The Enslaved Community


All plantations relied on the work of enslaved individuals and Somerset Place would be no different.

Labor needs dictated the number, age, gender, and skills of the first workers brought to Somerset. This work force included 167 enslaved men, women, and children. Mostly, they were young, strong men in their late teens and early twenties. Some young women worked beside them in planting and harvesting crops but tasks such as uprooting tree stumps and hauling mud away from the ditches were seen as "men's work."

This initial labor force came from three basic sources. Almost half—including a man named Guinea Jack; his wife, Fanny; a man named Quaminy; and 77 others—were brought to the plantation directly from their homeland in West Africa. Others included 49 people from neighboring counties and states, women like Sucky and Rose, who cooked and washed. The remaining men and women were artisans already in Edenton: a carpenter named Lewis, a brick mason named Joe Welcome, and others who were joiners, cobblers, millers, and weavers.

Only 113 of those 167 survived to be counted in the census of 1790; but within those few years, the swampland at Somerset was transformed into a prosperous plantation.

Living historians portray enslaved life at Somerset PlaceThese enslaved persons were skilled laborers but they were also people with their own traditions. Each man, woman, and child forcibly brought to the plantation had a special identity and culture that could be passed on to future generations.

Guinea Jack, Quaminy, and the other native Africans bore special "day names," indicating the day they were born. Quaminy meant "born on Saturday," and Kofi, or Cuff, meant "born on Friday." Each person also carried a family last name chosen by the father and given to the child during a special naming ceremony attended by the whole village, eight days after birth. These special African last names were eventually lost as the Africans were forced to adopt the last names of their first owners—thus Guinea Jack and Quaminy became Collinses.

Fanny likely brought her love of African foods including rice, black-eyed peas, watermelon, okra, yams, and cucumbers. However, these foods had been brought to America on slave ships long before Fanny arrived.

Quaminy likely made musical instruments, bowls, and dippers from gourds that grew from African seeds. He also adapted and used gourds native to America.

Guinea Jack likely brought spiritual beliefs that involved worshipping elements of the universe humankind could not have created. He also may have had "healing hands," or skills that could make the sick well. And he could have used "May Rain", the practice of collecting May's first rain to wash the eyes and prevent allergies.

In time, these traditions mixed and what had been purely African became part of African American tradition. Some slave descendants still use May Rain. The carpenters, joiners, and masons who built the 14-room mansion where Josiah Collins III lived, as well as the 26 houses in the enslaved community, and the plantation's barns and mills, passed on their skills to their sons. The cooks, spinners, weavers, laundresses, and housemaids passed all they knew to their daughters. And the plowmen and field hands passed on their knowledge about working the land.

The enslaved people had fears, but they also had hopes. Though no one in the enslaved community at Somerset was there voluntarily or was paid, most did not try to leave. Laws passed prior to 1808 allowed Americans to import Africans anLiving historians portray enslaved life at Somerset Placed enslave them on plantations like Somerset Place. Overseers supervised the enslaved and kept them from seeking their freedom. Plus, each county had teams of "patrollers" to catch enslaved persons who tried to escape. If freedom seekers were captured, the law required that "finders" return this "property" to their legal owners. The owners could then issue punishments that might include whipping, putting them in stocks, or selling the freedom seekers.

One enslaved man named Smart tried to escape to freedom but was captured. He was promptly sent to the West Indies and sold. Becky Drew also escaped; when captured, she was put in stocks overnight. The weather turned bitterly cold and Becky's feet froze, necessitating the amputation of both legs.

Some enslaved persons did not try to escape to freedom, but managed to commit other acts of defiance. When captured, their punishment was swift and severe. In 1853, field workers led by Peter and Elsy Littlejohn allegedly tried to poison the overseer at Somerset Place. Sixteen of the accused plotters were taken to the Deep South by a slave trader and sold.

Knowing the potential consequences, most enslaved persons—especially mothers afraid of being sold away from their children—remained captives. Most who did try to escape were almost always caught soon after. Those who remained in bondage simply focused on preparing their children for the freedom they prayed would one day come.

When the Civil War finally ended slavery in 1865, these African American men and women left behind every tangible thing they had created. But they took into freedom their families and the knowledge that their elders had passed on.

Adapted and edited from "The Slave Community at Somerset," Carolina Peacemaker, February 14, 1996, by Dorothy Spruill Redford.