In 1860, Somerset Place was one of the most successful plantations in North Carolinaand its owner one of the largest slaveholders in the state. More than 300 slaves worked the plantation's fields at the height of its prosperity; but nearly 125 years later, the only remembrance of their lives at Somerset, now a state historic site, was a lonely wooden sign marked "Site of Slave Quarters."Somerset Homecoming, first published in 1989, is the story of one woman's unflagging efforts to recover the history of her ancestors, slaves who had lived and worked at Somerset Place. Traveling down winding southern roads, through county courthouses and state archives, and onto the front porches of people willing to share tales handed down through generations, Dorothy Spruill Redford spent ten years tracing the lives of Somerset's slaves and their descendants. Her endeavors culminated in the joyous, nationally publicized homecoming she organized that brought together more than 2,000 descendants of the plantation's slaves and owners and marked the beginning of a campaign to turn Somerset Place into a remarkable resource for learning about the history of both African Americans and whites in the region.
About the Author
Dorothy Spruill Redford is now executive director of North Carolina's Somerset Place State Historic Site in Creswell, the antebellum plantation on which four generations of her enslaved ancestors lived.
Read an Excerpt
Daddy was at work the windy February morning I came to ask about Columbia.
He was seventy then and holding down three jobs. The granary was closed. Waldo had shut it down back in 1962, after he became the city's Commissioner of Revenue. But Waldo didn't leave Daddy jobless. He took him along, made him a janitor, and that's where my father worked for the next thirteen years--keeping the Commissioner of Revenue offices clean.
They retired Daddy at sixty-five, but he wasn't the retiring kind. He'd been doing a man's work since he was twelve, and he wasn't about to sit down until he had to. So he got on as a runner at a local bank, was hired to clean a judge's office, and clerked at a neighborhood hardware store. That was enough to keep his days filled.
Mother and he were living in town then, in Churchland proper, in a three-bedroom wood house Daddy built on land he paid for with some of his hogs. Six of us children were grown and gone. Rudolph, the youngest, was the only one still living at home. He was out, too, the morning I arrived to ask my mother who I was.
It was January 1977, a time when I had not been thinking much about the past.
I was thirty-three that winter, a single mother with a thirteen-year-old daughter. We lived in the South. Not the South of moss-draped oaks and whitewashed pillars--the snapshot images that spring to the mind of those who have not lived there. No, Deborah and I were in Portsmouth, Virginia, a gray harbor-front town of ships and sailors. I was a social worker, supervising three welfare offices that handled about a hundred cases a day. That was a good number, high enough to keep us all busy, knowing our jobs were secure. Sometimes it bothered me seeing my work that way, knowing my good fortune depended on someone else's bad. But I worked hard, and I was good at my job, good enough to think about moving that winter from our rented apartment to a townhouse--the first home Deborah and I would call our own.
My job, my daughter, and a mortgage--I had plenty to think about but not so much not to know that the world was sitting down that week to watch Roots. At least the world I knew. It was all my friends and co-workers could talk about. They watched it at night and talked about it in the morning--about Africa, about slavery, about finding their ancestors.
I was too busy with the here and now to think about there and then. But I watched, too. And as I did, it all rushed back, feelings I hadn't faced in years. Emptiness, anger, confusion, denial--most of all, denial. For thirteen years I had tucked those feelings away, telling myself they no longer mattered. Now they were back again, but with a difference. It wasn't just me facing the questions now. Deborah wanted answers, too. She watched, and suddenly she was asking about things we'd never talked about. Who were my great-grandparents? Where did they come from? Were they slaves? And their parents, where did they come from?
My daughter was demanding her past, but I could not give it to her without discovering my own. And that meant picking up where I left off the day Deborah was born. It meant going back to New York City, to Queens and Harlem, to Aunt Dot and Ivan. Back to Virginia, to my mother and father and sisters and brothers, to hogs in the pen and prayers in the living room. Back to North Carolina, to a hazy town of dirt streets and distant cousins, to the edge of the woods where the vaguest family memories and whispered stories stopped--and beyond which my own story began.
