Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The doors will be open at Prospect Hill Plantation house this Saturday, April 12, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., for anyone who's curious about one of Mississippi's most intriguing historical sites and willing to pony up $10 toward saving it./>

Jessica Crawford, southeast regional director of the Archaeological Conservancy, which owns Prospect Hill, has been working mightily to get the place presentable, to show what's at stake and explain how it can be saved. Jessica, who took the photo of Isaac, the resident peacock, above, is working to stabilize the seriously decaying structure in hopes of finding a buyer to undertake a full restoration; the Archaeological Conservancy's primary interest is in what lies underground at Prospect Hill -- the artifacts that can shed light on its remarkable plantation history. Still, the house and nearby family cemetery are the visible centerpieces of that saga./>

Prospect Hill Plantation was founded by Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Ross, who came to the Mississippi Territory in 1808 with a large contingent of slaves as well as free blacks who had served alongside him in the war. The plantation's history is unique among historical sites in the United States and significant to the history of Liberia, in West Africa, as well. It is as much about African American history as it is a tale of a divided slave-owning family, and it spans more than 200 years and two continents./>

The existing Prospect Hill house is actually the second on the site. Ross's original Prospect Hill mansion was burned during a slave uprising and the current house was built by his grandson in 1848. Ross was close to his slaves, and said to have been fair in his treatment of them, perhaps because, as is also sometimes said, he was related to them by blood. Out of fear that they would be mistreated by a subsequent owner, Ross wrote in his will that at the time of his daughter Margaret’s death Prospect Hill should be sold and the money used to pay the way of his slaves (who were to be emancipated) to the West African colony of Liberia, which had been set up for the purpose of "repatriation" by a group known as the American Colonization Society. This, Ross felt, was the only way for the slaves to gain control of their destiny./>

It’s a long story, but after Margaret died, Ross's grandson Isaac Ross Wade contested the will, not wanting to free the slaves, then sell the plantation and give the money to them. This was in the 1830s, three decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. The will was tied up in court for a decade, after which the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed its validity, which meant that the slaves were freed to emigrate to the region of Liberia known as Mississippi in Africa. But before that happened, midway through the litigation, there was an uprising among some of the slaves who suspected they would be denied their freedom, during which the Prospect Hill mansion was burned, taking with it the life of a young girl. Afterward, a group of slaves was lynched. It’s a grisly story, and it doesn’t end there. Among the more than 300 freed slaves from Prospect Hill who eventually emigrated to Liberia, a small group enslaved members of the indigenous people, who were themselves involved in the slave trade, and continuing conflicts between descendants of the two groups contributed to Liberia’s horrendous civil wars in the 1990s and early 2000s./>

Isaac Ross Wade managed to regain control of Prospect Hill – it appears he may have bought it himself or co-opted it from the estate, and because a group of Ross’s slaves chose not to emigrate, and Wade had his own slaves, he continued to farm the plantation. In 1848 he built the existing house on the site of the original, a short distance from the family cemetery, where the Mississippi chapter of the colonization society erected a monumental obelisk in tribute to Ross, and where Wade is also interred, though his tombstone was installed backward. The slaveholding family and their descendants were divided over the issue of repatriation, and it’s hard not to see the backward-facing tombstone as a recognition that Wade was essentially the villain of the story./>

After buying Prospect Hill from its absentee owner, the Archaeological Conservancy hosted a homecoming-reunion of all the groups related to the plantation -- descendants of the divided slave holding family, the slaves who remained in the area, and the slaves who emigrated to Liberia. It was a remarkable gathering, illustrating the breadth of Prospect Hill's story. The Archaeological Conservancy has plans to replace the roof on the house and undertake other measures to stabilize it, to be paid for by individual donations and a state grant that will cover a portion of the cost. />

In addition to a rare opportunity to tour one of Mississippi's most storied houses, the admission fee -- $10 for adults, $5 for kids -- provides entertainment in the form of music by the Delta Mountain Boys. There will also be a food truck from Natchez on hand, and I’ll be there to sign copies of Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today./>

The following map shows how to get to Prospect Hill. Jessica also offers these directions:/>

"It's right down Tillman Chapel Road (1.7 miles on the left). I have put blue stars next to the turns. There are two ways to get there from Highway 61, depending on what direction you're coming from. If you're coming from Port Gibson, you'll get on Woodvine Road not far outside of town and you won't go all the way to Lorman. BUT, if you're coming from the direction of Natchez, you will go to Lorman, then turn east on Highway 552 and then take a left onto Woodvine at the Red Brick Church. If you are coming from 552, your turn onto Tillman Chapel Road from Woodvine Road will be a right, if you are coming from the Port Gibson direction, your turn onto Tillman Chapel Road will be a left. If you are on a laptop or PC, you can hold the cursor over the bottom of the picture of this map and download it. If you're on an ipad, you can hold your finger on the map, then choose 'save photo' and email it to yourself and print it."/>

For more information, visit the Facebook page for Prospect Hill: />

Finally, sorry for the strange formatting at the paragraph breaks. I don't know where the />s came from, but don't include that in the link to the PH Facebook page.