Excavating everyday life of slaves behind the big house

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HOLLY SPRINGS — “The later at night it gets, the heavier the feeling gets in the back of the house,” says Genevieve Busby, who lives in the Magnolias Mansion, circa 1852.

“My kids won’t go back there when it’s dark, my cats won’t pass the threshold into the quarters. It’s not ominous, it’s just not a happy feeling … a dark place,” she says.

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Genevieve Busby sits by a door, once covered in plaster, to a corridor between the slaves’ kitchen and the pantry for the big house.

The 1860 Marshall County Slave Census recorded 10 slaves on the Magnolias Mansion property, which had quarters for enslaved people and a separate kitchen behind the two-story big house. Magnolias Mansion is one of three properties on this weekend’s sixth annual Behind the Big House Tour, which explores the everyday life and labors of enslaved people in Marshall County.

After attending the inaugural Behind the Big House Tour in 2012, Busby began to have suspicions about her own home. She contacted Chelius Carter, a local architect and organizer of the tour.

Carter examined the property and determined that modern renovations were covering the original slave dwellings and kitchen. Plaster has been peeled back to show the original fireplace and hearth and the door that led into the slave dwelling.

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Plaster has been peeled back to show the original fireplace in the slaves’ living quarters at Magnolias Mansion.

“We have a lot of these homes … individual sites exist, but a community effort exists nowhere nationally except here in Holly Springs,” Carter says. “We are the only community to deal with slave interpretation in an old antebellum town.”

Funded by grants from the Mississippi Humanities Council and Mississippi Development Authority/Tourism Division and sponsored by Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, this year’s four-day tour also includes Burton Place Mansion, built in 1848, and Hugh Craft House, built in 1851.

Unlike the large cotton plantations in southwestern Mississippi, antebellum Holly Springs was a “very urban place,” says Dr. Jodi Skipper, an assistant professor of anthropology and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. Slave quarters were built much closer to the big houses here than they were in more rural areas.

Skipper began including her students as volunteers with the annual tour in 2013.

“Based on the Marshall County Slave Census Record, we know that the majority of the enslaved people who lived here (Hugh Craft House) were under the age of 12,” says Robert Warren, an anthropology graduate student at the University of Mississippi. 

Warren presents archaeological finds such as ceramics, pottery, bones of livestock, food and toys from the Hugh Craft House.

“Between age 5 and 6, you were expected to operate as an adult. However, there were some aspects of childhood,” says Warren as he points to marbles made by former slaves.

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“I reckon we played some games, but all I remember is ‘handy-over’ that was throwing a ball across the house.” Emma Johnson, WPA Slave Narratives Mississippi (Holly Springs, Marshall County)

“The narrative of the slave dwellings are missing from K through 12 education,” says Amber Parker, junior exercise science major from Madison.

Parker doesn’t recall learning details about enslaved persons or the labor of those who lived in slave dwellings when she attended public school in Madison County.

“This gives me a greater appreciation,” Parker says after visiting the three slave dwellings. She volunteered to assist in guiding visitors through the Burton Place slave quarters.

David Pearson, who bought Burton Place in 2005, is the first person outside of the Burton family lineage to own the property.

Pearson refers to the three-part dwelling adjacent to the big house as “slave utility buildings.” In 1850, eight slaves were recorded living on this property, according to the Marshall County Slave Census Record.

“It’s the spotlight of the entire property,” says Pearson.

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Joseph McGill, a Civil War reenactor, interprets life and labor at Magnolias Mansion in Holly Springs.

“When the Civil War ended, there was a considerable effort to remove these homes,” says Joseph McGill, a historic preservationist and reenactor for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

A descendant of slaves, McGill plans to sleep in every former slave dwelling still standing in the United States. He has stayed in 94 dwellings in 19 states and rejoins the tour in Holly Springs for the sixth consecutive year to interpret life in the slave dwellings.

“Enslaved people living in these spaces made all that happened in the big house possible,” he says.

The Behind the Big House Tour in Holly Springs continues Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. The tour of the three slave dwellings is free to the public.