That town in the woods was Columbia, North Carolina, where I was born in August 1943. My parents were not much for history, for talking about the old days. But they did reminisce now and then. And this much I knew:
It was a busy place, hard on the Scuppernong River, at the seacoast edge of the state. The black part of town had seven little streets--none of them paved--and the white part had ten. The Norfolk Southern tracks ran through the center of town, keeping white and black homes apart and stopping at the edge of the woods, where the sawmill sat. For the railroad, that mill was the end of the line, the place where the tracks ran out. But Columbia would not have been there without it. Lumber made that town. For generations, loggers from miles around drove or floated their timber to Columbia's mill, where it was cut and loaded onto boats headed seaward or railroad cars headed inland.
My mother always referred to Columbia as a "boom town." She'd talk about the out-of-town bus coming through, and the trains rolling in, the movie house, the store, the hotel where her great-uncle worked. None of the small surrounding villages had those things, so Columbia was the hub, the big time.
By the time I was born, most of the men in town--at least the black men--were gone. Some had left to war. Some had left for work somewhere else. And some had just left.
There were a few black professionals around: teachers, ministers, shop owners, and of course one of the most successful men in town--the undertaker. But if a job took more than muscle, it was most likely taken by a white. Blacks worked in the fields, digging potatoes for twenty cents an hour. Some women became domestics, cooking and cleaning for white families. The black men who were lucky handled freight for the railroad or got on at the log mill. And some of them found more than one way to make money off those logs. My grandmother would tell us about her husband searching the river for logs that had sunk, logs that really belonged to the sawmill. He'd fish them out, plane them, and sell them on his own. There were men who earned their entire living just dredging up lost logs. There was no welfare in those days, so you did what you had to to get by.
My father went into the log woods--the thick pine forests where timber was cut--at twelve. A lot of boys just like him did the same thing, to support their mothers and sisters when the men were gone. My father's parents separated early on, so he and his mother took care of themselves and his sister. When he was old enough, my father got a job at the mill. By August 7, 1943, he was earning twelve dollars a week for fifty-six hours of work. That was the day I was born, and that was the day he left town.
It was a Saturday morning, and he and a white man named Leslie Snell decided to catch the bus to Virginia. There were already four children in our house, and my father could not support five on the pay he was getting. He had heard about a lumber mill up in Portsmouth that had big contracts with the Navy shipyard and plenty of jobs. So he just went. He left at eight in the morning, and I was born at two that afternoon, the only one of my mother's children to be delivered in a hospital. Old Doc Chapman, who delivered all the black and white babies in Columbia, always came to your house, gave you ether or whatever, and you bore your child right there. But not this time. I guess it was my mother's way of protest, being angry at my father leaving her behind, but she said, "Oh ho, this one is going into the hospital." That's another thing that made Columbia a big town. It had the hospital. Seven beds.
So my father stayed in Portsmouth, earning forty-two dollars a week, sending money to my mother and coming home when he could--a four-hour bus ride in those days. We lived upstairs in the home of my mother's parents, Momma and Poppa. Poppa wasn't working anymore. He was preaching. And Momma J, she was doing just whatever she'd ever done, which is not much of anything. She was in her own world, my mother would say.
I think Mother would have stayed in Columbia forever if Poppa hadn't died. But he got typhoid in 1944. My mother told me they put him in a front room of the house, with a cheesecloth net over his bed to keep the flies away from him. She said she could hear him breathing, hear his death rattle, hear him dying in that room.
When my mother packed us up and moved to join Daddy in 1945, she was pregnant with her sixth baby. And she was petrified. Back in Columbia, you walked everywhere. Nothing was more than a mile away. But here were things she had never seen before. She had never seen city buses. Stoplights. Traffic. She had been used to living in a large country house, with a big porch on the front and another on the back. A yard. Lots of room. And now she was in a two-bedroom rowhouse, squeezed up against houses full of strangers, sharing one bedroom with my father while the five of us slept in the other. There wasn't a lot of money, but more than that, we were living on pavement. There was no garden in the backyard. No field to go to for food. No way to make do for yourself except to make money.
