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Excerpted from: The HistoryMakers, Down on the Old Plantation: African Americans and their Progeny (September 18, 2020) (Photos Omitted) (Website) (Last Visited: September21, 2020)


SlaveryOldPlantationPlantations are synonymous with U.S. enslavement history. In fact, there were over 45,000 plantations in North America and many of them were operated by absentee landowners without a main household. There are only a few hundred still in existence and are operated today as museums, historic sites, visitor centers, inns and as event locations. We were curious to look at some of our HistoryMakers and their family origins on the plantation. What we found is interesting.

For Miriam DeCosta-Willis, the first African American faculty member at Memphis State University, her mother’s roots can be traced “back to 1760 when my great-great-great-grandmother who was named Sally [ph.] was brought over from Dahomey, West Africa and she was brought into a port city in Virginia and then from there was sold to the Huberts and taken to Georgia.”[1] Here, her great-grandfather Zachary was born in 1844 to Paul and Jincy, who had a total of eleven children on the Hubert Plantation. DeCosta-Willis recalled being told about “my great-grandfather [Zachary Hubert] and how all the kids would race down to get the newspaper. He came up at a time when education was denied to blacks and yet he learned to read through watching his master, who was also his same age and he loved newspapers and all.”[2] Armed with the ability to read, Zachary and his family decided to move off the plantation after the end of the Civil War. They had much debate with the older family members fearful of being able to survive outside of plantation life and its owner Matthew Henry. They would go on to establish their own church.

Then, “on the first Sunday of freedom, Paul and his son, Moses, organized a church in the lower section of the cotton barn. They called it the Hubert Baptist Church… six months after the Hubert Baptist Church was organized it had a membership of about seventy-five people… In September 1868… Paul Hubert died. Not long thereafter his family gradually began to leave the farm. The first to leave was Zach. Early in 1869, around April, Zach rented a twenty acre farm about eight miles away, near Powelton, in Hancock County, Georgia.”[3] Here, he married a woman named Camilla, and though “it was very difficult after slavery for freed slaves to buy property, but he was able to do so because he had good relationships with people. So… when he died, I think in the late 1920s, my mother said he was a millionaire, but very unassuming, very low key… he had twelve children, he sent all of his twelve children to college, to Morehouse College [Atlanta, Georgia] and Spelman College [Atlanta, Georgia]… he built a huge two- story house for his family; he built a school for the children in the neighborhood… and our family has a foundation called the… Camilla Zachary Foundation, and we give scholarships to Morehouse and to Spelman.”[4]

[. . .]

Economist Andrew F. Brimmer (1926 – 2012), the first African American governor of the Federal Reserve System and longtime Louisiana NAACP president, spoke of his ancestors on the Winter Quarters Plantation just outside the town of Newellton, Louisiana. Now a state historic site, the Winter Quarters Plantation began as a hunting lodge in 1805 and became a cotton plantation under the ownership of Haller Nutt, who owned several plantations in the area. Despite living in Louisiana, Nutt was a Union sympathizer, and, as Brimmer explained: "Winter Quarters was used by General [Ulysses S.] Grant when he came down on the Louisiana side, crossed the Mississippi River and attacked Vicksburg [Mississippi] from the south… in July 1863 during the [U.S.] Civil War. And… Uncle Feddic [Frederick Waters] told me that he remembered those days because he and a number of the other slaves--men--were conscripted by General Grant in order to build the so-called corduroy roads over which the Union troops moved through the swamps… Feddic said that he had an experience because one of General Grant's orderlies, the orderly sergeant who looked after the livestock… used the… stables on the plantation when they were camped there for a while… one day, the orderly sergeant said, bring the General's horse and the other commanders' horses because they were going out some place… the stable man… wasn't there. So he [Uncle Feddic] brought the horse. And they started to say, 'Where's the boy who would… look after the horses?' And he said, 'well, I'm not a boy, but I brought the horses' (laughter). And so the guy said, 'Thank you, thank you.'"[5]

