Ghosts. A first-time visitor can almost feel them. Inside the big plantation home. Out where the slave quarters once stood. Especially near the old horse barn.
Maybe it’s the gnarly trees. They seem to beckon from another time, a distant age, a painful past. Maybe we see what we want to see, hope to experience.
Barbara Jackson says she believes there are ghosts at the Historic Rosedale Plantation, though she’s never seen one. Maybe she’s speaking metaphorically.
Or maybe she isn’t.
Jackson is a Rosedale tour guide, an interpreter, a “docent.” The word is drawn from the Latin word “docere,” which means “to teach.”
On Sunday, in honor of Black History Month, Jackson will lead the “Unheard Voices” tour. She will don period clothing and speak through the voice of Jenny, the plantation cook.
Jenny is not a creation of Jackson’s mind. Plantation records show she lived and worked there. And so did the other slaves about whom Jackson may speak — Ben, the carriage driver; Aggie, the other slave woman who worked inside the big house; Cherry, who nursed the owners’ children; and Nat, the blacksmith.
Little is known about who they were, what they hoped, how they dreamed. (Records show Jenny was purchased from a neighboring plantation to be with Ben, her husband.) Even less is known about the slaves who toiled outside the big house.
Jackson says her job is to give them voice.
“Some people are afraid of what they might hear because slaves were considered inferior people,” she explains. “The purpose of the tour is to point out that these were not inferior people. They were not to be thought of as less because they were enslaved.
“We certainly feel some of their pain,” she continues, “when their families were separated, when they were treated insensitively by their owners.”
And just like that the ghosts are there, down the brick steps that lead under the big house, down into the basement-like kitchen where Jackson is speaking.
The room is large, dusty and cold. A fireplace for cooking stands to one side. The floor is made of rough-hewn bricks; in the days of slavery it would have been packed earth. The low ceiling gives the room a claustrophobic feel.
“People come wanting to be amused,” Jackson says. “I try to do more with how the people must have been feeling in relation to what was going on.”
Jackson says her tour does not ignore the truth about slavery — the separation of families, the fear of being sold, the hard work. One of the greatest fears for Charlotte-area slaves, she says, was being sent to work in the region’s gold mines where conditions were especially harsh.
But at the same time, Jackson says she also believes there must have been some closeness in plantation life, even among slave and owner.
“They must have had love enough that they could take care of themselves and take care of this family, who maybe did not show them as much regard as they should have,” she says.
Rosedale Plantation at its peak was 911 acres and kept more than 20 slaves, built in 1815 by Archibald Frew, a merchant, postmaster and tax collector. Locals called it “Frew’s Folly” because he spent so lavishly building it. He lost it two years later when business went bad.
Only 8.5 of those acres remain today. The big house, 1,400 square feet, sits in the shadow of banking towers, apartment buildings, used car lots — just up North Tryon Street, a little ways from uptown Charlotte.
But look closely and it’s there — the dark gray stones that mark where slave cabins stood, the old horse barn, the trees and all those voices.
Jackson does not attempt to speak in dialect, though some have suggested she try. And so the woman who once led tours inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art and speaks with perfect diction might seem odd talking through the lens of a slave woman.
“I can’t speak in dialect,” Jackson explains. “I’ve tried it but I can’t do it. The truth is we really don’t know how the people talked anyway.”
Preparing for the tour, she says, can be draining: “It bothers me for weeks. I’m thinking about it during the night when I should be sleeping. What do I say this time? What points do I want to put across, and what should I be feeling?
“I can get emotional when I think about how families were displaced,” she adds. “For example, when the first family lost the house and the slaves were wondering what their role would be… if they would be separated. These things can definitely stir up emotions and spill over into the tour when I’m giving it.”
Most visitors to Rosedale Plantation are white, except in February, when more African American show up. Her black guests, she says, often have stronger reactions, are more likely to speak up, quicker to agree, quicker to smile.
“You definitely know how they feel when they are on the tour,” she says.
So what does Jackson make of reported ghost sightings at Rosedale — the black man who stands under the big tree holding a lantern, reports of a small storage box that opens mysteriously at night on the back porch? One story has it that the box was used by a slave to store the razors he used to shave his master, who liked being groomed while sitting on the porch.
Has Jackson seen odd occurrences?
“I have not,” she answers quickly. “Other people have told me they have here. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I do know that internally I can feel their anguish.”
IF YOU WANT TO GO:
What: Unheard Voices tour
When: Sunday, Feb. 15, at 1:30 p.m.
Where: 3427 N. Tryon Street, Charlotte
Cost: $5.00 per person
Information: www.historicrosedale.org or call 704-335-0325.