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Long slats of moonlight fall through the shuttered window, across the floor and up the legs of the massive old grand piano that commands a corner of my living room. It is the middle of the night and the room is still and quiet, which is odd, considering that a few moments before, I was awakened by the sound of random banging on the piano keys. I had pictured my dog Jack with his paws on the ivory, chasing a moth, but in the dim light I see that the piano's keyboard is closed, and that Jack is nowhere to be found. There is no moth fluttering dumbly against the windowpanes.
When I later recount the story to friends, their first reaction is to blame the noise on ghosts, but that is not what comes to mind as I stand scratching my head at 3:00 a.m. I think instead of the discord unleashed upon the world by one of the piano's former owners, Isaac Ross Wade, who has been consuming my thoughts lately, and from all appearances is now entering my dreams.
I first saw the old square grand piano in my friend Gwen Shipp's home in Slate Springs, Mississippi, in the late 1970s, when her son, Tinker Miller, and I stopped by to visit during a duck-hunting trip. Gwen was particularly proud of the piano because it had originally belonged to a Revolutionary War veteran named Isaac Ross, who was Wade's grandfather and from whom Gwen is descended. It is a beautiful piece of furniture, crafted of rosewood and ebony, made for the sort of pleasant, restless melodies that once resonated through the hushed parlors of the Old South. But after too many long, hot summers in houses without air conditioning, its soundboard is warped and most of its notes are false. It has notplayed music for a very long time.
The piano had previously occupied a prominent spot in the parlor of Gwen's old family home, Holly Grove, which is now my house, and prior to that it had narrowly missed destruction at two family homes that burned. The first fire, at Ross's plantation mansion, Prospect Hill, occurred in 1845, midway through a decade of litigation over his controversial will, allegedly as a result of a slave uprising. The uprising and fire, as well as their preamble and aftermath, were defining moments for many people in Jefferson County, Mississippi at the time, and would remain so for certain of their descendants for the next century and a half. The piano was my portal into the story.
You hear a lot of interesting stories growing up in the South, and if you listen closely, you can't help wondering how much of what you're told is true. The story of Prospect Hill was the most intriguing I had come across, and had one of the widest margins for error, if only because so much was at stake and the cast of characters was so diverse. Before I knew what I was getting into, I was committed to finding out what really happened, and now, after devoting several years to researching and unraveling it, I am finally able to tell the story in full.
Holly Grove was an early kit house, manufactured in Cincinnati and brought down the Mississippi River and overland to Jefferson County, where it was assembled on the Killingsworth family's cotton plantation in 1832. When I first visited the house in 1971, it had been empty for decades and was used only for family reunions, but it still contained furnishings dating from the frontier era to the 1940s. It was isolated and had never been repainted, and had no electricity nor running water. It felt frozen in time. When we were in high school, Tinker and I and a group of our friends sometimes camped in Holly Grove's musty parlor, in sleeping bags stretched out atop faded, tattered Oriental rugs. It was on one of those trips that Tinker first told me the story of Prospect Hill, which stood a few miles down the road. As we sat on the rotting gallery of Holly Grove, he told me about the vast cotton plantation that Ross had established, how he had planned to free his slaves after his death to emigrate to a new nation called Liberia, in West Africa, and how a dispute over his will instigated a legal conflict that spawned a slave uprising in which the house was burned. The idea of American slaves settling an African colony was particularly intriguing to us then, because there had recently been a fatal shootout in Jackson, Mississippi, near where we lived, between a group known as the Republic of New Africa and police and FBI agents at the group's heavily armed headquarters. The RNA had issued a manifesto demanding that the U.S. government cede to them the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to form a black separatist nation, and pay $400 billion in slave reparations. Clearly, the conflict at the core of the story of Prospect Hill was far from over, and even in the 1970s it was far from dry, old history for us. For Tinker, it also had personal meaning.
