‘Our stories deserve to be told’: Stagville Memorial Project aims to bring more equitable and diverse history to downtown Durham

The Hart House, located at Historic Stagville. Photo courtesy of Morgan Brenner.

Ricky Hart has known about his ancestry since he was a child, when his father took him on visits to their family home, the Hart House: a small cabin located on what used to be the Bennehan-Cameron Stagville Plantation and is now home to Historic Stagville. 

Historic Stagville is located 10 miles north of downtown Durham and contains remnants of what used to be the 30,000-acre Stagville Plantation, one of the largest in North Carolina. 

The Bennehan-Cameron family profited from the labor of enslaved Africans and African Americans from 1771 to 1865. By 1860, the family had enslaved over 1,000 people. 

Among those enslaved was Ricky Hart’s family. 

Now the President of the Stagville Memorial Project and founder of the Stagville Descendants Council, Hart said he is dedicated to preserving Stagville’s history and spreading awareness about the largely disregarded history of African American Durhamites.  

The Stagville Memorial Project was created in 2019 after Vanessa Hines, executive director of the project, met Hart at a Bragtown Community Association Meeting. The project aims to construct a memorial in downtown Durham commemorating those formerly enslaved at Stagville.

Bragtown is a historically Black neighborhood, one Hines said largely consisted of formerly enslaved people at Stagville after emancipation.

Textile and tobacco industries prospered because of the Black communities that were already in Durham, who migrated from Stagville and laid the foundation for Durham’s economic prosperity by building railroad tracks, she said. 

Hines was in her car when a Main Street Confederate monument was vandalized in 2015. Instead of driving home where she was headed, Hines kept driving towards the statue. She wanted to see it for herself.

“Black Lives Matter” was spray-painted across the monument’s granite base — a signal to the movement which started in 2013 after the death of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of his shooter, George Zimmerman. 

After moving to Durham from Los Angeles in 2013, Hines said she started thinking more critically about what it meant to be a Black woman in the South. 

Hines started wondering what slave memorials were in Durham and in North Carolina. 

Over the next few years, Hines created a website to catalog her findings. She quickly realized the only monuments depicting Black stories were dilapidated graveyards and plaques commemorating enslaved people for being ‘faithful.’

“This is not how we need to remember this history,” she said. 

Hines learned about Stagville Plantation while doing this research. 

Since then, she and the Stagville Memorial Project board members have been working to properly commemorate those enslaved at Stagville by creating a memorial in downtown Durham, an effort which is still ongoing. 

“These people’s histories matter — when I say, ‘these people,’ I mean Black folks in Durham — our histories matter, our lives are important,” she said. “Our stories deserve to be told.”

The Main Street Confederate monument has since been taken down, but many remain throughout the state. 

The NC Campaign to Remove Confederate Monuments seeks to remove all Confederate monuments from courthouse grounds throughout the state. Currently, 42 monuments remain in the state, according to their website.

“That’s what Confederate monuments are,” she said. “It’s a monument to a false victory that was placed to intimidate and to continue terrorizing Black folks, even after they lost.” 

The Stagville Memorial Project received partial funding from the Durham County Board of Commissioners in a unanimous vote in 2021. Hines said while the grant request was accepted, her request to place the monument on Main Street where the Confederate monument used to be, was not. 

The project is still trying to find a location to place the memorial. The prominent spaces the project desires are city-owned, and, currently, the project is not authorized to place a memorial on any of that city-owned property. 

If the Stagville Memorial Project is to accomplish its goal of spreading awareness about Stagville Plantation and the history of enslaved people in the greater Durham area, the memorial must be placed in a prominent downtown location, Hines said.

The Stagville Memorial Project has made it to the final rounds of Durham Participatory Budgeting, which allows Durhamites to select certain public space projects they find most desirable, funded by the city. Voting is open now until Oct. 21. 

From the left: Georie Brant, Stagville Memorial Project board secretary and Stagville descendant, Vannessa Mason Evans, president of the Bragtown Community Association, and Ricky Hart, board president standing at the project’s preferred location at the CCB Plaza Downtown Durham. Photo Courtesy of Vanessa Hines.

Hines said she hopes if Durhamites vote for the Stagville memorial, the city of Durham will allow the memorial on city-owned property. One such property is the CCB Plaza in downtown Durham, which is currently the project’s preferred location.

While the main purpose of the Stagville Memorial Project is to bring awareness about African American history in Durham, the project also serves to make newcomers think more critically about gentrification and the condition of Durham Black neighborhoods, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is inspire people to think critically about local history, and inspire conversations about, and think about, how are these neighborhoods doing?” Hines said. “Are they getting the support they need from local government?”

Hart said spreading awareness about the experience of enslaved African and African Americans at Stagville will help the Durham community to heal.

“I’m just not going to sit around and let the history of Stagville’s descendants — those that were enslaved at Stagville — die out,” he said. “I’m not gonna do that.”

For more information about the Stagville Memorial Project, visit their website. To vote for the Stagville memorial, visit Durham’s current Participatory Budgeting cycle voting link, or go to their website for more information.

Morgan Brenner is a reporter for the Durham Voice and UNC-Chapel Hill Junior. Contact mbrenner@unc.edu for more information.

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