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  • Writer's pictureMarcia Edwina Herman-Giddens

Black History Month: An Event at Harmony Hall


Almost two hours of driving from home got me to Bladen County on River Road, so named even though the Cape Fear River at that point has a good mile of mostly forest between the road and the river. I was heading to an ancestral home that happens to be here in North Carolina. It was built before the American Revolution. Rounding a curve there was some Spanish moss hanging from an otherwise bare tree leaning over the road. And there I was again about to visit Harmony Hall as I had countless times even during my Alabama childhood. This time my visit was because I was a descendant of the builders and because I had written a chapter about Harmony Hall in Unloose My Heart and because it is February, celebrated as Black History month in the United States.



My Google feed showed me this the day after I went to Harmony Hall or I would never have seen it:

Bladen Online

On Sunday afternoon, the village welcomed guest speaker Marcia Herman-Giddens, who shared insights from her book and her experiences as a Richardson descendant. Her presentation, “Black History Month – Unloose My Heart,” provided a poignant reflection on the rich tapestry of history and heritage woven into the fabric of Harmony Hall Village.


    Reading the article, my eye caught the name of a local young man with the last name of Pridgen who the day before had been there as part of a community cleanup, volunteering his lawn care business skills and equipment. He also was at my reading. Had I known his name, I would have read this part of an 1853 newspaper article about some long-lived enslaved people. There are still white and Black Pridgens in the area.

    Later, at home, I did a quick look at the 1850 “Slave Census” for Bladen County. There were five Pridgen slaveholders with a total of 48 people in bondage among them. One Pridgen owner of 12 enslaved people was a woman. Today, we think people move around a lot but often they do not, even over a century and a half and even in areas like Bladen County which is very small and rural.

In my maternal line there were several generations of Bladen County Purdies and Richardsons, all enslavers. Today, as with Pridgen, there are white and Black folks with Purdie/Purdy and Richardson still in the county. In fact, it turned out that least one person with all three of these names in her family came to the reading.  

   The pandemic and other things had kept me away from Harmony Hall for more than six years. Early in that period a hurricane had done a lot of damage. The dry wall had to be removed because of mold and the furniture put in storage. Parking my car at the little chapel where the reading would be, I walked toward the old place across brown grass and weeds which barely kept the sandy soil from being stirred by footsteps or a wind. The house had a hungry look. It looked sad and forlorn, but I think and hope it knows it is loved. The siding was stained with mildew in various places and paint was pealing. The property, now owned by the 501(c)3 Harmony Hall Village, Inc., is maintained by an amazing group of volunteers who struggle without any state assistance to keep it going. After enormous efforts, they have recently had a new roof put on and have been awarded a large grant to restore the ancient house. Work will start soon.

    An exciting part of all this new effort is a focus on the enslaved people who would have produced navel stores used in the American Revolution. Their stories are starting to be told.  No doubt, their production of turpentine, pitch, and other navel stores continued through the Civil War, and the times in between. It was grueling work, considered far harsher and punishing than working cotton. The area was known for its longleaf pines. Another exciting effort, one I am helping with, is to attempt to locate the burial grounds for the many people who were held in bondage there and forced to work for my ancestors.

 

There is a cellar under part of the smaller original house made of rocks and bricks, the latter likely produced by enslaved people. I had never known the term “loophole” for those angled slits to point weapons out of in castle walls as well as occasionally in very old homes like Harmony Hall until my husband visited with me years ago and noticed them right away.

Maybe defense was needed against various enemy soldiers, marauders, and even bears. The indigenous people, Siouans and related groups, were mostly driven out by the late 1700’s. Ducking my head, I once again went into the cellar, standing as it has for over two and a half centuries, and tried to imagine what it would have been like sequestered afraid in the dankness with a Pennsylvania rifle against my shoulder.

    The size of the European and African population isn’t precisely known at the time my fourth great-grandfather, Col. James Richardson got his land grant, found himself a widow to marry, and built the house, the exact order of these events unknown to me. One can guess what would be a logical order but who knows? There were not many people around. The area called Bladen was very large back then, the boundaries of the current Bladen County being a great deal smaller. The earliest list suggesting population numbers is a tax list from 1763 which was before James arrived following his shipwreck at the mouth of the Cape Fear. There are 490 entries which can possibly considered as households as those 490 entries listed 1,244 “taxables.” I cannot find a clear definition for this term. One can glean a bit from the breakdown: 577 white taxables and 667 black taxables (376 black males and 291 black females). Slavery here goes way back.


The time for the book event arrives. Bridging the 250 plus years of all this, I find myself standing on the pulpit in the little chapel on the grounds addressing a small group of people. Not all had come for the reading on their own volition. Knowing how small the county is and that it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I had told myself I would be pleased if three people came. Perhaps three did come on their own. The rest, well…

    One couple I encountered getting out of a large truck as I passed them before starting time. I assumed they had come for the reading, but they knew nothing about it. They had just arrived from New Hampshire. Several questions later, including one that had to be asked as to how on earth they had found Harmony Hall, I learn that their hobby is taking two weeks each year to find and visit plantations. By the end of our chat, they follow me back into the chapel and sit, often wide-eyed (the wife) or frowning (the husband) during my presentation. They stayed to the start of the questions and then left to explore the house and grounds which was what, of course, they really wanted to do.


    There was a flock of high school students, some Black, some white. Several slipped out before the question period was over (so not all in the photo) but not before asking some questions themselves. I found out their motivation for being there was that their history teacher told her students that any who showed up to help with cleanup the day before and/or attended the reading would get extra credit. The teacher is another one of the long serving and devoted volunteers.

    Whatever it takes, it was fine with me to have a real audience, albeit small. I was pleased to be there to honor and acknowledge the many enslaved people who toiled on the 900 some acres for around an entire century. I also acknowledged that I have recently learned from DNA-based genealogy that some of the descendants of the enslaved people are blood relatives of mine.


   My benediction, with gratitude: Let us generations embrace in a growing circle, seek to understand the enormity of the story, much still untold, teach our children the truth, and continue gathering with hope and love and kindness.

 

 


Black History month is celebrated in February because President Lincoln signed the Thirteenth Amendment which outlawed slavery on February 1, 1865.


Harmony Hall is owned by Harmony Hall Village, Inc. and is operated and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers. The home place has been on the National Register of Historic Landmarks since 1972. It was built by Col. James Richardson (1734-1810), Elizabeth Neal Purdy Richardson (1727-1808), and, likely, some of their unnamed enslaved people.


To the Harmony Hall Village president, Emily Turner: thank you for inviting me, for the photos you took and for the article in at Bladen.com.


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