peaches, , where I could find an all-White country club, or where I could find Margaret Mitchell's dead body

Finally, the operator came back. "I'm not finding anything," she said.

"What?" I said, before I knew it.

"Oh, I'm sorry, here we go."

"There's Jarrell Plantation in Juliette, Indian Creek Plantation in Dawsonville... Barksdale Bobwhite Plantation in Cochran..." and, over the course of about 5 minutes, she gave me the names of over 15 plantations. But why the prolonged searching? It seemed like there should be something ready-made - a pamphlet, a brochure. I mean, slavery accounts for over a century of Georgia state history. Or maybe I was just being too particular.

So, next I whittled down the list to sites within 2 hours of Atlanta. Then, I googled each location to whittle a little more. Several of the plantations featured coons and foxes as hunting destinations. After narrowing the list down to 5, I decided to dial up Jarrell Plantation. That would be, back to Square One:

After about 10 rings, a woman lowly answered, "Hellooooo..." I think I woke her up.

"Yes, is this Jarrell Plantation?"

"Yes... it is."

"Yes, well I'm calling because I'd like to visit a slave plantation, and I see on your web-site that you have a museum. I was wondering if you could tell me a little about your... uh, the plantation."

"Well, what would you like to know?"



I would say that this is like pulling teeth. But it just occurred to me that she might not have any.


"Well, I've lived in Georgia all of my life and, today, it occurred to me that I'd never visited a slave plantation. So, I received your name from the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. I'd like to know what I can expect to see if I come visit."

"Oh. Well, we have the master, John Fitz Jarrell's house, which was built in 1847. It is in good condition and... still intact. It also contains several pieces of furniture from the period, which are likewise in good condition and... still intact. Additionally, after John Fitz Jarrell passed, his son, Dick Jarrell built a sawmill, a cotton gin, a barn, and outbuildings which are all... still intact-"

As she rambled on reading what sounded like notes from the website, my mind became rather... not intact. It was wandering. Suddenly I had flashbacks of my 7th grade class trip to the Cyclorama, a panoramic Civil War painting, conspicuously absent of Black people. Which is to say, this trip to a slave plantation was becoming less exciting by the second.

"Where will you be coming from?" I heard a voice say through the phone.

"Atlanta."

"Well, I should probably tell you," she began, "that we don't have any slave cabins."


What?


"Before you get in your car and drive all the way down here, I thought I should tell you-"


A slave plantation with no.... slave cabins? Perhaps I'd been presumptuous, but what good is visiting a slave plantation if you can't observe the life of slaves? This was what I had been looking for and didn't even know it. This was not a wasted call, after all.


"So," I asked, "do you know of any places in Georgia that do have slave cabins?"

"No...."

My heart dropped.

"Well, yes, I- I-... There is one, I think, down near Savannah-"

"Do you know the name of the plantation in Savannah?"

"It's, oh... I can't recall right now, but if you're in Atlanta, you may want to try the Atlanta History Center. I'm sure they should have the name-"


Are you a part of some conspiracy, Mistress of Disinformation?


I can't recall how it ended because I think I started dialing before I even hung the phone up.

13 comments:

Daniel Roop said...

A little over a year ago, when Leigh and I were looking for land to buy around Knoxville, we were scouring every area real estate book we could find. And one day - lo and behold - we found a listing and a photograph for a "genuine slave cabin" on two acres. It actually sat right up against a prominent state highway. It was one of the few moments in my life when I had no idea what my reaction should be. Fascination? Disgust? Still don't know.
Daniel

junior said...

I cant almost tell you with certainty that you won't find a slave plantation in Savannah. Me and my girl went there for Valentine's day and although there are very cool civil war cites (I am sort of a buff)you won't find anything slavery oriented....but you can find solace in the fact that everytime we go to Buckhead to party we are doing so on a plantation...which I believe at one time was owned by blacks

Collin said...

About 10 years ago, I was assigned to do a story on Jarrell Plantation for a magazine. Yawn-o-rama. I hope you didn't waste your time driving down there. To be honest, I've visited a lot of...ummm..."southern heritage sites" in Georgia and have never seen a slave cabin or any clue that slaves were actually on the property. Of course, Jarell does have the saw mill and cotton gin where the slaves were forced to work, but it's a state park/tourist trap/feel good/Dixie whistling kind of place, and they don't want to ruin the bucolic setting with those pesky slaves.

M. Ayodele Heath said...

Collin:

I did not make the mistake of going to Jarrell Plantation, thank God. But the search still continues. One day (hopefully soon), I'll get to posting Part 2. It's just that, right now, I have a deadline looming for my second packet of MFA material.

Anonymous said...

