Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Returning to Prospect Hill after 165 years

A very unusual reunion will take place this Saturday at an abandoned plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi – the haunting, seldom seen Greek Revival house known as Prospect Hill.

Coming together for the first time will be descendants of the plantation’s original slave owners; of a group of slaves who escaped into the woods after setting fire to the first house on the site, in 1845; of slaves who remained on the plantation until their emancipation during the Civil War; and of freed slaves who immigrated from the plantation to the freed-slave colony in Liberia in the 1840s. As if that weren’t enough to get the conversation going, also attending will be descendants of mixed-race liaisons between Prospect Hill’s former slave owners and slaves in the early 20th century.

For $20, you can be a fly on the wall.

Most of the descendents have never seen the place, nor met each other. They’re coming together for an event being staged by the New Mexico-based Archaeological Conservancy, which in August bought Prospect Hill to stabilize the house in hopes of finding a buyer to restore and preserve it. The 10-room structure, which was included in the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s 2011 list of the state’s 10 most endangered historic properties, is one of the few surviving landmarks of a pivotal chapter in American and Liberian history, and it is in danger of being lost.

The story behind Prospect Hill, which was the subject of my 2004 nonfiction book Mississippi in Africa, begins in the 1830s, when Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Ross sought to ensure a better life for his slaves after he and his sympathetic daughter Margaret Reed were gone. Ross and Reed stipulated in their wills that the plantation be sold and the money used to pay the way for those of its slaves who chose to immigrate to a freed-slave colony established for the purpose by a group known as the American Colonization Society. Their destination: A part of the Liberian colony known as Mississippi in Africa.

Ross and Reed no doubt knew their plan would be controversial, but they could not have known how sweeping the impacts would be. Ultimately, they unwittingly set the stage for a tumultuous court battle over the estate, filed by Ross’s grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, and for the divergence, in the 1840s, of the paths of each of the groups that will be represented at Prospect Hill on November 12.

The Rosses and Wades were divided over the repatriation effort, and the slaves themselves were divided over whether to go or stay; likewise, those who sought to immigrate were divided over whether to take matters into their own hands to overcome the obstacles placed in their path to freedom by Wade.

Now, more than 150 years later, their paths will once again converge at Prospect Hill. Among the most notable guests will be 12 Liberians, the adults of whom escaped to the U.S. during their country’s civil war, in the 1990s and early 2000s, which was rooted in the conflict between the freed-slave descendants and Liberia’s indigenous groups; the 12 now live in Maryland.

Some of the descendants will speak at the public event on Saturday afternoon. Also speaking will be Jessica Crawford, with the Archaeological Conservancy; Jennifer Baughn, architectural historian with the state Department of Archives and History; David Preziosi, director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust; and me.

The Archaeological Conservancy hopes the event will draw attention to the intended sale, and meanwhile enable the descendants to compare notes on their related yet conflicting histories for the first time. The Conservancy plans to keep an easement to the Prospect Hill property so that its buried artifacts may one day be studied, and since the purchase Crawford, its southeast regional director, has been laboring to clear the undergrowth that threatened to consume the house, to remove the waterlogged debris from the last owner’s residency, and to undertake emergency repair work on its leaking roof and rotting beams.

The descendants will get a private tour of the property on Saturday morning, with public tours to follow at 1 pm and 2:30 pm. Speakers will discuss the history of the plantation, the house and the adjacent cemetery, site of a monumental obelisk erected in tribute to Ross by the Mississippi Colonization Society in the 1830s.

Prospect Hill and other related family plantations served as the point of embarkation for the largest contingent of emigrants (about 300) to Liberia from the U.S., following Wade’s failed decade-long contest of the estate, during which a slave uprising led to the burning of the first house on the site, the death of a young girl, and the hanging of a group of slaves believed to have been the perpetrators (though at least two escaped into the woods and were never recaptured). A few of the slaves chose not to immigrate to Liberia and remained enslaved, as workers in the existing house (built in 1854) or in the adjacent cotton fields.

The Conservancy is asking for a tax deductible donation of $20 per person to help with the expenses of emergency stabilization work on the house. Anyone interested in attending should call or email to reserve the number of spots needed. Crawford noted that if someone calls and gets voicemail, their call will be returned as soon as possible. The number is 662/326-6465; email is tacsoutheast@cableone.net.

Crawford also stressed that the grounds around the house were recently mowed for the first time in five years, and some of the landscape is rough, so sensible walking shoes are recommended. And because parts of the house are badly deteriorated, a temporary entrance has been constructed for viewing the interior.

Prospect Hill is about 10 minutes east of Lorman, a 45-minute drive from Natchez, about 20 minutes from Port Gibson, and approximately an hour and a half from Jackson. Because the house is comparatively isolated, Crawford suggests that attendees either bring a picnic lunch or have lunch at the Old Country Store in Lorman.

Photo by Jessica Crawford, November 2011