This past weekend, Johnston County Heritage Center and Johnston County Heritage Commission put on a fantastic series of events focused on preserving the county’s African-American history and culture. Beth Nevarez, founder and principal of Beth Nevarez Historical Consulting, took notes for those of us who couldn’t be there:
“This past weekend I sponsored & attended @johnstoncountyheritage’s event: Reclaiming the Black Past: An Artifactual Journey. The event highlighted the importance of preserving spaces/places, artifacts and songs & stories that relate to African American history.
Friday evening we had a campfire conversation at the Boyette Slave House led by Joseph McGill of the @slavedwellingproject. Our gathering of about 25 discussed everything from those who lived in the Boyette Slave House & family history to issues of book bans and curriculums in schools today. We reflected on the importance of bringing awareness to the built environment that stands as a primary source of slavery’s past, as well as the importance of learning about that past in the present. Many thanks to Joseph McGill for leading this conversation & to the Stancil family who owns the property the Boyette Slave House sits on for hosting us.
“Saturday’s program included hearing more from Joe McGill on how he started the Slave Dwelling Project and the many ways in which it has evolved over the years. He spoke of the myths he works against including that slavery was only a southern institution.
“Then we heard from @philip_j_merrill of @nanny_jack_and_co about the importance and power of physical artifacts to preserve and share Black history. He brought along a number of interesting artifacts and spoke about ‘peeling back the onion layers’ of meaning and the many different ways artifacts, even some you wouldn’t expect, can be used to talk about Black history.
“We also heard both songs and history from @maryd.w who sang spirituals throughout her powerful presentation about the historical context of these songs and how they were used by enslaved people and later in the civil rights movement with coded messages hidden in their lyrics. These songs were passed down orally rather than in writing and contained messages of freedom and resistance.
“We concluded the day with a visit to the Sanders-Smith cemetery where descendants spoke the names of their ancestors buried there.”
WRAL News covered the gathering at Sanders-Smith Cemetery:
“Why is a cemetery hidden [in] a wooded stretch of land running alongside the highway – and directly adjacent to a modern day parking lot for the Johnston County Agricultural Center?
“According to [Todd] Johnson[, Executive Director for Johnston County Heritage Center], the land was all once part of the Sanders plantation.
“‘Ashley Sanders owned this land, which was roughly a 1,500 acre plantation,’ said Johnson. ‘His father was one of the largest landowners, who owned probably around 10,000 acres total. He left plots of land to his children.'”
“After the families enslaved here were emancipated after the Civil War, one of the men that had been enslaved on the property bought 25 acres of the plantation — including the cemetery.
“‘His name was Adam Sanders,’ said Johnson.
“By purchasing the cemetery land, Adam Sanders helped preserve the burial ground for future generations of his family – and help protect those who were already interred there.
“‘His parents were likely buried here,’ said Johnson.”
Many descendants of those enslaved by Ashley Sanders and family later migrated into Wilson County, such as Rodger Creech Jr., who attended Saturday’s observance at the cemetery. Future posts in Black Wide-Awake will attempt to make some of these connections.
Kudos to Johnston County for recognizing the importance of African-American history outside of Black History Month, for bringing Joseph McGill’s groundbreaking work to eastern North Carolina, and for recognizing Sanders-Smith Cemetery as an historic sacred space.