Creswell, N.C. — At night, 80 native Africans digging canals through the swampland around Somerset Place here sang songs on the shore of Lake Phelps until -- weary, despondent, and hardly knowing where they were -- they strode off toward Africa, into the lake. After several had drowned, the singing was stopped, wrote an 18th-century observer.
Descendants of these Somerset Place plantation slaves met in an unprecedented gathering last weekend. They numbered more than 1,500 and included machinists, school principals, and a Maryland state senator.
Descendants of the plantation owners were there, too. Josiah Collins VI, staying in the house that another Josiah Collins owned two centuries earlier, said he felt no shame for past indignities.
And more significantly, neither did slave descendants like Jeffery Littlejohn, whose great-grandfather Fred Littlejohn was owned by the Collins family and kept their horses until emancipation following the Civil War.
This huge, family-style gathering reinforces the growing consensus that slaves in the American South managed to build a culture and enduring families.
Further, their descendants do not need to look before or after the slave era to find an identity they can be proud of.
Mr. Littlejohn, who sang blues for the gathering, recently learned that when his great grandfather Fred was asked to hide the Collins' horses from raiding Union soldiers, instead he told the soldiers where they were.
``So even though he was a slave and all, he knew what freedom was,'' says Littlejohn, who is delighted to trace that streak of independence through to his two-year-old son, Joshua.
The black pride movement of the 1960s tended to bypass the slave era, says Dorothy Spruill Redford, who traced Somerset Place descendants through 10 years of research and organized the reunion. But, she says, ``you couldn't be black and proud if you were ashamed of your ancestors who were slaves . . . I was ashamed.''
Says Frances Inglis, ``I think that there are things to look back on with pride, and there are things to look back on with sorrow.'' She is the fourth generation of the Collins family to live in the same house in Edenton, across Albemarle Sound from the plantation.
Creating a great plantation, once the third largest in the state, from a deep, snake-infested swamp, she says, was remarkable. ``And you know,'' she adds, ``I didn't do that. I can't take credit for it.''
Today, the descendants of the Collins family and Jeffery Littlejohn see the sins of slavery in much the same way. ``When you've grown into a way of life,'' he says of the slave-owning planters, ``you don't know anything different.''
The two families have their own recollections. Mrs. Inglis recalls her horror upon hearing as a child the story of a housemaid's grandmother -- a slave -- who was caught visiting her mother and was locked in stocks. The grandmother eventually lost both feet to frostbite, the maid told Inglis.
Littlejohn recalls how his grandmother would laugh over the stories passed down of tiny insurrections in slave life. A Littlejohn slave in the Collins kitchen would put a little dirt in Josiah IV's dinner or Fred would give Josiah's horse a limp.
``I think most historians -- white, black, or whatever -- have come to understand nowadays that most blacks hated being slaves,'' says Robert Durden, a Duke University historian. ``They were living among the freest people in the world. They knew what freedom was.
Slave life was unusual at the Collins plantation. The Collinses kept slave families intact, even when they sold them. Slave children were taught to read, which was illegal in this state, to steep them in Christian teaching.
It was also fairly typical. As many as 15 people lived in one 18-by-18 foot room out in the slave quarters. They worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week.
Slaves had definite hierarchies. Somerset Place was highly mechanized, and slaves ranged from unskilled field hands to technicians whom the plantation depended on, says Thomas Clayton, who has written on Somerset Place and other plantations. At the top of the heap were the house slaves, often trapped between the world of the Big House and that of the slave quarters. Back in the quarters, ``there was a lot more going on than what was seen in the Big House,'' says Mr. Clayton.
Dorothy Redford has found evidence that shows slave marriages to have lasted 35 and 40 years. She presumes they lasted longer. Because some Africans were polygamous, and because the selling of slaves broke some families apart, some historians have assumed that slaves did not develop a tradition of family. Now, says Clayton, plenty of evidence suggests otherwise.
One piece of evidence lies in the treks blacks made to return to their families after emancipation. William E. Honeyblue's great grandfather was sold from Somerset Place to an inland plantation. He was allowed to bring his wife and children with him, says Mr. Honeyblue, a retired school principal. Nevertheless, when the war was over, the family made a very difficult trek on foot back to the Creswell area to be near relatives, probably stealing chickens along the way to eat, says Honeyblue.
Shortly following the Civil War, Josiah Collins III -- who had lived in grand style down on the plantation itself -- went bankrupt.
Josiah IV moved to Seattle, finding work as a bookkeeper at a theater saloon before establishing himself in a law practice. Josiah VI, a retired real estate appraiser, lives there now.
His cousin, Mrs. Inglis, sent her children to public schools, where roughly half the students are black. ``I thought it was important for them to learn to get along with the other half of this county,'' she says.