- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003


North Carolina’s plantation homes are a good illustration of what provoked an old joke that the state is a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit.

In Colonial and antebellum days, when North Carolina was suspended between the wealth of Virginia and South Carolina, there was plenty to make it humble. To the north and south, good land, nimble marketing and deep-water ports helped create a wealthy landed aristocracy — and showcase mansions to match.

North Carolina’s step-behind status was reflected in its plantations — a far cry from the stately mansions on Virginia’s James River or the Ashley River outside Charleston, S.C.

Liberty Hall, an 1833 two-story white clapboard house a stone’s throw from the Duplin County Courthouse on North Carolina Route 24, is a typical example. The ancestral home of the Kenan family, who helped found the University of North Carolina in the 1790s, is shaded under a canopy of live oak trees and squeezed between newer homes on one side and city tennis courts on the other.

Liberty Hall’s owners were well-to-do but far from aristocratic.

“It was nice for its day, but it was not tremendous,” says Thomas S. Kenan of Chapel Hill, an eighth-generation descendant of the original settler.

Kenans — of Scottish and Irish ancestry — first came to the state in 1760. A son of those first arrivals served as a general in the American Revolution. At the family’s peak, Kenans controlled almost 7,500 acres about 12 miles south of Kenansville on the northeast Cape Fear River.

Income came not from vast cotton fields, but from sales of timber, pitch tar and turpentine. According to Thomas Kenan, the family had 20 to 50 slaves and often worked alongside them.

The family home opened as a museum in 1968, three years after the Kenans gave ownership to the county and set up a fund for maintenance.

The home gives a glimpse of the family’s lifestyle in the 1850s, two decades before the timber and turpentine business would reach its peak. Chippendale chairs, Indian rugs and crystal chandeliers furnish the formal spaces. Plastic cabbages, pies and cakes wait in a period kitchen out back for someone to carry them through a covered gangway to the main house.

Rows of 12 white clapboard outbuildings topped by shake roofs include the slave overseer’s office, furnished with a secretary desk and a bench in front of the fireplace. Raised gravel walks surround clusters of lantana shrubs.

“It would be considered a planter’s home. It’s not something that would have staggered the large planters in the South if they’d have come to visit,” says Peter Coclanis, chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There were fewer of the grand plantations in North Carolina than [in] either the Virginia or South Carolina low country and Deep South.”

Mr. Coclanis says the stereotypical image of the grand antebellum plantation home distorts the realities of the pre-Civil War period.

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, about three-quarters of the South’s white families held no slaves, and those who did commonly worked next to them in the fields, Mr. Coclanis says. Three percent of white families in 1860 had 20 or more slaves, suggesting a large operation in which the forced labor performed highly specialized jobs, he says.

“The large plantations were definitely a minority everywhere in the South,” he says. “This is the really, really wealthy people in society. Sort of like the people today who live in huge mansions.”

Perhaps the state’s largest plantation, Durham County’s Stagville, is also one of its best preserved. Although much reduced in scale from 1860, when about 900 slaves worked almost 30,000 acres, the site is now a state Historic Landmark.

The plantation was assembled in the late 18th century by Richard Bennehan, a merchant who moved to the area from Virginia and raised tobacco, grain and livestock on the estate.

Bennehan and his wife built a Georgian house in 1787 and added onto it in 1799.

A massive mule stable built at Stagville in 1860 provides monumental evidence of the estate’s prosperity and the craftsmanship of its slave laborers. Carpenters assembled timbers into an attractive barn spanning 132 feet by 33 feet that is often the focal point for photographs.

By the eve of the Civil War, the plantation was controlled by the Bennehans’ grandson, Paul Cameron, who would serve as president of the North Carolina Railroad, a state senator and trustee of the University of North Carolina.

The post-Civil War period brought changes for both the plantation system and North Carolina’s fortunes. The huge estates were divided and sold to tenant farmers, many of whom turned to tobacco. That crop fetched a high price and for decades allowed the farmers to make a decent living on little land — and helped fuel increased wealth in North Carolina.

• • •

Stagville: 5825 Old Oxford Highway, Durham; 919/620-0120; www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/sections/do/stagvill/default.htm. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Free admission.

Liberty Hall: 409 South Main St., Kenansville; 910/296-2175. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5 adults, $2.50 children.

General information: www.ncdcr.gov/historic-sites.htm or call 919/733-7862 for information on other state-run historic sites. For accommodations or other information: 800/VISITNC or www.visitnc.com.

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