It never occurred to me. When I made reservations to hold a customer barbecue event at the Archibald Smith Plantation in Roswell, Georgia, I was in full public relations mode. It seemed like the perfect departure from the usual chi-chi cocktail parties and hot hors d’oeuvres and I was excited to see how the sales force and their guests would respond.
It never occurred to me that a routine work project would result in one of the most unexpected and disturbing spiritual experiences of my life.
Hailing as I do from the Chicago suburbs, my image of a plantation had been gleaned from history books and Mark Twain tomes. Through recent research on Ancestry.com I knew my paternal grandparents had migrated to Illinois from Georgia and Tennessee. That they were both descendants of slaves and slave masters was a pretty safe bet. But I was never allowed to get to know that side of myself, so the only family I knew had no historical connection with the South and slavery at all. My frame of reference was no different than any other school child's at the time.
In preparation for the customer event I did my homework and read the history of the place we would visit. The Town of Roswell took its name from Roswell King, a wealthy coastal businessman who in the 1830s encouraged his fellow Presbyterians to move inland with him to establish a mill town along the Chattahoochee River.Archibald Smith and his wife Anne were struggling with two failing plantations along the coast, so in 1838 they answered King's challenge and moved to Roswell with their four children and 30 of their slaves. The house and outbuildings they built on the 300 acres of cotton-producing land they purchased became the Archibald Smith Plantation. Every plank and brick of that place was placed by the hand of a slave, but that didn't occur to me until later. Archibald and Anne Smith (smithplantation.org)
A graphic model of the Smith Plantation shows the relative scale of the mansion versus the outdoor kitchen (with chimney) and the tiny slave quarters.
The "Big House" today
Since way back then, despite a 25-year span during which the place sat totally empty, it never left the possession of the Smith family and its descendants. Every generation kept every piece of the house's furnishings for posterity. When the widow of Archibald Smith Sr.'s grandson Arthur Smith died in 1981, the estate was willed to her niece who four years later sold it to the City of Roswell with two major provisions: The house would become a house museum using all the furniture and artifacts collected by three generations of Smiths; and Ms. Mamie Cotton, a black woman who had worked for the Smith family for 54 years, would be allowed to live in the house until she died.
The big day arrived. When I arrived at the venue about an hour before the guests were expected, I drove up the serpentine driveway and soon saw the snow white house rise from the horizon. Suddenly, I was stunned speechless. It finally occurred to me that I was entering a haunted place that was built -- every last inch of it -- on the backs of enslaved black people.
I started hearing faint whispers. I thought I heard the distant strains of slow, drawling Negro spirituals coming from fields of cotton bolls, dancing like bolts of dotted Swiss fabric used in the white women's dresses.
I shook my head hard to clear the phantom sounds. Instead of Miss Cotton, the curator of the museum answered the door. It very well could have been Mamie Cotton had she not died about two years before that, in 1994.
The special events manager led me through a quick tour of the home. Everywhere I turned there were antiques of obvious great value. The Smiths must have been congenital packrats, because the place was loaded to the rafters with the trappings of the rich. I was starting to feel very strange -- even a little angry.
We exited through the home's back door and descended into the part of the expansive back lawn that led to the separate cook house. This was where the slave women prepared every meal in the sweltering Georgia heat in order to spare the Smiths the stifling discomfort in their airy mansion.
Every footstep I took felt as if I were stepping in a bog, soggy with the sweat, tears and blood of so many before me. My knees literally buckled with the weight of the scenes playing in my head. Over there was a large woman carrying a huge caldron into the cook house. She wore a clean but shabby long-skirted dress, long sleeves and a white bandana on her head. I saw all that but I could also see through her.
I glanced to the right and saw a row of crude shanties. No one had to tell me those were the slaves' quarters. I excused myself and walked trance-like to the entrance of the first hovel.
I could almost see the waves of heat radiating from those thin, uninsulated walls. Gaps between the floorboards revealed bare, dusty earth. The ladder led to what appeared to be a sleeping loft, no wider than a standard twin bed. I saw eight small, transparent children sitting up there with their grimy bare feet swinging off the side. A single tear slid down the side of my nose; I caught it with my tongue.
When I turned to leave I almost tripped over the skirts of my long muslin skirts. I looked down to see a dress like the one the cook was wearing, only mine was slightly nicer. I could see through my hand. I realized that because I am what was called "high-yellow" back then, I would be a house "nigra," someone light-skinned enough to be suitable for work inside with the family, cleaning and serving meals. I also knew I would be at the beck and call of the men of the house, should they be so inclined.
Again I shook my spinning head. Guests were wandering from the house tour out the back door. The tent under which the barbecue would be served by a local restaurant was beginning to fill and I was needed for seating arrangements. The band, which I had searched for weeks to find, was playing music that now sounded to me as if it was straight out of the movie Deliverance. Banjo. Fiddle. Southern.
It was a long, long evening.
Photos from www.archibaldsmithplantation.org