In the Shadows 

Holly Springs shines a spotlight on slave dwellings with the “Behind the Big House” project.

click to enlarge Burton Place - CHRIS SHAW
  • Chris Shaw
  • Burton Place

Tucked behind some of the homes in Marshall County, Mississippi, are structures that tell a very different story from the large plantation homes that overshadow them.

Behind the wraparound porches, tall willow trees, and lush gardens sit the crudely built homes of the slaves who worked the cotton fields of North Mississippi. Those homes were added to the annual Holly Springs Pilgrimage of Homes this year, and last week, tour groups were shown another side of pre-Civil War life in Marshall County through the "Behind the Big House" tour. I made the hour drive down to Holly Springs for a glimpse into the South's unpleasant history.

Since taking over the Marshall County Museum last July, Director Chelius Carter has made it his mission to expose the history that sits in the backyards of some Marshall County homeowners.

"People drive by, and they just see a carport or an old shed," Carter said. "They don't realize that they're looking at a living piece of history."

To educate the public on the importance of these homes, Carter organized the tour of three former slave homes near downtown Holly Springs.

Our first stop was at the Magnolias Slave Quarters, which housed as many as 11 slaves starting in 1852. The current property owners, Frank and Genevieve Busby, explained that when they have the money, they want to convert the slave dwelling on their property back to its original form, exposing the old walls and original fabric. For now, though, the dwelling remains an integral part of the Busbys' estate. It appeared to be serving as equal parts laundry room and entrance to Frank's man-cave.

It was hard to imagine 11 people inhabiting the small room, and it offered a glimpse into the extremely unfair living conditions these people were subjected to.

Our second stop was Burton Place, a grand plantation home that belonged to divorcee Mary M. Burton beginning in 1842. Burton received all of the estate when she divorced her husband and proved to be a shrewd (albeit cruel) businesswoman. In 1850, she purchased eight slaves to work and live on her estate. But by 1860, she had 80 slaves. It is presumed that while her original eight slaves worked and lived on the property, her other 72 slaves lived in a bigger dwelling somewhere in Marshall County.

The Burton Place slave home was the largest of the three I visited and also in the best condition. The three-room, brick building was complete with a large fireplace for cooking, and it still boasted the original ceilings.

Current owner David Person went to great lengths to preserve the history of his home, and the inside of the main house boasted a wrap-around painting of the history of Holly Springs that spanned multiple rooms.

The last stop on the tour took us to the Hugh Craft House, where the slave home was adjacent to the house instead of behind it. Carter explained that the front of the house had changed over time, and the doors of the slave home aligned with the main house so slaves could enter and exit the main house quickly with food or laundry. The heavy timber frame with batten-board siding made for a lasting structure.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the home was the upstairs quarters used by child slaves. Although it wasn't safe for us to explore, the tiny staircase and crude space no bigger than an attic made it obvious that young slaves also suffered through treacherous living conditions.

"In Holly Springs, like many antebellum communities, we have the big houses that are important for many different reasons, but that's only part of the story," Carter said. "We hope that what we've done in Holly Springs with 'Behind the Big House' can be a template for all Southern towns that want to explore their history."

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