Monday, August 15, 2011

Saved! (hopefully)

Readers of Mississippi in Africa, and of these notes, may recall that the most prominent surviving landmark of the Southern Gothic saga of Prospect Hill plantation is a monumental old house that’s in a sadly advanced state of disrepair. (

The Prospect Hill house – the second on the site -- was built in Jefferson County, Mississippi in 1854, at the close of a particularly tumultuous period. Two decades before, Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Ross had decreed in his will that his plantation be sold and the money used to pay for his slaves to immigrate to a West African colony known as Liberia. The colony had been set up as a repository for freed slaves by a group called the American Colonization Society, which, oddly enough, was comprised of staunch abolitionists yet funded by slave holders, the two groups having found common ground -- literally -- on the West coast of Africa.

Faced with the prospects of giving up his family land, and freeing the slaves who were the engine of his prosperity, Ross's grandson had balked. With his mother's help, he contested the will, and during a decade of litigation, a slave uprising allegedly aimed at killing him resulted in the burning of the original Prospect Hill house and the death of a young girl, after which the slaves suspected of being behind the uprising were lynched.

In a case of going against historical type, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld Ross’s will in 1845, and about 300 slaves from Prospect Hill and other family plantations immigrated to Mississippi in Africa, as their region of the Liberian freed-slave colony was called. Ross’s grandson managed to regain control of the property (either by buying it outright or receiving it as payment for acting as executor of the estate – the record is unclear), at which point he built the existing house. The Mississippi Colonization Society, which was responsible for the repatriation effort, later erected a monument to Ross in the family cemetery. Curiously, the tombstone at his grandson's grave, nearby, is the only one in the cemetery installed backward, so that as one stands at the foot of the other graves it is possible to read the inscriptions, while his appears blank.

The freed-slave immigrants (including others from scores of plantations across the South) meanwhile built their own Greek Revival houses in Liberia, alluding to the structures they'd built for their former masters, and in some cases subjugated and even enslaved members of the indigenous tribes, which eventually contributed to the nation’s civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s a twisted, and enthralling tale, and the existing Prospect Hill house, in its romantic ruin, serves as a fitting centerpiece.

Unfortunately, the house has been lurching toward doom for decades, which is why a preservation group recently bought it from its absentee owner, hoping to protect the archeological evidence of the site and to find a buyer to restore the house, which, as you can see, will be a major undertaking. In a news release announcing the purchase, Jessica Crawford, Southeast regional director of the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Archaeological Conservancy, said Prospect Hill is worthy of the effort. The house and surrounding grounds represent some of the best physical evidence on this side of the Atlantic of a little-explored facet of American history. Despite the many complications of buying and preserving it, its history made it too hard to pass up, she said.

Photo courtesy Charles Greenlee

The house is a departure from the Conservancy's typical projects, but after telling the Conservancy’s president about the foundations she'd discovered of the vanished slave quarters, and the back yard kitchen, and the nearby slave owners’ and the slaves’ cemeteries, Jessica presented him with a copy of Mississippi in Africa, and a few days later, she recalled, he said, “Let’s go for it.” Due to its volatile mix of slave-owner and slave history, and its broader ramifications regarding the African American diaspora, the site holds clues that likely can be found nowhere else, she said. The idea is to find a buyer to restore the house, and to retain an easement for the archaeological sites.

For those who don’t know Jessica, she is an extremely committed, driven and accomplished archaeologist, and judging from the way she handled the difficult negotiations of the Prospect Hill sale, is also a master of diplomacy. Having observed her wielding a hammer on the rusted roof of the house, and hauling away truckloads of moldy garbage and debris, I can attest that she is, perhaps just as importantly, a hands-on operator. If the house is in fact saved, it will be because of her.