Over the next few years, most of the original furnishings were stolen from Holly Grove, after which the house began an inexorable decline. Our camp-outs became fewer and farther between, until finally we stopped going, aside from rare day trips. Gwen had earlier moved Isaac Ross's piano to her home in Slate Springs, but with the family dispersed from Jefferson County and no one around to maintain it, Holly Grove's poignant, evocative decay began lurching toward certain doom. By the late 1980s it was going down fast.
I had grown to love the house and had been badgering Tinker for years to do something to preserve it, so when it became apparent that no one in the family would return to live there, Gwen decided to give it to me, if I would move it to my own property and restore it. It was not an easy matter to convince the elderly ladies who shared ownership, and lived mostly in other states, because they remembered the house the way it once had been, with no leaks in the roof and no rats or snakes roaming freely through its empty rooms. In their mind's eye it was filled with family members gathered around the long dining table or dancing with friends to tunes by minstrel groups at locally famous parties. To force the familial hand, I took a series of graphic photosof walls that had given way from rot, sunlight visible through holes in the roof, gang graffiti on the doors and the ground exposed through gaping cracks in the floor, and eventually they agreed to let it go. In 1990 my friends and I took the house apart, board by board, and hauled it sixty miles to my property, where we put it all back together again and replaced the rotten lumber.
Moving and restoring Holly Grove was not so different from the challenge that grew from itreconstructing the story of Prospect Hill, which became increasingly important to me the more I learned about the Ross family and the slaves who “returned” to Africa before the Civil War. Holly Grove today is restored, but it is my reconstruction, and though it has been saved, it now stands at a new location, facing a different way. It is, essentially, a new interpretation that I hope will last.
I had heard bits and pieces of the story of Prospect Hill over the years, but my interest grew after Gwen presented me with Ross's piano. No one knew how the piano had survived the fire that consumed the Prospect Hill mansion and took the life of a young girl, but Gwen knew that it had also been spared from a second conflagration, at another family home, Oak Hill, because it had been moved to Holly Grove. With Holly Grove now secure, she felt it was time for the piano to return. After she filled me in on the details of the alleged slave uprising at Prospect Hill and all that led up to it and came after, the sounds of the piano evoked for me less the echoes of sonatas than the cries of lynched slaves and of a doomed girl being burned alive. Eventually, it would also invoke an endless series of calls for help over the phone from Africa.
Ross was a slaveholder in the Wateree River region of South Carolina, and had the piano made in Philadelphia soon after the end of the Revolutionary War. Whether he played it himself has been lost in the telling, as has been a great deal more. But according to family accounts, in 1808 he hauled it with his other possessions, his family and his slaves to the Mississippi Territory, where he established Prospect Hill. Gwen, who is a member of the Isaac Ross chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America, inherited the piano a century and a half later, after it had been passed down the family line.
At first the piano seemed a dubious gift to me. In addition to its uselessness as a musical instrument, it was extremely heavy. Gwen could not bear to watch as Tinker and I wrestled it down the stairs from her balcony, accompanied by alternately discordant and sonorous protests from the strings. We had trouble holding onto its smooth surfaces, and broke off a piece of the veneer as we awkwardly rounded the bend and collided with the wall. I would later discover that these were the least of the transgressions it had endured during its years of wandering.
The difficulty in moving the piano left me wondering how it could possibly have been rescued from a burning mansion. The odds seemed long that anyone could have gotten it out in a hurry, particularly when they were unable to save the girl. I wondered if something had been left out of the story of the uprisingand even if it was entirely true. As it turned out, I would begin to question a great deal more, for the fire was part of a larger maelstrom unleashed by Ross's will that would ultimately span two centuries and two continentsthe unintended result of his effort to do what he believed was the right thing.
