The gathering at Prospect Hill plantation that day could have been a casting call for a period drama set before the American civil war.
The location was remote, along a one-lane gravel road in sparsely populated Jefferson County, Mississippi. A group of about 50 people, black and white, stood in front of an archetypal southern Gothic home, chatting amiably about slave owners and slaves.
At one point, a lone costumed man in a top hat strolled through. Nearby, an elderly white woman held the hand of a black man with whom she was deeply engrossed in conversation. Then a van pulled up and discharged a group of African visitors who were running an hour late, and the crowd broke into applause.
As she surveyed the scene, Prospect Hill’s de facto director, Jessica Crawford, said: “This is all actually a bit surreal.”
She was right: where but in a dream would stand-ins for slave owners and slaves gather in the middle of nowhere, just to chat? Yet these were actual descendants of Prospect Hill’s original slave owners and slaves, gathered for the first of a series of reunion events held between November 2011 and April 2017.
Each attendee existed along a vast network of interconnected circuits, and once they got together, all the circuits lit up.
‘It changed my whole life. It helped me to understand who I am’
With the arrival of the van, a missing piece fell into place: the passengers were descendants of slaves who had been emancipated from the plantation before the civil war and immigrated to a freed-slave colony in what is now the west African country of Liberia. The contingent had driven all night to attend the event, completing a trip across a chasm that encompassed 170 years and 5,000 miles.
Their leader, Evangeline Wayne, noted that her ancestors had been taken from Africa during the slave trade. After decades in the US, their descendants had been allowed to immigrate “back” to Africa, though they’d never actually been there before.
Then, as a result of Liberia’s civil wars, which lasted from 1990 to 2003, Wayne herself immigrated “back” to the US, though she had likewise never been to the country before.
At Prospect Hill she found herself being embraced by people she’d never met as if she were a long lost friend. “I didn’t expect this,” she said, smiling and fighting back tears. “I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this.”
Wayne cannot definitively document her connection to Prospect Hill because Liberia’s national archives were destroyed during the civil wars, though she remembers her grandmother mentioning a Mississippi plantation and a “Captain Ross”.
Isaac Ross, a revolutionary war veteran, founded the plantation and provided in his will for the freeing of its slaves to immigrate to a colony in what is now Liberia – Prospect Hill’s primary claim to fame.
“To be honest, I’m unsure of who, and what, I am, and where I fit in,” Wayne observed, with visible sadness. “I’m considered a foreigner in Liberia, even though I’m from there, and it’s the same in the US.” When she met James Belton, a descendant of Prospect Hill slaves who had chosen not to immigrate, they both encountered someone whose life represented what their own might have been, had their ancestors made a different choice.
Unsure what to say, they simply embraced.
Belton said the reunions had helped him see Prospect Hill’s history from different vantage points. “In this country, we have so much division, black, white and what have you. And things like this, if it’s put out there where you can see it, it will let people know you can have unity regardless of what happened 150 years ago. It was a rare opportunity for everyone.”
Claudius Ross, a Liberian, visited Prospect Hill in June, when he was interviewed by the documentary film-makers Alison Fast and Chandler Griffin, who have been compiling footage from the reunion events. He became curious about his own background after his family was threatened by fighters from Liberian indigenous groups who were at war with his own ethnic group, freed slave descendants known as Americo-Liberians.
After he moved to the US in 2007, Ross was distressed to read that some Liberian immigrants had enslaved members of indigenous tribes. Then he read about Prospect Hill and recognized his family’s connection.
In Liberia, he recalled being told: “‘You don’t belong here. Go where you came from.’ So I was humiliated. I was sad. It led me on this journey of trying to find out exactly who I was. You know, ‘What does my name come from? What does it mean? Who does it belong to?’”
Visiting Prospect Hill, he said, “brings all the pieces back together”. He added: “It’s also a celebration for me, knowing that I do have a history. I’m not just a wandering person in the galaxy. I do have a spot, I do have a name, I do have a light.”