As a descendant of John Fitz Jarrell, I can tell you that the reason there are no slave cabins there is that the plantation became what most plantations became after the Civil War...a family farm - same thing as before, just farmed by former slaves. The cabins weren't needed so they were torn down or allowed to fall down. The family was working hard to survive, why would they put effort into maintaining buildings that were no longer being used? Jarrell plantation is a realistic view of a real plantation - not some sprawling, manicured Tara-like estate, but a medium-sized family-owned farm.

M. Ayodele Heath said...

Thank you, Anonymous, that's the most information I've received to date regarding my difficulty in finding slave cabins to visit in Georgia. It's revelatory.

It once again stresses the importance of each individual taking responsibility to tell/preserve his/her own history. You're correct: Why would a family working hard to survive put effort into maintaining buildings no longer being used?

Of course, they have value today as do concentration camps in Europe. The experience of visiting these no-longer-used facilities has great value for the descendants of those who suffered there.

Your information also stresses the importance of my actually visiting an actual slave cabin and using my gift to report on it in verse. For if the physical buildings don't exist, how else will the memory of those who suffered be kept alive?

Anonymous said...

There is a slave cabin down at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation near Darien, GA. An existing one. I would recommend that you make the trip to visit there sometime when you can stay for a couple days and see the sites around the area. There is Harris Neck Wilderness not far, St. Simons, and of course an African American community that has existed since slave times on Sapelo Island.

I would also suggest to you that the slaves in this state were not only African American. Perhaps you could do some additional research to discover that prior to the Civil War, the Irish and Scotts were used as slaves to cut most of the waterways down through the worst sections of coastal Georgia. There is a wonderful book on the history of coastal Georgia by Buddy Sullivan.

I would not limit my concept of slavery to the African Americans who were brought here and treated inhumanely, every nation and country has been guilty of slavery at some point in history. And Georgia has its history of European slaves long before African slaves were brought here.

TDK said...

But Anonymous, it seems that Mr. Heath is only interested in researching African American slavery specifically for his poem series, "A dark-skinned African-American girl named Kenya." What would be the logic in researching Irish and Scotts slavery for his series? But I am curious now: were the white Irish & Scotts treated as inhumanely as the Africans? And also, did they have laws to keep them in bondage? I'm not being fecitious here; you really have me interested because I have never heard of Irish & Scott slavery in America. Thanks for the info!!! I'm gonna do some research myself. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Yeh, St Simons Island do have a couple of slave cabins, next to the air strip and a slave gravesite. As of 2007, Sapelo Island was down to 76 Original decendants. Pleasant Point on St Simons was once owned by a freed slave, but then we all know the rest of the story.

DellMarie said...

I just came upon this website, while I'm tryin to do alittle reserch of my own. Actual of my husbands family in Camden County, Ga from the 1700's . His family name is 'Holzendorf' now to your surprise and mine 13 yrs ago. The name is German desent as you can tell, and as far as "I" know in the 1700's Germans were 'white' now this is the rub you see, my husbands family, exception of yours truly are blacks. I knew of the name from my hometown of Jacskonville, Fl which we had a black Fl Sen. Betty Holzendorf(spouse 'King') now were talking about 50 miles area Jax. to Camden Co. In 1990 then Sher. Bill Smith used his confiscated drug money to clean-up the 200 yr old Holzendorf Cemitary. Well I read the article and learned that one of the most well-known and maybe imfamous(pun intended) had been in Camden 200 yrs, as decendents from planations owned by the German Holzendorfs who owned 3 slave plantations. After the Civil War it seems the owners left Camden leaving their name to the slaves. There are white Holzendorfs in Glynn Co, I am presumed to be part of. But as far as I can trace in Camden, there is so much history of this family, having the first black school, churchs, ect.My father-in-law told me just today of other lands owned for many years. The largest parcel app. 500 ac. rightful named 'Holzendorf Planation' also with its own name"Holzendorf Lane". There is no plantation, or slave houses there. But I'm still reserching on the history, as I find people who tell me stories. One thing you can visit is the Holzendorf Cem., US Hwy 17, Kingsland, Ga. with markers back to the 1700's. Anyone with family info will be appr.pls reply to " mrsholzendorf@gmail.com"
Thanks for your insights , Dell Holzendorf

NdeyBintu said...

Just last year I went to Charleston SC and went to an actual slave plantation. It was pretty educational and I am glad that I went with two of my white friends and they too had learned something about are American history. I thought that Georgia would have just as many slave plantations pity.

Curtis said...

I found a plantation that has a slave cabin. It is about 5 miles off of I-95. The plantation's name is Grove Point plantation. It is owned by a trucking company. You can drive on the property and you will see the slave cabin first. The main house is further down the road.

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