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Historic Brattonsville honors the enslaved and their descendants

At a former plantation in York County, S.C., where hundreds were held in slavery, the descendants of those enslaved gather to remember and honor their ancestors.

2015 display for the "Seven Sacred Families" on the Homestead lawn, Historic Brattonsville. (Photo: Culture & Heritage Museums of York County)

On Saturday, Sept 9, Historic Brattonsville in York County will host its annual, award-winning event, “By the Sweat of Our Brows,” which honors the legacy of African-Americans who were enslaved at Brattonsville, as well as their descendants, known today as the “Seven Sacred Families.”

Much of the research tracing those families was done by retired educator Bertha Maxwell Roddey of Charlotte, who helped launch the organization that became the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Art + Culture.

Qcitymetro interviewed some of the Brattonsville descendants. Here are their stories.

A legacy of independence 

John T. Crawford may be best known as the man who founded the Charlotte Housing Authority Scholarship Fund, which has given out more than $3 million in education assistance in the past 35 years. This Brattonsville descendant said he cherishes his family history.

John T. Crawford

John T. Crawford
“My father was 60 years old when I was born and his father lived to be 93, so we go way back. My dad told me some of the stories about his father and some of his ancestors — not a lot, but enough for me to have some interest in who we were. I don’t know all of the history. I guess (slavery) was part of the times. Mr. Bratton had a large plantation, and my relatives and ancestors were a part of that. My father ended up owning his own farm. We had 65 acres. We never sharecropped. My mom was a country schoolteacher. It makes me feel proud to know that my family has moved above (slavery) and tried to have a name for themselves and do a lot in the communities to make a difference. It made me feel proud that we owned our own land. Even as a kid I knew you wanted to have something of your own. I kept that independence growing up that you could be whatever you really wanted to be, or you could have what other folks had. It didn’t matter so much about color. It just mattered how hard you were willing to work and try to move forward.”

Family of faith

Faith has played a central role in the life of Sarah Lowry and her family. Her brother, the late George Lowry, led a Baptist church just a short drive away from Brattonsville. And her uncle, the late F.G. Lowry, led Baptist congregations in Charlotte and Rock Hill.

Sarah Lowry

Sarah Lowry
That faith tradition apparently goes all the way back Brattonsville plantation, where, according to Roddey’s research, the Lowry family was the only enslaved family allowed to worship with the plantation’s owners at a Presbyterian church not far away. Roddey said the Lowry family has a “rich history” in the life of Brattonsville – a history Sarah Lowry is eager to discover. Lowry, who lives in the town of McConnells in York County, said she first learned of her family’s connection to the Brattonsville plantation about three years ago. She had driven by the antebellum homes countless times but never knew.

“I’m just learning myself. Mrs. Roddey says it was a rich history, but I don’t know how rich it is. I really need to talk to her. It makes me feel good being a part of Brattonsville. It’s something I never knew, and it makes me feel good about being a Lowry. I just wish I knew a lot more than I know about it. I’m at a loss. I want to know more.”

Folklore confirmed

Angelia Green, a fifth-grade teacher in York, S.C., had long heard through oral history that her lineage could be traced back to the Brattonsville plantation. Her great-grandmother, whose surname was Bratton, grew up and lived nearby. But it took a family member who had done the research to confirm what her family long suspected.

Angelia Green

Angelia Green
“I used to go visit my great-grandmother, who lived in Brattonsville, not on the Historic Brattonsville site but in the town of Brattonsville, when I was little. I had always been told that my family was part of the Brattons of Brattonsville, but at the time I didn’t have any documentation or proof, so I didn’t know if it was true or not. It was a couple of years ago when we had a family reunion and I saw the different documentation and found out it was actually true and there was proof to back it up. And I was like, ‘Oh, my relatives knew what they were talking about.’ My great-great — it might be three ‘greats’ — grandfather and grandmother were slaves at Brattonsville. His name was Green Bratton, and my great-great-great grandmama was Malinda Bratton. It might sound cliché, but it gives you roots. We all as African Americans assume we can trace our ancestors back to slavery somewhere, considering the history, but you can’t really name a person or name a place, so your history just kind of stalls. So knowing that I can trace my ancestry at least that far back gives me deeper roots than those who can’t.”

