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Levi Jordan

Ken Brown Interview

On Sallie McNeill's diary

Including ideas about the role that Claiborn Holmes may have had within the plantation community, and on the ways that people within the slave and tenant community empowered themselves.

Questions or Comments?
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CAROL: What parts of Sallie McNeill's diary were most helpful to you in doing the archaeology? Was it that helpful as a reference point as a way of testing anything?

KEN: Yes, although know I know I was looking the wrong way for some of the things mentioned in the diary. There is a weaving house mentioned. There is the fire in the cribs and a variety of things. Right now, I would define the space in the back yard differently that the diary might have led me to. There’s no mention in the diary of a number of things that we know to have been in the backyard.

CAROL: Such as?

KEN: The slave quarters, for one thing. Such as the kitchen. Such as the boys’ house. And we know where they are located. We have that wonderful description in the diary of the piazza, and Sallie talks about how "the new stables" are ruining the view. Well, you know, you go back to the word "piazza" – when that word first comes into use, it meant a "public square". Probably it doesn’t have that same meaning when Sallie uses it [in the diary], but if you look at other sources, a piazza is a second story balcony. Okay. That’s kind of interesting. Now where the hell did they put the stable that it would ruin the view of the slew from the second story gallery? It would have to be in front, because the back of the house was full of other buildings, and I’m pretty sure there was no gallery on the side of the house towards the slew.

CAROL: There was no second story balcony on that side but there was on the front?

Ken: She also mentions some people, such as Claiborne [Holmes] He's the only Claiborne on the plantation other than a 16-year-old kid, and he’s seventy-something when the 1870 Census was taken. Claiborne Holmes has to be the Claiborne mentioned in the diary, which would make him the head of the household staff. If he is, that may, then, explain why he has so many children in the ‘70 census. As a 73-year-old man, one wouldn't ordinarily think of him having been biologically the father. This is further supported by Palatine Holmes’ death record, which calls Claiborne Holmes her father and says that her mother is "unknown".

And there’s no female listed in that household and she’s 15 or something. I suspect he was taking in some of the people who became orphans because Jordan sold off their parents. And if you had the status of being a house slave, you would have also had status within the community – I think he was, in a sense, aiding the community by taking some of these kids in.

CAROL: And this says (in terms of an idea that we've talked about before) that his status could have been conferred by the community rather than just from the top down. And his son seems to have inherited that status, in terms of what happened later with Hester taking care of Emily.

KEN: Yes. I just don’t like the view that plantations were completely run from the top down – there’s just too much in the historic record that indicates that there were lots of complex negotiations going on. Slaves did a lot to try and influence work schedules and task sizes and so forth. You can’t tell me that they also didn’t have some influence into who was going to be a driver or house slave or whatever, and who was going to have status of other types. Some people have said that I take too much of a view that slaves had a lot of independence in their lives. I just think they could, in effect, have sometimes set up someone they wanted with a position of higher status by simply indicating that they would be willing to work for that person, or by indicating that there were maybe some other people they wouldn't work for as well.

CAROL: So it could have been a pretty subtle form of influence – it might be a matter of knowing which person working for you – whether you are enslaving them or not – seems to exert more subtle control over the rest of your workers. Who they get more work out of, to put it another way.

KEN: Exactly.

CAROL: And it shows how a group of people, despite the oppression that was all around them, still found ways of empowering themselves.

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