Somerset Homecomings

"Six years of searching and stumbling, and I'd finally landed here, at what felt like the emptiest, loneliest spot in the State of North Carolina." — Dorothy Spruill Redford

At nationally recognized former plantation sites across the South, descendants of slaves are holding family gatherings to acknowledge and honor their enslaved ancestors. This idea was pioneered at Somerset Place in 1986 by its manager, Dorothy Redford.

In 1997, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Virginia hosted its first annual gathering of the descendants of Sally Hemmings and other Jefferson slaves. In 1999, a similar event took place at George Washington's birthplace, Pope's Creek Plantation (Virginia). Some may wonder why descendants convene at former plantations for family gatherings. One man attending the August 31, 1986, Somerset Homecoming—the first major homecoming of slave descendants to occur at any former plantation—summed up the prevailing sentiment.

About midday, this elderly black gentleman walked in a slow and deliberate way through the fourteen rooms of the main house at Somerset Place. Despite the August heat, he was dressed in a full suit, white shirt and tie, and had shining black dress shoes. Sitting squarely atop his head was his white Sunday straw hat. News cameras that caught his entrance were running constantly during this first gathering of blacks at a former plantation. Reporters from across the country had converged on the site to capture for posterity the expressions and feelings of blacks who returned to the very plantation their ancestors had been held on as slaves.

But the distinguished looking gentleman seemed oblivious to the cameras as he moved about the fourteen-room house the plantation's owner once lived in. Turning his head from side to side, then casting his eyes from ceiling to floor, he seemed in search of something unnamed and unrecognized before. Finally, he stood motionless, took a breath and declared, "We did right good work."

What had been unnamed before was pride in the craftsmanship and skill his ancestors brought to the place and left there. What had been unrecognized was his tangible connection or place in the history of America: his inherent and historic value. Regardless of the circumstances under which they labored, the existence of the plantation house symbolized all that his ancestors created and at that moment in time, instantly connected him, in a culturally affirming way, to his past.

The South's structural remains and cleared landscapes, resulting from the honest labors of many, are in fact what connects the vast majority of Americans to the country's history. Perhaps by acknowledging and validating the contributions of any culture or ethnic group, we in fact validate the concept of the value of work by the unheralded masses in the development of the American landscape.

Since the first celebration in 1986, descendants and friends of Somerset Place have gathered at successive homecomings to acknowledge and validate the contributions of the men, women, and children who once lived on the plantation, thereby celebrating the contributions of all who labored in the antebellum South. These subsequent Homecomings were held in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1996, and 2001. Descendents continue to hold private family reunions at Somerset Place to this day.

Adapted from: Somerset News. July 2001 Special Homecoming Issue. Somerset Place Foundation, Inc. Creswell, N.C.