Daddy couldn't earn enough. And with another child on the way, his family needed room. My mother's brother, Uncle Fred, lived in New York City with his wife Dorothy, my namesake. She was "Big Dot," I was "Little Dot." They had no children, they had money and they had time. When they offered to keep me for a while, my parents sent me north for a summer that lasted eight years.
My own memories begin in New York. I remember sitting in an apartment in Queens, looking out on elevated railroad tracks. Later, we moved to a house with a yard. I remember Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred playing cards in the front room once a week, while I sat on the floor in front of a large radio, listening to The Lone Ranger. I remember going to a concert and seeing men in sparkling red tuxedo jackets; I found out years later that one of those men was Count Basie. I remember Aunt Dot walking me to kindergarten every morning, and taking me to a movie every Wednesday afternoon.
Uncle Fred was my mother's oldest brother, a dark, tall man. And Aunt Dot was Momma J all over again. She was a small woman, light-skinned, just like Momma J. She had black curly hair that fell down to her waist, just like Momma J's. It was as if Uncle Fred had married his mother.
But there was more. Aunt Dot lived in a world far beyond Momma J's dream. When you looked at Aunt Dot, you knew you were looking at a lady. She wore the finest clothes: a Persian lamb coat, a full-length mink. These were working people--Uncle Fred had a job in a Manhattan cleaners--but Aunt Dot could squeeze a penny. Everything she bought had to be the very best, the most expensive she could find. And somehow she found a way to get it. In Aunt Dot's house, everything had to be just so. Even what we ate. Only the proper food--a salad every day. No fried foods, none of that Southern home cooking. On a special occasion we might have ham, but more often it was beef. At that time, if you ate beef that meant you were really living well. Real status. So we had hamburgers every Saturday, just like our Jewish neighbors. Fish every Friday, just like the Catholics. Mixed vegetables two nights a week. I still remember spitting those mixed vegetables back onto my plate. I hated mixed vegetables.
Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred were both from Columbia, but there was nothing on their dinner table that you'd see back in North Carolina. Nothing in their speech either, no Southern accent. They'd left all that behind when they came north in the late twenties. It had taken some time, but over the years they had managed to leave every bridge behind them in ashes. Back in Columbia, you were either black or white. And black meant black. There was no pecking order, no difference between fair skin and dark. Everyone was related. Everyone was linked. You can't discriminate on seven streets. But Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred came from two of the wealthier black families in town. They were used to feeling special. When they got to New York, however, they were nobody.
The worst thing you could be in New York, white or black, was a Southerner. Southerners were slow, ignorant, shuffling country folk. And if you were a black Southerner, you were the lowest of the low. Even the other blacks--the native New Yorkers, the West Indians--sneered at the South. So Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred did what they had to. Suddenly they were no longer from North Carolina. Suddenly they were Dorothy and Fred Littlejohn from Jamaica.
Suddenly, they were "islanders."
There wasn't much to it, really. They were chameleons, taking on the shades of their surroundings. And their surroundings were mostly white. The Queens neighborhood where Uncle Fred and Aunt Dot lived was almost suburban, closer to something in Virginia than in Manhattan. Stand-alone houses and separate yards. And lots of whites. There were only three black families on Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred's block. I used to play with the daughter of the Jewish doctor who lived across the street. Next door to us was my best friend Maryann, a little Italian girl. These were the kids I played with, white kids. The school I went to had more whites than blacks. We were the minority, but we were accepted. We did what the "well-to-do" did. We took in that matinee every Wednesday. We shopped at Gertz, the best department store in Queens. I took dance lessons, wore hand-knit sweaters, walked to school with a clean handkerchief pinned to my left shoulder, was even left with a sitter when Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred took a proper vacation. We were a model family, right out of the books Aunt Dot liked to read. To our white neighbors, to the white people Uncle Fred worked for, we were "okay" blacks. And Aunt Dot made sure we stayed that way.
But it wasn't easy. Not with me around. From the time I learned to speak, Aunt Dot spent each day praying I'd keep my mouth shut. Once a week we'd ride the subway into Manhattan, meet Uncle Fred after work and go out to dinner. Well-bred families did that. We'd meet Uncle Fred at the cleaners, and if there was one place the act counted, it was there, where Uncle Fred worked. Two days before we'd ride in, Aunt Dot would start the harping: "Don't tell them where you're from. Don't talk about Virginia." I knew where I was from. I knew I wasn't from any island. I knew Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred weren't either. And I was just the kind of little girl who would answer back: "Why can't I say what I want?" All the years I was there Aunt Dot lived in mortal terror, convinced I was going to pull the masks off.