Following emancipation, African Americans continued living at Winter Quarters, including the maternal grandparents of Eyes on the Prize producer Callie Crossley, who recalled Winters Quarters as a bad memory for her mother: "She spent some time at Winter Quarters. She really detested it. Winter Quarters now is a historical site, so you can go and visit it. And it became so later on in my life and my mother would say, 'I am never going there to visit.'… she would have nothing to do with it. It just brought back so many bad memories. So the story is that my grandmother was a sharecropper, and then when she married my grandfather, he was a sharecropper. They both maybe had second grade, maybe third grade education… My mother left home very early because she went to college at 15."[6]

For consultant Howard Adams, his ancestors were enslaved at the Berry Hill Plantation in South Boston, Virginia. The owners of this plantation, "James and Eliza Bruce designed the stone slave houses themselves. James Bruce even helped build them. He wanted them to be substantial and impressive. They had wood floors instead of the typical dirt floors. He wanted his slaves to have privacy and it was discussed in correspondence between himself and his wife and other people… There were thirteen stone slave houses on the plantation. Only four are accounted for at this time. The stone houses were for slave families. Eliza Bruce felt it very important that the families stayed together."[7] Adams explained in his interview that his great-great grandparents, Matilda and Benjamin Adams, were "house servants" here when they gave birth to a son, also named Benjamin. After emancipation, Benjamin and his wife Cecilia "were freed, stayed on the plantation. They gave birth to my grandfather, Jube… Adams. And he was born in 1868… he grew up to be a Virginia gentleman. You are considered a (laughter), a Virginia gentleman if you own land and you were your own person. And he bought a hundred acres of land and built a very stately house which all of us had a chance to live in… he bought a hundred acres of land from his playmate, the slave owner's son… had the bill of sale for that, paid $2,000 for it, cash, so the bill of sale says in 1912. And so he was a butcher on the plantation… he was known as Mr. Adams. He [also] was superintendent, he helped build the first school for kids in the area."[8]

Also in Virginia was the Bushfield Plantation, the property of President George Washington's brother, John Augustine Washington and his wife, Hannah Bushrod Washington, where journalist and NABJ founder Paul Brock "can trace my family back to… [to] family member West Ford… a slave."[9] West Ford was born around 1784 at the Bushfield Plantation in Westmoreland County, near present-day Mount Holly. Here, he grew up there with his mother Venus, and grandparents Billy and Jenny. Hannah Washington made special accommodations for Brock's ancestor, stating in her will in 1801 that "it is my most earnest wish and desire this lad West may be as soon as possible inoculated for the small pox, after which to be bound to a good tradesmen [sic] until the age of twenty one years, after which he is to be free the rest of his life."[10] Hannah's son, Bushrod Washington, subsequently became the owner of George Washington's Mount Vernon in 1802, and he brought Ford with him where "Ford continued to work… after he received his freedom in about 1805. He took care of George Washington's elderly former slave, Billy Lee, who had been freed in 1799… Ford also supervised the slaves, [and] helped conduct business for the family."[11] Because of this, Brock states: "when Bushrod Washington died in 1829, he left West Ford over 100 acres of land in Fairfax County, Virginia. Ford later sold that plot to buy a larger property nearby, which became the nucleus for a free black community called Gum Springs… Ford eventually became the second wealthiest black man in Fairfax Country, Virginia," and fathered four children, William, Daniel, Jane, and Julia with Priscilla Ford, a free black woman.[12]

Brock then explained how "George Washington's kids had practically destroyed Mount Vernon and he [West Ford] acted as a consultant"[13] for the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA) when they purchased the property to preserve it in 1858. He fell ill and passed away in July of 1863, but, in the midst of news of the Gettysburg Campaign, the Alexandria Gazette reported on Ford's passing: "West Ford, an aged colored man, who has lived on the Mount Vernon estate, the greater portion of his life, died yesterday afternoon, at his home on that estate. He was, we hear, in the 79th year of his age. He was well known to most of our older citizens."[14] While there is no marked grave, it is believed his grave is located in the slave burial ground at Mount Vernon.