Charles Greenlee, a white descendant of the plantation’s slave owners, said he was “filled with anxiety the week prior to the reunion, as well as the day of the event”. He could barely contain his emotions as he watched the Liberians disembarking from the van.
Another slave owner descendant, Jim DeLoach, said that when he made plans to attend, he couldn’t help but feel “a little apprehensive at first”. His ancestors, after all, had owned the ancestors of people who would be there, whose own lives had been profoundly affected by that. He wondered if he might encounter hostility. But after talking with slave descendants, he discovered “they were really proud of their heritage, the struggles that their ancestors faced and the fact that all of their lives would have been different had it not been for Isaac Ross”.
Ross moved from South Carolina to what was then the Mississippi territory in 1808, accompanied by a large group of mixed-race slaves who were said to have been a source of discomfort for their former owners. Also in the group were several free black people who had fought alongside Ross in the revolution and would gain title to their own land in the territory.
After wresting his plantation from the wilderness, Ross set about correcting what he saw as the worst ills of human enslavement. He never sold any of his slaves and taught them to read and write, which was illegal at the time.
Then, out of concern for what would happen to them when he and his similarly sympathetic daughter were gone, he stipulated in his will that after her death the plantation should be sold and the proceeds used to pay the way for those who chose to immigrate to Mississippi-in-Africa, the west African colony set up by the American Colonization Society, a group of abolitionists and slave owners who shared a belief that the removal of free black people might reduce rising tensions over abolition.
The resulting saga encompasses heroes and villains in two Mississippis, on two continents.
Ross’s family was divided over the plan, and a grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, contested the will for a decade. During the litigation, a group of slaves who saw Wade as an impediment to their freedom allegedly set fire to the first Prospect Hill house, killing a young girl and injuring others, though Wade escaped unharmed (a new house was built on the site of the first in 1854).
Neighboring vigilantes reportedly lynched or burned alive 12 slaves whom they believed had participated in the uprising. In 1845, the state supreme court ruled against Wade, allowing more than 200 slaves to emigrate, while about 50 chose to remain behind, enslaved. Belton said one of his ancestors was the mother of the two slaves who escaped, not wanting to leave them behind, where she remained as a cook.
‘At the end of the day, it explains America today’
Prospect Hill lends itself to complex discussions about race because its tumultuous history is not easily reduced to simple black and white.
Laura “Butch” Ross laughed as she said that because she’s of mixed race but identifies as black, everyone at the first event assumed she was a slave descendant, when in fact she’s descended from the slave owners – from a later interracial union of a white Ross and a woman of color.
“Everybody got a different version,” she said. The point, she said, is to “get everybody involved and just let everybody meet everybody and find out what’s going on.”
Her daughter Donna Ross agreed. The crowd at the first event “was like our family history, really all mixed up”, she said. “But at the end of the day, it explains America today. We are so intertwined in ways we don’t even know, and it tends to get lost because it’s not talked about, so we don’t really know what’s going on.”
It also helps that the default setting for people in the area is usually to be polite. Manners are typically highly valued in the south, even when they mask underlying divisions. At the Prospect Hill events, there have been occasional conversational red flags, but also opportunities for comparing notes and for circumspection.
One American woman in African dress asked at the first event how frequently rape occurred on slave plantations. Butch Ross observed: “Everyone spoke to me, but it was still a little catch in there.” She said she sensed lingering prejudice among a few older whites. “They were standoffish to me until they found out who I was related to”, at which point they began to freely converse, she said.
Amekia Mazie is a descendant of slaves who did not emigrate. “I grew up in Chicago and for me it was like being in a movie, or going back in time,” she said. When she told people of her visit, some were disgusted, struggling to understand why she wanted to see all that. “But I talked to the old folks, and it changed my whole life. It helped me to understand who I am,” she said. It helped her see more clearly her family’s legacy of overcoming adversity, she said.
Betty McGehee, a descendant of the slave-owning family, said that after visiting with slave descendants at Prospect Hill, she saw her own life differently and wondered whether her land holdings and heirloom antiques represented “a kind of greed, really – for me to have these things, and hold on to them”.