When they had first come north, Uncle Fred had worked in a meatpacking house. But before long he was hired as a spotter at a cleaners. And he wasn't just any spotter. He was a mid-Manhattan spotter, something special. He only took stains out of the most expensive clothing. If someone had a nine-hundred-dollar dress with a spot on it, Uncle Fred was the man they called to take it out. That's all he did. He was a craftsman, a chemist.
But he was not the dandy Aunt Dot tried to make him. She put him in expensive suits, pushed him to act just the right way. But Uncle Fred was a loud talker. He had modified his accent, gotten rid of the Carolina ring, but he was still loud. And if he had a drink, he was even louder. He couldn't help cursing now and then, letting slip a nasty tale or two. He liked to have his fun. Once in a while he'd take me with him when he stopped in at the bar around the corner. He'd have his beer, and I'd stand on a chair and shoot pool. Not exactly the little lady Aunt Dot was grooming. We both had that streak of sassiness, Uncle Fred and me. I guess it's in the Littlejohn blood. And it drove Aunt Dot up a wall.
Manhattan and Queens. That's all I saw of New York. If Aunt Dot knew anything about a place like Harlem, she kept it to herself. To me, the only odd thing about being black was playing Aunt Dot and Uncle Fred's "island" game. Other than that, I never felt different. I had no reason to. There was a movement brewing out there--in the angry streets of Harlem, in the sweltering shantytowns of the South. Brushfires were beginning to crackle, flames that would soon gather into the sixties storm of civil rights and separatism, of Selma and Stokely. But I was untouched. Aunt Dot made sure of that. There was no conflict in her home. No rocking the boat. It was a delicate house of cards she had built, and she wasn't about to see it fall apart. I turned eleven in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, of soldiers on the school steps in Little Rock. That was a big year for the movement. It was a big year for me, too. That was the year I moved back to Virginia.
Table of Contents
"Over de River"
The Road Home
Voices from the Past
What People are Saying About This
I read this delightfully written book straight through. All black people are the beneficiaries of Redford's labor of love.Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Dorothy Spruill Redford's Somerset Homecoming is, in the profoundest sense, achingly American. Her description of her brave people, and the moment they came together, is one of the most memorable chronicles ever written about black Americans in our nation. I read it enthralled, between tears and laughter. . . . All our children, black and white, should read it.Willie Morris
This is a compelling book, made notable by the author's intensely personal struggle to confront the past that was, for much of her life, something that she once felt 'no longer mattered'. . . . A fine book that serves as a reminder of how important it is to reach for your heritage.Our State
[Redford] tells the storyand it is a fascinating onewith charm and good humor.The Atlantic
The book skillfully weaves Redford's first-person remembrances of her immediate family into the fabric of her investigations. . . . It makes fascinating reading, thanks not only to the engrossing subject but also to a finely tuned, appealing style. . . . One of the more insightful and compelling histories of any search for family.Southern Living
There are moments of drama, high humor and sorrow in Redford's odyssey. It's a joy to share her triumph at identifying her forebears, then bringing together 2000 of their descendants.Publishers Weekly
This is one of those books that prove love is the ladder that reaches through time: sometimes the first rung of this ladder is disguised but that is only a test.Alice Walker
The moving story of how one black woman, inspired by Alex Haley's Roots, discovered her family's heritage. . . . As much about a remarkable woman as about an American people.New York Times Book Review
Dorothy's study is the best, most beautifully researched, and most thoroughly presented black family history that I know of. . . . I don't believe I could imagine a better answer to the prayers of her relatives' foreparentsof all our foreparentsthan what she has brought together and created at Somerset Place and the story she tells in these pages. . . . It is all our stories.Alex Haley
Redford has crafted a narrative as compelling as a novel. Somerset Homecoming is a wonderful tale.Mary Helen Washington