Photo by Jessica Crawford, from the roof of Prospect Hill

I first encountered Jessica last year when I visited Prospect Hill with my friend Chad and saw someone standing high above, on the crumbling widow’s walk. It was a woman I'd never seen before, waving. (At that moment, she also took the photo above -- the tiny figures in the distance are Chad and me.) To even get to the widow’s walk proved to be an adventure; it required scaling a rickety, 15-foot-tall homemade ladder positioned on a rotten porch, passing through a tiny ceiling portal, navigating the attic by stepping from beam to beam, then climbing another ladder onto the rotting platform high atop the roof. Jessica did not own the house, and had no way of knowing if her organization ever would. But the roof needed fixing, so she and Jennifer Baughn, architectural historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (a person of similar commitment, effectiveness and drive) decided to do what they could, themselves. They enlisted the help of others, including, on that day, me, Chad and Mississippi Heritage Trust director David Preziosi. But Jessica and Jennifer did the bulk of the work, and it eventually became clear that Prospect Hill was going to be Jessica's baby.

Soon Jessica was traveling from her home in the Mississippi Delta to Prospect Hill to clean up debris,
mow grass, and probe the nearby gullies and sheds for artifacts and clues. Eventually, she named the sole surviving resident, a peacock abandoned by the last owner, after Isaac Ross, and on each visit took him treats. She also commissioned a consultant to assess the structural integrity of the house. The consultant's conclusion was that despite significant cosmetic damage that would, if left unrepaired, eventually lead to its destruction, Prospect Hill was structurally sound. He also pronounced the roof, with its long, mathematically-engineered free spans, "intelligent." The house was clearly built for the ages, as evidenced by its survival with almost no maintenance for the better part of a century. It deserved better than the ignominious fate of its builder.

Everyone that gathered at Prospect Hill that day felt they had a stake in saving the house, but it was Jessica who ultimately sealed the deal.

As Jessica pointed out, Prospect Hill wasn't merely another remote Greek Revival plantation house in desperate need of a friend. In addition to harboring archaeological and visual clues about life on an early 19th century cotton plantation, Prospect Hill represents something like the “old country” for descendants of the largest group of immigrants to Liberia. Preserving the house and grounds will provide a point of entry to a remarkable archaeological site that could shed light on the repatriation effort, the uprising and fire, and the lives of Prospect Hill’s slaves under two very different masters.

Due to the site’s historical importance and the house’s disrepair, the Mississippi Heritage Trust included Prospect Hill on its 2011 list of the state’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places. After her first visit to the property, Jessica realized it posed both a unique challenge and a unique opportunity for the Conservancy, a nationwide, non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of significant archaeological sites for research and educational purposes. The house, an elaborate, raised cottage of 10 rooms standing on a secluded knoll amid moss-draped trees, “is the point of entry to an amazing, and important episode in American history," as she noted in the Conservancy's news release. "The house, the cemetery and the grounds represent the visible evidence. We’re also excited about what can’t be seen – the clues buried underground.”

Even in its current state, Prospect Hill is hauntingly beautiful. But the structure is running out of time. Jessica said that while the Conservancy doesn't have the means to undertake a full restoration, the group can apply for grants and look for funding that will enable emergency stabilization of key stress points, including the front porch and roof. Meanwhile, the Conservancy will work with the Mississippi Heritage Trust, the Historic Natchez Foundation and the Department of Archives and History to find a buyer to take on a full restoration.

Before Jessica came along, the future for Prospect Hill was undeniably bleak. The Wade family had sold the house in the 1960s due to the expense of upkeep, and the fact that no family members wanted to live there anymore. The man who bought it had promised to restore it, but never did; he subsequently sold it to another man who likewise planned to restore it, but never did, and eventually abandoned it. By the time Jessica arrived on the scene, no one even knew where the current owner lived. Yet she managed to find him, then set about the difficult task of negotiating the sale. No matter what she says, if the house is ultimately saved, it will be because of her. And in the meantime, the surviving archaeological evidence, which offers clues to a crucial, little-known chapter of Mississippi, American and African history, is secure.

The Conservancy is still working out the details of the planned sale, but anyone who is interested should contact Jessica Crawford at 662/326-6465, or by email at, or the Conservancy's Albuquerque office at 505/266-1540.

1 comment:

  1. This is a fascinating and informative series of posts on Prospect Hill, which I've just discovered and am enjoying learning about. Thanks for putting it all together for the rest of us. And be sure to post updates as often as possible!