For years, Historic Brattonsville has sought to tell the stories of the enslaved people who lived, toiled and died there. Now the historic site in McConnells, S.C., is adding to its collection of narratives — by telling the stories of enslaved men who escaped.
Using newspaper records from the 19th century, Zach Lemhouse, a historian for York County’s Culture & Heritage Museums, has identified four “freedom seekers” – Bob, Lewis, Henry and a man named James Williams — who fled Bratton Plantation in search of freedom.
Those newspapers – The Mecklenburg Jeffersonian, The Lincoln Courier and The Yorkville Miscellany — each carried listings of runaway slaves submitted by their enslavers.
The Brattonsville exhibit comes on the heels of the once-popular television drama Underground, which aired for two seasons through 2017. It also comes as historic sites throughout the South are taking a fresh look at how they tell the complex story of American slavery.
Color Your Perspective
Reflecting that trend, Lemhouse said Historic Brattonsville is trying to be “very intentional with telling the stories of the disenfranchised.”
The exhibit, he said, will be ready for public viewing in the near future.
A nationwide effort
The exhibition, still unfinished, will become part of the federal Network to Freedom program, which is administered by the National Park Service.
In 1989, Congress passed the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act, which outlined three overarching goals: (1) educate the public, (2) provide technical assistance for documenting, preserving and interpreting Underground Railroad history, and (3) create a Network of historic sites, interpretive and educational programs, and educational and research facilities with a verifiable connection to the Underground Railroad.
The Park Service currently lists 680 locations enrolled in the program. Historic Brattonsville was among 16 sites recently selected.
Lemhouse said he was excited that Historic Brattonsville was chosen because the location has “such an important story to tell about the enslaved African American population.”
The historic site works closely with actor-interpreters and local descendants whose ancestors were enslaved at Bratton Plantation.
The “freedom seekers” exhibit will focus in large part on James Williams, who escaped the plantation in 1865 to join the Union Army to fight against the Confederacy. He later returned to York County, where he advocated for civil rights for local residents who had been enslaved. He was lynched in 1871, according to Lemhouse and printed histories.
When the exhibit is complete, it will be housed in the site’s historic Brick House, which is currently under renovation.
Less is known about the other freedom seekers. Lemhouse said he hopes to uncover more as his research continues.
Reassessing the past
The narratives of American slavery and its lingering aftermath have triggered intense debate in recent years, especially as several U.S. cities have taken down Confederate monuments and mothballed other relics of the antebellum South.
Earlier this summer, Mecklenburg County cut ties with a nonprofit organization that had long managed Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville. The separation came after the nonprofit, Historic Latta Inc., proposed a Juneteenth program that some critics viewed as sympathetic to the Confederacy.
All the while, many historic sites are embracing new narratives about slavery, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era of racial segregation.
In an article published this year in the Washington Post, a reporter described Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia as having some of the most “progressive and insightful theater in America.” The historical site has made changes to include the city’s slaveholding past in every tour, telling the stories of its Black population in the 1700s.
Beth Kelly, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president of education, told The Post that in the past, research at the site was always done with an Anglican-European point of view.
Earlier this year, Historic Columbia launched a new history trail that highlights historical sites and people dating back to Reconstruction, when the state had a majority-Black legislature.
“Our work for probably the last 15 years has really been about uncovering and preserving the true story of what happened on our properties and what life was like for people at that time,” Renee Chow, the organization’s director of marketing, told QCity Metro earlier this year.
Part of that effort, she said, has involved dispelling some “grand notions” about the Confederacy.
Margaret Crawford Parson-Willins and Wali Cathcart represent one of seven Black families with ancestral connections to Historic Brattonsville. Their great grandmother, Lila, was enslaved there in 1865.
The two cousins joined the descendants’ group in 2007.
Cathcart said he and Parson-Willins knew they were related and had ancestors from Brattonsville, but they didn’t know the specifics until Historic Brattonsville helped them make the connection.
“We didn’t get any information about her (Lila) as I was growing up because of the subject of slavery,” Parson-Willins said. “We African-Americans were hush-mouthed about that. We didn’t want to talk about it.”
With a personal goal to help change how history is taught, Parson-Willins said she joined the descendants’ group to show other descendants that they need not be ashamed of that history.
“My history books certainly didn’t have a lot, and today’s textbooks probably don’t have a lot of African American history,” she said. “I’m hoping to play a catalyst in getting that changed.”
Historic Brattonsville has been open for tours since 1977. Parson-Willins and Cathcart both said the site has improved significantly in telling the stories of enslaved people since they joined the descendant’s group.
“Early on when I came here, this issue of presenting the enslaved perspective was rather subdued,” Cathcart said. “That’s the case at many plantations. Brattonsville has come a long way, but there’s always room for more growth.”
“It’s not Black history; it’s American history. Slavery is a part of American history. To try to omit that or try to revise it, is omitting part of history that this country was constructed on. None of us are served well by ignoring it or trying to deny it. It will come back in the future to haunt you. Only the truth frees you.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated to include a comment from historian Zach Lemhouse of the York County Culture & Heritage Museums, who said he found no evidence that James Williams ever threatened to burn Bratton Plantation but was lynched because of his civil rights activities in York County.