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Unique Homecoming : Descendants of Slaves Gather at Plantation

September 01, 1986|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

CRESWELL, N.C. — Here, in the rural marshlands of North Carolina's coastal plain, stands a pale yellow house that became the site of a unique "homecoming" on Saturday.

The people, about 2,000 of them, came not to remember this house, a plantation called Somerset Place, but to celebrate their ancestors who lived and died here--in slavery.

There were Spruills, Baums, Bennetts, Littlejohns, Honeyblues, Collins, Cabarruses, Rowsoms and Normans, with the Spruill family predominating.

"This is a time in America where we have had so much negativism and so much of the news is bad that this coming home to Somerset is a getting back to good news and a celebration of family," said Dorothy Spruill Redford, the descendant of a Somerset slave family and organizer of the reunion.

Redford's idea was to commemorate the contributions of her ancestors at Somerset, not, she said, to dwell on their pain and hardships as slaves.

She wanted the descendants to know of their family ties, some dating back to the original group of 80 slaves brought from West Africa by Englishman Josiah Collins to clear and work the swampy plantation fields in 1785.

Canal Builders

In their first two years at Somerset, those 80 black men built a 6-mile canal from the plantation to a nearby waterway where Collins' ships could pick up the plantation's rice and other grain for transport north to Boston.

The slaves, too, built Somerset Place's main house, an early Greek Revival home, and its outer buildings, but not until 1830, when Josiah Collins III was master of Somerset.

The 14-room yellow house is now administered as a state historic site in Pettigrew State Park. It was surely a mansion in the early south, but the plantation house is not as large as some estates in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air.

But its size is of little matter. Somerset Place is an important part of the history here, and Redford wanted its descendants to know of their families' place in that saga.

Through Saturday's homecoming, the end result of Redford's 10-year search into her family background, a genealogical quest inspired by Alex Haley's "Roots," Somerset's descendants would find their home ties.

Haley, in fact, made a surprise visit to the homecoming in mid-afternoon, much to the delight of Redford and the others gathered on the grounds of the 5,870-acre plantation on the edge of Lake Phelps, eight miles back in the mosquito-ridden swampland surrounding the little town of Creswell.

Earlier this year, Redford had written to Haley at his Los Angeles home, asking if he could attend. Haley had sent his regrets, saying he would be in Morocco at the time.

Acting on Impulse

"I'm just thrilled that it ("Roots") has taken this form," said Haley. "I was flying back to Los Angeles from Morocco to meet two buddies and I saw the story in USA Today. I showed it to my friends and said, 'What the hell, let's go.' It was purely impulse."

Speaking to the crowd gathered under the shade of huge old holley trees that once bordered Somerset's formal gardens, Haley said: "Your forebears, no matter who you are, prayed for a better day. . . . I can't imagine a better thing to have happened to prayers than a day like today."

Haley's words and the smiling faces of the crowd at Somerset made Dot Redford cry.

It wasn't the first time this day her eyes had filled with tears. And the same was true for many other slave descendants.

For her work, Redford received a state proclamation from Gov. James G. Martin and a sincere thank-you from Maryland State Sen. Clarence W. Blount, who did not know he was a Somerset slave descendant until Redford told him of his ancestors.

'People in the South have a long way to go to overcome the pain and burden of suffering because of slavery," said Gov. Martin. "But we are here to celebrate a new theme, of recognition and respect of those very slaves themselves--for they were very real people who built this place. Through the evil system they survived, they built strong ties, and that is the reason you are here today."

"It's taken such a long time, and it's so important for people to be able to find their roots," Redford said. "If you're doing something like this that is very personal, you never see the broad scope. I knew in August last year that I was going to have the coming home to Somerset, but this is beyond what I dreamed it would be."

Redford also had no idea her dream of a Somerset Place homecoming would almost turn into a media nightmare. Neither did Josiah Collins VI, who came from his home in Seattle for the event, nor his cousin, Frances Inglis from nearby Edenton, also a direct descendant of the Collins family.

The week of the reunion, this remote area of North Carolina, not far from the seashore resort towns of the Outer Banks, was crawling with print and TV journalists. There were interviews on top of interviews by national media representatives.

One day Redford and Inglis were asked to appear at Somerset for a 6 a.m. television interview. They did.

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