There were legions of wealthy planters in Jefferson County before the Civil War, but what set Ross apart was that he ordained, from his deathbed, the destruction of the very thing that he had spent his life building uphis prosperous, 5,000-acre plantation. Ross's will, which was probated in 1836, described a radical plan to ensure that his life did not end as might have been expected, its sum total reduced to an embarrassment of riches for his heirs, and a hopeless fate for the slaves on whose backs his fortune was made. Ross stipulated that at the time of his daughter Margaret Reed's death, Prospect Hill would be sold and the money used to pay the way for his slaves who wanted to emigrate to Liberia, where a colony of freed slaves had been established by a group called the American Colonization Society. There was already a community there called Mississippi in Africa, founded by a Mississippi chapter of the Colonization Society a decade before.
Margaret Reed would remain faithful to her father's wishes, but some of his heirs did not cotton to the idea of handing the bounty of his estate over to the slaves, and then setting them free. Those heirs filed a contest of the will with the Jefferson County probate court soon after Reed's death in 1838, and pursued the litigation to the state supreme court. They also attempted an end-run around the courts in the state legislature. They had many supporters, because some area planters and state elected officials were convinced that the colonization plan smacked of abolitionism. The fight dragged on for a decade, and during that contentious time, according to the family account, the slaves grew restless and set fire to the mansion, hoping to take out the offenders.
The heirs ultimately lost the contest of the will. By 1849 approximately 200 of the 225 slaves had been given their freedom and had emigrated to Mississippi in Africa, where they were joined by approximately 200 slaves freed by other, more sympathetic Ross family members. The rest of the Prospect Hill slaves chose to remain behind, enslaved. According to the provisions of the will, the remaining slaves were sold at public auction, in family units, so that close relations were not separated. Some of the freed slaves for a time wrote letters to their former masters at Prospect Hill, but when I began my research no one knew what had become of them.
Once I began reading about the colonization movement, I found that it stirred controversy far beyond Prospect Hill. Opponents, including many abolitionists, saw the effort as essentially a deportation of free blacks, while supporterswho also included abolitionistswere embarrassed by reports that some of the freed-slave immigrants had resorted to enslaving members of Liberia's indigenous tribes. Many of the new settlers, including some of the Prospect Hill immigrants, established large plantations and built grand mansions in the same Greek Revival style they had known back home, and some of the native tribes had a name for them, which is still occasionally used to refer to blacks of American ancestry: white. This may have been because they occupied the master's role in this African version of a Southern plantation society, or because they tended to have complexions that were considerably lighter than the native groups. The settlers were also referred to as “kwi,” which means “western” or “civilized.”
So it turns out that the story of Prospect Hill is more complicated than it first appeared, and covers a lot of ground. Over a span of 175 years or so, in fact, it has managed to touch just about every hot button in the histories of the American South and colonial Africaslavery and exploitation, conflict and greedwhile encompassing almost every imaginable human predicament. And as I probed deeper into the details, I detected what I believed were a few flaws in the narrative thread that had long been accepted by local tradition.
Old stories in the South tend to get a lot of grooming, often to within an inch of their lives, but inevitably they start mixing with other narrative lines. Sometimes the stories are ephemeral and, as a result, endlessly malleable. With no documentation to support or refute, the details blossom fantastically, in ways that are unlikely to be corroborated by any written record. Other times there is ample documentation, which helps if it says what you expect it to, but there is always the question of who did the documenting and why. For the most part, in the southern storytelling tradition, big things happen, people talk about them, hone a few ideas, revise the story and delete here and there, add entertaining details from other sources, then take the finished product out for a test drive. This goes on for generations, and sometimes myth and reality are blended seamlessly into what passes for fact. This is how you end up with something like the minié ball pregnancy, which was the tale told by a Vicksburg, Mississippi family whose daughter had hastily married a Yankee soldier during the Civil War, after which it was said that a sniper's bullet had passed through his testicles and into her womb. (If anyone needed proof, of course, there was the actual child.)