A fight to protect an epic history
Today, most of Prospect Hill’s architectural peers have literally fallen by the wayside, and the majority of the area’s white residents have moved away, taking their money with them.
As Crawford put it, the region is “a wrecked ship, and the crew who wrecked it got off a long time ago.” Jefferson County today has highest the highest percentage of black residents – 85% – of any county in the US and is the fourth poorest, according to the most recent census. All of which means the options for Prospect Hill are limited.
Crawford said the original idea was to draw attention to the house in hopes of finding a buyer to restore it and grant an easement enabling the exploration of the property’s underground antebellum artifacts, a comparatively new field of archaeology.
After the Wade family sold the house in the late 1960s, its decline accelerated under a succession of eccentric owners, one of whom lived in the past, heating the house with fireplaces and lighting its rooms with oil lamps while doing little to keep it in repair. The next owner filled the rooms with fine antiques while the exterior walls rotted down.
When Crawford happened upon it in 2010, the house appeared headed for collapse. As she picked her way through the dank, shadowy rooms she saw moldering rugs, rat-gnawed tables, emasculated chairs and piles of mildewed clothes. An empty bourbon bottle protruded from sodden debris atop a warped grand piano, while an array of cooking pots caught water from roof leaks. “It was as if a bomb had gone off inside,” she said. For someone devoted to preserving clues about the past, Prospect Hill’s disfigurement was a profoundly sad sight.
Then, as she stepped gingerly toward the front door, she saw a patch of brilliant color from the corner of her eye and turned to see a peacock standing in front of a bookcase. In her mind, the peacock, which had left behind by the last occupant, offered a kernel of beauty and hope, and she later named it Isaac, after Prospect Hill’s founder. Until its death, Isaac served as a mascot for the events, and visitors invariably photographed him.
After convincing the owner to sell the house and the Archaeological Conservancy to buy it in 2011, Crawford enlisted the help of friends, strangers, descendants, even jail inmates to clear the debris and return the structure to a point where it might at least evoke its epic history. Later, using donations and a state grant, she had the roof replaced and the foundations bolstered to buy it some time. Through it all, she hosted the reunion events and sought a buyer.
In the cemetery behind the house, most guests notice that the tombstone of the grandson who contested the will is installed backward, facing away from his grave, perhaps indicating the family’s post-mortem judgment.
Yet there is also a proliferation of flowers beneath moss-draped trees, and an elaborate, towering marble monument over Ross’s grave, erected by the Mississippi branch of the colonization society. There is the grave of the girl who died in the fire, and another of a Confederate soldier (the remains of a Union soldier who died in the house during the war were later moved up north by his survivors).
No one yet knows where the slaves are buried, their wooden markers long since having crumbled into dust.
‘We all have a lot to talk about, don’t we?’
At the most recent reunion event, a young, dreadlocked rapper named William Ross played period music on a violin, choosing the song “Amazing Grace” to accompany a blessing of the house by Sam Godfrey, an Episcopal priest who is descended from Isaac Ross.
Godfrey said he never felt any trepidation about meeting people whose ancestors his family owned. “I don’t expect people to look at me and see what my ancestors did,” he said. “I don’t take credit or blame for it. All I can do is what I can do today.”
Before the events, “I didn’t know any of the slave story, really,” he said. “I just knew that Isaac Ross freed his slaves. I was fascinated to meet James Belton and the people from Liberia. It made it a real homecoming.”
Like many descendants, Godfrey said he now believed Prospect Hill has a higher purpose than as a private home – that it should be permanently devoted to racial reconciliation events.
Crawford echoed that sentiment. “There’s so much potential here, and so much willingness to see it become a place that brings people together to confront an uncomfortable past,” she said.
Unfortunately, she added, “it all comes down to money, and the money just isn’t there.” If Prospect Hill can’t be saved, “a huge opportunity will be lost to tell an important story not only about American history, but world history”, she said.
In Donna Ross’s view, Prospect Hill’s value lies in the fact that it represents a story that needs to be told over and over again. “We all have a lot to talk about, don’t we? You never know how people are connected until you sit down and talk.”