Historian Manning Marable, founding director of the Institute for the Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, traced his family back to a plantation that carries his family name: "My family goes back to Morris Marable, my great-grandfather, who was a slave. He was born Morris Robinson in 1845 near Rome, Georgia. He was sold at the age of nine according to my grandmother, Fannie Marable, for five hundred dollars by the man who was both his owner and his biological father… My great-grandfather told my grandmother the last time he saw his mother was… when he stood on the auction block and tears were streaming down her face… she wore a big white apron, so she was a household slave, and she wiped the tears as she saw her son being sold. He was sold to a white man named Marable who took the boy across the Chattahoochee River from Georgia to Alabama, and the boy worked on Marable's farm in Randolph County. The farm had at least twenty slaves… because of his [Morris's] light skin and his gray-blue eyes and sandy straight hair, he was privileged by his owner. He was trained to be a mechanic… drove the master around. Drove the wagons. During the Civil War… The master was wounded. He was assigned to pick up the master and bring him home and did… but before the war was over, according to my grandfather [Manning Marable], Morris, who had just turned twenty-one, took forty dollars of gold out of the house and stole two oxen and disappeared. And he took them and resettled about twenty miles north of where he had been a slave… He used the money to begin to purchase land. By the 1880s, he owned several hundred acres of land and became a black businessman. He owned a cotton gin… from the 1890s until about 1915 when… because of War World I, there was a collapse of the cotton market and he went bankrupt."[15]

Marable continued explaining that his great-grandfather "was a prominent leader of the African American community even though he was phenotypically white. He looked like a white man… except he identified himself with the black community and so frequently he was the interlocutor, the go between, between Negroes and white people. He was a protector. He confronted white people around issues of discrimination. This may be apocryphal, but I understand he was even briefly a sheriff in one of these towns in the 1890s where he was with the local magistrate."[16] In addition, he was also the first black voter and juror in Randolph County, Alabama and, according to The Roanoke Leader, he "held the position of Sunday School superintendent and deacon in the church… He was responsible for the erection of one of the largest and finest Negro churches in Randolph County… He was a man who possessed the ability to assume responsibility, a leader among his fellow-men, a great Christian who believed in the upbuilding of his community and his race; yet he was born a slave and could not read or write. Truly, his accomplishments serve as a challenge to our modern youth."[17]

Similarly, Lonnie Bunch, the fourteenth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, recalled: "the name Bunch is an English name that the family Bunch came to the New World in the 1670s… the white Bunches. And they settled in Virginia and North Carolina. And there was what is known as the old Bunch Plantation outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. And our sense is that's probably where the family was during slavery and took the name that way. But what was interesting that while the last name was Bunch… they made decisions to make sure all the first names had nothing to do with the plantation owners… And so the family joke was, 'different family, same plantation'… now… there's a road called Old Bunch Plantation Road."[18]

[1] Miriam DeCosta-Willis (The HistoryMakers A2003.173), interviewed by Kelly Navies, July 31, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes how her maternal great-grandfather acquired land in Hancock County, Georgia.

[2] Miriam DeCosta-Willis (The HistoryMakers A2003.173), interviewed by Kelly Navies, July 31, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes her mother's personality and recalls a story from her mother's childhood in Hancock County, Georgia.

[3] Dr. Lester F. Russell. “The Paul and Jincy Family,” accessed September 2, 2020.

[4] Miriam DeCosta-Willis (The HistoryMakers A2003.173), interviewed by Kelly Navies, July 31, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4.

[5] Andrew F. Brimmer (The HistoryMakers A2003.090), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 24, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Andrew Brimmer tells stories of the 1800s from relatives and an ex-slave neighbor.

[6] Callie Crossley (The HistoryMakers A2013.118), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 23, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Callie Crossley describes her maternal grandparents and her mother's school experience.

[7] Michelle Bowers. “The Enslaved at Berry Hill Plantation, South Boston, Virginia,” March 20, 2019.

[8] Howard Adams (The HistoryMakers A2012.034), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 8, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Howard Adams describes his father's family background.

[9] Paul Brock (The HistoryMakers A2003.106), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 14, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Paul Brock describes a relative of his, West Ford, who was a slave of John Augustus Washington.

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