The story of Prospect Hill was a natural target for this honing instinct, and the more people I talked with, the less sure I was of the veracity of the official account, which until now been firmly rooted in the slaveholders' vantage point, because they alone had the power to document history at the time. Yet even the versions told by otherwise attuned slaveholder descendants vary to some degree, depending largely upon whether the person traces his lineage to Isaac Ross or to his grandson, the contester of the will. As the piano stared back at me in my living room, I began to wonder about the circumstances of the infamous fire, including whether the uprising itself may have actually been a fabrication, designed to discredit the slaves. Notably, the threat of insubordination had been a key component of the opponents' legal argument against the will. I wondered if, upon closer scrutiny, the familiar parlor story of Prospect Hill would still play after so many decades, or if, like the piano, it was hopelessly warped. I also wanted to know what had become of everyone involved, from the divided slaveholding family to the slaves who chose to remain behind and those who emigrated to Africa. What might their descendants know about the story? And what revelations might come from a more thorough review of the written record?
Tinker Miller and I mulled over the possibilities one summer evening as we sat on the porch of the newly relocated Holly Grove. We had spent many hours deconstructing history there over the past twenty-five years, and none of the stories intrigued us more than how there came to be a place called Mississippi in Africa, and what the saga meant for all the key players on both sides of the Atlantic.
On this particular evening, fireflies drifted randomly across the lawn and the air was soft and sweet with the scent of Japanese honeysuckle. The songs of crickets, cicadas, and frogs rose to such loud crescendoes that now and then we had to raise our own voices to be heard.
We are of a generation and bent that once dissected Civil War battles as we might a football game, but when it came to the story of Prospect Hill our knowledge had until now been mostly hearsay. We knew what we had been told, and we have had no real reason to question it until now, when I had decided to try to piece the story together in detail. Tinker was to be my first official interview.
For Tinker, our conversation probed a very personal history, and I was gently challenging him to reconsider the comfortable, accepted truths that were told to him by people he loved and respected. He had no trepidation about digging deeper, because we know each other well and it was unlikely that either of us would go anywhere with the story that the other could not followor, if we did, there would be no acrimony in pointing it out. It was just that we were dragging the memory of people like his late Uncle Anon into the twilight, critiquing what he said when he was not there to answer.
We talked about Uncle Anon for a while, and when the conversation found its way back to Prospect Hill, Tinker glanced disapprovingly at my tape recorder. “That thing,” as he called it, made him overly aware of his words, because he knew he could not retract any of them. There were a lot of long silences.
I said I had no pretenses about being able to uncover the all-encompassing, indisputable truth of Prospect Hill, mainly because I knew from reading Faulkner that with a story as complicated and sweeping as this one, where the characters are so diverse, the likelihood was that everyone claimed only a piece of the truth and the pieces did not necessarily jibe. I wanted only to isolate the narrative thread, find out what became of the people involved, and see what hand history had dealt their descendants.
He nodded, noncommittally.
What Tinker thinks matters a great deal to me, particularly because he first told me the tale one afternoon as we sat on this same porch with our friends, drinking beer and watching the sun set. It was still a favorite story of his because he loves history, it concerns his own family, the whole premise is so unexpected, so oversized and dramatic, and after 165 years its effects still reverberate in both Mississippi and in Liberia. He was also aware that my version had the potential to trump the others, and I had to admit that the family lore had already started to seem a bit stylized.
There is no question that Prospect Hill burned on April 15, 1845, and that a family member, Martha Richardson, died in the fire. But once I started to dig, I became increasingly dubious about the slave uprising, which so many descendants point to as the cause of the fire, because every account of the incident harks back to a single source Thomas Wade, the son of the man who contested the will. Like many local histories, this one has been honed to a narrow focus over time, told by people with their own agendas, and there is a lot that the more recent narrators simply did not know.