Unashamed of her enslaved ancestors

Margaret Crawford Parson-Willins had been working as a volunteer at Historic Brattonsville long before she knew her ancestors had once been enslaved there. And like some other Brattonsville descendants, she said she learned through the research work of Roddey.

Margaret Crawford Parson-Willins (not pictured)
“I was interested when I came here in telling the story, but then when I found out that I was really a descendant, I’ve been here ever since. I have always been interested in telling my story. I feel that if somebody doesn’t get out there and tell it, the story of the African American people as a race is going to be lost. I am a firm believer in passing our legacy from one generation to the next. There are so many of us who for some reason or another, don’t see the significance of where we came from. A lot of us are embarrassed or do not want to be connected to where we came from. Slavery, to them, was a dirty word. They don’t realize that this nation was built on slavery, and that they should be proud of where they came from. They should be proud of what their ancestors went through in order for us to be where we are now.”

A place to worship

The Civil War was still raging when owners of the Brattonsville plantation donated land for a church where enslaved families could worship. Today that church, Mt. Zion Baptist, is led by the Rev. Anthony Johnson, who is not a Brattonsville descendant.

Rev. Anthony Johnson

Rev. Anthony Johnson
“I’ve been pastoring for 18 years, and as far as I know, there has always been someone from the Bratton family that was a part of Mt. Zion Baptist Church — the black Bratton family, of course. The Bratton family — the white Bratton family — donated the land to Mt. Zion, where our church is presently located. Mt. Zion came out of Bethesda Presbyterian Church. The slave owners allowed their slaves to go out and start their own church. It’s unusual in that they started a church under the Baptist denomination instead of Presbyterian. Our church is presently 154 years old. We have two cemeteries there, plus the ground where the church is located. So it was quite a large piece of land. From what I understand, at one time there was a school located on the property as well, where families in this area would come for schooling. Slavery is what molded us to be the strong people that we were at one time. It is what made us what we were. Our strength, or determination, was because of our roots in slavery. It is because of that history, that struggle, that you had old, black women walking miles and miles just to go to the poll and vote. And now we have young African Americans who won’t even walk up the street to vote. So slavery, no matter how painful, how ugly it was, I think in some ways we took a bad situation and turned it into a positive situation.”

More About Historic Brattonsville

Located in McConnells, S.C., Historic Brattonsville features more than 30 colonial and antebellum structures, including two house museums. The plantation spreads over 800 acres and includes farmed land with heritage breed animals, a Revolutionary War battlefield site with interpretive trail, and a nature preserve with miles of walking trails. Seasonal events, reenactments, and living history programs interpret life in the Carolina Backcountry from the 1750s to the 1850s.  Hours of Operation: Tues – Sat:  10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sunday: 1 a.m.  – 5 p.m.; Closed on Mondays.

More About “By the Sweat of Our Brows”

The South Carolina African American Heritage Commission has recognized the annual program for its efforts to preserve and interpret African American history and culture. The daylong event will include an array of activities and programs — cooking over open hearths, demonstrations of traditional agricultural practices, storytelling and playing African-American folk games. Historically dressed interpreters will portray what life was like on the plantation. York’s Gold Hill Baptist Church Choir will sing in the oak grove. Dr. Lisa Bratton will talk about her recollections of Historic Brattonsville and lead a discussion on researching family history. The day will culminate with a “calling of the names” from the 1843 Probate List.

Bertha Maxwell Roddey, a historian and retired educator who lives in Charlotte, did much of the research that helped locate living descendants of enslaved families of the Brattonsvillle plantation in York County, S.C. (Photo: Qcitymetro.com

WANNA GO?

WHEN: Saurday, Sept. 9 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Address: 1444 Brattonsville Road, McConnells, SC, 29726
Admission: Adults $8, Seniors $7, Youth $5, ages 3 and under free
Food: Available for purchase.
More info: http://www.chmuseums.org/brattonsville

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