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As we observe Black History Month, interpreter John Saunders offers his reflections on African-American history at Drayton Hall through the centuries.
“There is much to be learned from what a country chooses to forget” –Lonnie Bunch, Dedication of the African-American Cemetery at Drayton Hall – 2010
The blustery winter chill of February signals not only the shortest month of the year but also a celebration of stories which focus on Americans of African ancestry, one of the longest stories of the human family that can be told. These stories achieve the heights of human accomplishment while at the same time plumbing the depths of human deprivation. Drayton Hall is part of this narrative, standing boldly as it proclaims the paradoxes of the first being last, the lost being saved and the lion lying down with the lamb. Each of these metaphorically renders a verse in the African songs that have been sung and heard at this place over the past 273 years.
The Drayton family, from England through Barbados to Carolina, brought with them people who were enslaved, adding to their numbers over the years. The search for freedom and opportunity that gave rise to the vision of John Drayton was made tangible by those who knew no freedom. This is a profound part of the story of Drayton Hall and February begs us speak with more urgency, penitence and amazement. Skilled artisans, field workers, those who served in the house, boatswains and others all used their knowledge and skill to enable and ennoble the life of Drayton Hall. Some of the names by which they were called are known, e.g. George, Quash, Mary, Samson, Affy, Judith and others, but will the names that tell who they were ever be known?
As the history of legalized enslavement passed, the stories of Americans of African descent continued to be lived though rarely heard outside family communities. From the post Civil War mining of phosphate into the 20th Century, African Americans sustained and guided the ever-emerging character of Drayton Hall. Today, members of the Bowens family who came with Thomas from Barbados in 1675 as enslaved laborers, still connect with Drayton Hall because, in a very real sense, it is owned by them as much as by the Drayton family. In fact, it is the presence of their voice that still whispers through the same live-oak trees that stood during the Hall’s birth in 1738. Voices from days of old emanate from the sacred grounds of the cemetery where both bodies and stories rest, waiting to be acknowledged and embraced by each visitor who comes to experience and to “feel” the wonder of this place.
Walking to the cemetery under the memorial arch inspired by the late master craftsman Philip Simmons, a visitor will find a sacred place of remembering, noticing but a few markers and a bench.* The bench is for sitting, quietly and prayerfully using the eyes of the heart both to see and to hear the vibrancy of songs sung, drums beat and children playing among the shallow depressions of burial sites. There are no headstones on any of these leaf-covered depressions, but one need only walk back to the road and look east. There in all its’ magnificence is the headstone for people whose bodies may have been stolen, but whose souls were and are free. Some people may call this Drayton Hall, but some may see it differently. Looking again at Drayton Hall just may be seeing the invisible.
For more information about the recent dedication read Dwight Young’s article, ‘Leave ‘Em Rest: Drayton Hall Honors its African American Cemetery’
*With the passing of Mr. Simmons in 2009, the memorial was crafted by his protégés, cousin Joseph “Ronnie” Pringle and nephew Carlton Simmons, in the Simmons Blacksmith Shop. It includes elements found in Simmons’ work, such as the series of interlocking circles symbolizing the chains of slavery, and a small bird or dove symbolizing freedom and the movement into the next life.