Slave Descendants Recall Heritage
Aug. 30, 1986
CRESWELL, N.C. (AP) _ The Collinses, the Honeybleaus and the Cabarruses came from all over the country Saturday to walk the grounds that their slave ancestors worked more than 200 years ago.
More than 1,000 descendants of slaves gathered at Somerset Place, once a 100,000-acre plantation with 320 slaves and now a 5,870-acre state historic site.
Many of them knew little about their ancestry until this homecoming.
''I've come here many a day and taken a lot of pictures,'' said Samuel Honableu (a variation on Honeybleau) of Sykesville, Md., who grew up in Creswell. ''But until I read a story in the paper, I had no idea. I feel like I know every rock around here.''
Nothing remains of the 28 slave cabins. Only a few bricks are left from what once was the slave hospital. Somerset Canal, which was excavated by slaves in 1788 to connect Lake Phelps with the Scuppernong River, has been mostly filled in.
''I was amazed. Down here I found myself,'' said Maurice Johnson of Washington. ''I do have roots and I don't mean the TV 'Roots.' This is more important than the TV 'Roots' because I'm here. ... This is my family. I feel wonderful to be part of this.''
Johnson said the sense of family was more important than the history of slavery.
''Now that I've found out where they (his ancestors) came from, the word slavery has done skipped my mind,'' he said.
The gathering was organized by Dorothy Spruill Redford of Portsmouth, Va.
''This is the home of our family that's never been identified and acknowledged,'' she said. ''They should be identified with the place of their residence.''
Mrs. Redford said she thought it was important that the American be emphasized in Afro-American.
''We have a vested interest here,'' she said. ''For so long we couldn't find the American part, so we played up the African part.''
The reunion evolved from 10 years of genealogical research done by Mrs. Redford, who was able to find surnames of 21 slave families because the Collins family, who owned Somerset, kept meticulous records of slave births, deaths and marriages.
She traced the genealogy of all but about five slave families on the plantation.
Plantation owner Josiah Collins III was one of only four planters in the state who held more than 300 slaves.
Frances Inglis of Edenton is a direct descendent of Collins and lives in the house he bought in 1786.
''Slavery was a dreadful institution, sad for the slaves and the ultimate end and destruction of the slave owners,'' she said. ''All the wealth and everything the slave owners had was lost because of the institution of slavery. ... Both the descendants of the slave owners and the slaves look at this place in fondness. ... I think this is a hopeful kind of day.''
Also attending the gathering was Josiah Collins VI of Seattle, Wash., the great-grandson of the Somerset owner.
Events at this eastern North Carolina plantation included Negro spirituals, the re-enactment of a slave wedding and a one-woman performance by Gloria Lowery portraying slave-abolitionist Harriett Tubman.
Ms. Lowery said she is not a descendant of any Somerset slaves, ''but I had to be a part of it.''
''It is my philosophy that many of the problems of Afro-Americans is low self-esteem from not knowing who your ancestors are,'' Ms. Lowery said. ''The orphanages are filled with people like us.
''This gives us a chance to reconnect. ... And this event says we do want to be together. Slavery did not destroy us; in fact, it made us stronger.''
Dorothy Beaman of Norfolk, Va., attended the reunion with her two sisters. Their grandparents were slaves at Somerset.
''I have mixed emotions,'' she said. ''I'm happy to be able to do this and know our ancestors are connected in one way or the other. But it's sad to know that it was slavery and they had to endure so much.''