By Lisa Shrewsberry
It’s what AmeriCorps member Megan Ramsey does that makes her unable to imagine doing anything else — digging through time in search of yesterdays and educating today’s generations with museum exhibits.
This month, Ramsey’s project promoting heritage tourism was to coordinate a collection representing the rich black history of Greenbrier County for the Greenbrier Historical Society and the North House Museum. She researched the origins of the precious few existing relics to highlight the contributions of the area’s early black citizens in an exhibit, “Opportunity to Honor,” open now through March 9. The lives she was able to visualize were of men and women, and their talent, courage, constancy and conviction.
“Records of black slaves were kept differently. It wasn’t before the 1850s that white slaveowners were required to report anything about their slaves. The only records that exist for some are from their being sold and transferred in wills.”
According to Ramsey’s research, the 1826 Lewisburg census showed only 149 slaves and five free persons of color on record for the area. Property tax records dated a year later in 1827 showed 615 slaves for the entire county. In the 1860 county census, ownership had grown to 1,525 slaves and 186 free persons of color were counted. The North House, now a museum and home to the Greenbrier Historical Society, was one such place where persons of color were kept closer in their daily interactions with their white owners, noted Ramsey, more so than slaves sequestered to the fields.
“The North House didn’t have separate servant staircases, so the slaves kept here would’ve had closer association with the family,” she explained.
Slave labor was responsible for the construction of the North House in 1820, belonging to Clerk of the Greenbrier District Court of Chancery John North, and built from bricks made from clay unearthed in the front yard.
A yellowed manifest of North property details slaves as currency, showing one who assessed at a value of $950 in 1857. “In today’s dollars, that would be around $23,000,” Ramsey stated.
The Norths owned 12 slaves, among them was Laura Skyles Holmes. According to a 1958 article celebrating her 100th birthday, she became a revered community member in her town of White Sulphur Springs. In her youth, she had remained at “Elmhurst” in what is today the town of Caldwell as a servant to Isabelle Caldwell, the only North daughter to have children.
Aunt Laura, as she came to be known, was a small child when she was bequeathed as property to North’s descendants. She was a personal maid to the family until freed in 1861, after which she married a Pullman porter who ran between trains going from White Sulphur to Staunton, Va., and back. As she told it, theirs was a jubilant ceremony blessed by the North family in a cabin below Elmhurst.
A portrait of Elmhurst identifies the Caldwells, but not their servants. According to Ramsey, there’s a good chance the black woman holding the white infant was Skyles Holmes.
Each exhibit reveals a person who persevered during a troubled epoch. A gun, itself the size of a formidable mantle, is on exhibit and believed to be owned by Dick Pointer, a slave regarded as a hero for his brave defense of Fort Donnally during a Shawnee attack in 1778. The weapon carries a tale of being loaded by Pointer for defense with anything that could act as projectile, including nails. Legend holds a single shot fired by aptly named and steady aimed Pointer fell four of his attackers.
A story of double treachery whispers from a panel inside the North House museum, detailing the crumbling of a slave-organized revolt rumored to be as potentially significant as John Brown’s abolitionist raid on Harper’s Ferry, had it been successfully carried out. Surprisingly, it was a slave named Jordan who upended the plan by revealing it to the authorities. The rumor is the betrayer had a falling out with the leader of the rebellion, a man named Reuben, who was eventually executed for conspiring to rebel.
The influence of slave Frank Page reached 16 hands high when working at Johnston Farm in Blue Sulphur Springs. There, he was highly regarded for his ability to break colts, and it was where he first encountered Jeff Davis. Jeff Davis was a horse born on the farm which Page then dutifully and skillfully trained, possibly using the same wooden saddle now on exhibit at the North House museum. The saddle, illustrated Ramsey, would have been lashed with weights to sharpen the steed’s agility and responsiveness to a rider. Renamed “Traveller” by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the colt born as Jeff Davis and readied by Page became one of the most famous horses in history.
Stories of slave against slavery, slave against slave, those fighting elbow-to-elbow with their enslavers and of humanity’s personal and corporate emancipation, all echo through the antique halls of North House.
“It’s a common misconception that the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves,” Ramsey clarified. “But the Emancipation Proclamation only targeted states in rebellion, freeing a significantly small portion of them. It wasn’t until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that slavery was outlawed. The 13th Amendment had a much larger, more dramatic impact.”
Ramsey hopes continued interest in the exhibit containing her research will keep it open longer than planned. She anticipates doing more research into the black history of Greenbrier County until her departure in the fall.
AmeriCorps Appalachian Forest Heritage Area (AFHA) is a regional initiative to promote heritage tourism and education based on forest heritage. The AFHA AmeriCorps members work on a variety of community projects relating to heritage development, conservation and historic preservation. For more information, visit www.appalachianforest.us.
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