Two Hundred Summers Later, Slavery's Descendants Honor the Ghosts of a Plantation

updated 09/15/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When it was over, those who had been there called it one of the most extraordinary reunions in American history. Actually it wasn't a reunion at all, since most of those present were strangers to one another. Call it a reconnecting, then—a reconciliation. "When I drove past these cypress trees planted 200 years ago and looked across the land, I knew I was home," said Dorothy Spruill Redford. "I felt it deep inside."

Two hundred summers after their ancestors had been dragged there in chains—80 of them shipped from Africa aboard the brig Camden—Redford and perhaps 2,000 other people had come home to Somerset Place, once one of the largest slaveholding plantations in North Carolina. They were descendants of the black men and women who had carved the magnificent estate from the Great Alligator Swamp in the eastern part of the state, who had dug by hand a canal six miles long and 20 feet wide to drain the malarial swamp, who had built a 14-room mansion, sawmills, a gristmill. They had cleared and farmed the plantation's 5,870 acres, and many of them had died in the process. Their descendants had come to pay them homage from as far away as California and West Germany. They were doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, politicians and musicians, carrying the variously spelled surnames of their ancestors' original slave masters: Lee and Leigh, Horniblue and Honeyblue, Blunt and Blount. Among them was one Clarence W. Blount, 65, Democratic majority leader of the Maryland state senate, who sat in the elegant study of Josiah Collins III searching for his family name in a slave record book. "I feel somber," he said quietly. "Slavery—it's the worst punishment man can inflict on man." Another descendant, retired farmer Ludie Bennett, 83, of Creswell, N.C., knew it intimately: His father, Darious, had been born into bondage on the Somerset estate in 1854.

The reunion was the culmination of nine years' meticulous research by Redford, 43, a social services supervisor in Portsmouth, Va. After watching the TV miniseries version of Alex Haley's Roots in 1977 with her only child, Deborah, now 23, Redford embarked on the search for her own family origins. "I felt this overwhelming need to know about my past," she says. "I used to think of slavery as ancient history, but I'm only the third generation that wasn't born slave. That's amazing to me."

Working nights, weekends and vacations, Redford pored through faded local court records for three years before she discovered her link to Somerset Place. In the Chowan County Courthouse, she found a bill of sale showing that her great-great-great-grandmother, Elsy Littlejohn, and Littlejohn's six children had been sold in 1826 by the Littlejohn plantation to the owner of Somerset, Josiah Collins Jr., who already owned Elsy's husband, Peter.

Four years later Redford unearthed a 5,000-page collection of Collins family records in the state archives, which provided the names of 21 slave families that had worked the rice-and-corn plantation from its founding in 1785 to the end of the Civil War. In 1865, 328 men, women and children labored in bondage at Somerset. The indefatigable Redford was able to trace several thousand of their living descendants. Through hundreds of phone calls and letters, she invited them all to this remarkable gathering.

For the most part, the day was festive. By remembering their ancestors' slavery the descendants were celebrating their own freedom. They picnicked on the lawns, listened to speeches and spirituals and watched a reenactment of a slave wedding. They heard North Carolina Gov. James G. Martin proclaim Aug. 30 Somerset Homecoming Day, and enjoyed a surprise visit by author Alex Haley, who had heard that Roots had inspired Redford. Two others who returned were silver-haired, blue-eyed Josiah Collins VI, 78, a retired real estate appraiser from Seattle, and Frances Inglis, 57, a potter from Edenton, N.C., both descendants of the plantation owners. "I deplore the institution of slavery," said Inglis. "It brought the downfall of our family."

Others remarked that the achievement and endurance of their shackled forebears had outlived the pain and degradation of slavery. "Think about the strength it took to build this place," said State Senator Blount. "Talk about true grit. Talk about the right stuff. They had it, and so do we."

Their graves are unmarked. Their one-room, 18-foot-square wooden cabins, in each of which as many as 15 slaves lived, have long since been torn down. Practically all that remains of the slaves are some broken bricks from the slave hospital. But that seemed not to matter. Today the whole plantation had been transformed into their monument. "As long as one of us lives, everyone who lived before us lives," Redford told the crowd. "Until the day Somerset plantation crumbles, the slaves will be remembered." The slaves' descendants stood and applauded, and a few whispered, "Amen."

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