As we talked about the alleged uprising, Tinker allowed that, “It's possible that the whole thing was a fabrication, but why? What would anyone have to gain? My perception of the family tale was that these blacks were not mean; they were misguided or confused by the situation. There were no harsh feelings from the ancestors of my family toward the ancestors of the blacks. These families were close, have always been close, and this whole episode with Isaac Ross Wade trying to nullify the will is just contrary to everything they were about.”
This disclaimer was not an effort to further distance himself from a man whose character had been called into question. He had told me many times before that his family falls squarely on the side that supported the will.
I watched the red dot of his cigarette dancing in the gathering darkness as he repeated the family lorethe story of the slaves growing restless prior to the uprising, the cook drugging the coffee, the slave at the door with the ax to kill the man who stood in their way to immigrate to Africa. “That's just the story,” he said. “It was part of the family history. There was no variation of the story when I was growing up . . . it wasn't questioned.”
Tinker is open-minded, and I knew that if he is not willing to budge from the family line, it was unlikely that other descendants of the slaveholding family would. That would leave only the slave descendants to test my theory that there was more at work than a simple conflict involving irrational slaves. Perhaps the descendants of the Prospect Hill slaves, if I could find any, would have something to add to all of this. The same is true for the descendants of the emigrants to Liberia, although at this point I was not at all inclined to travel to a war zone to find out.
He shrugged when I suggested this.
“Growing up, you couldn't help but be proud of what Isaac Ross did,” he said. “Everybody in the family was proud that he freed his slaves. The fact that the will was contested by his grandson . . . the family didn't really play that aspect of it up much. We didn't see Isaac Ross Wade as representing our family. We were proud that our family wasn't the malevolent, mean, make-a-dollar-off-the-slave-industry type people, that they had a history of compassion for people. They didn't voice it like that, but that was the primary story. Then again, Isaac Ross was still a slaveowner, and my family were still slaveowners and that's a horrible thing.”
He said his own views have been influenced by contemporary history, which include his having lived through the Civil Rights era and having attended racially integrated schools. “The Mississippi we grew up in was a segregated place, but we saw that change,” he said. “Our parents grew up in a different world. You hear all this stuff, and it's confusing. You know your ancestors owned people, you kind of have this paternalistic moonlight-and- magnolias mentality, then you read about people that you grew up admiring, like [Confederate General] Nathan Bedford Forrest and his involvement with the Klan, and you know it was a bad, bad thing. And deep down, no matter what gloss you put on it, it was always a bad thing. It never got good. . . .
“I can't pass judgment on them because that was the culture, that's the way life was. But the fact that some of the freed slaves or their descendants, whatever, enslaved the indigenous people in Liberiathat just shows what a terrible thing it is. . . .
“I guess it's just human nature to try to dominate other people. Which is why you have to give someone like Isaac Ross credit for trying, even if it was late in the game, to basically do the right thing.”
With that, he thumped his spent cigarette over the rail.
“Now turn that thing off,” he said, motioning toward the tape recorder.
But I have one more question: How did the piano make its way from Prospect Hill to Oak Hill?
He shook his head and shrugged.
The piano is one of the few surviving items that was contested during the litigation, and one of the last heirlooms of the original Prospect Hill mansion. The irony is that had Wade not removed it from the house, however he did, it would have burned in the fire. But then, had he not contested the will, there would have been no fire.
In a region beset by racial divisions and economic disparities, sorting through numerous differing accounts can get complicated, with key roles reversed in different sources' tellingsheroes transformed into villains, and vice versa. This may be true all over, but it is especially so in the South, where major conflicts from the past are routinely distilled to very personal encounters today. The backdrop of history looms constantly, and sometimes its weight can be overwhelming, and you just have to let it go, and move on. Other times the story is too compelling and too provocative to ignore. That was the case with Prospect Hill, which is why I began digging through moldering records that had not seen the light of day for perhaps a hundred years, and eventually, found myself on my way to war-torn Liberia, where Mississippi means something altogether different, and where the conflicts of the old American South not only still matter, they are matters of life and death.