Reconstructing Somerset Place: Slavery, Memory and Historical Consciousness
In the century and a half since Emancipation, slavery has remained a central topic at Somerset Place, a plantation-turned-state historic site in northeastern North Carolina, and programmers and audiences have thought about and interpreted it in many different ways. When North Carolina's Department of Archives and History first adopted the former plantation into its Historic Sites System in 1967, Somerset was dedicated to memorializing the planter, Josiah Collins III; the enslaved rarely made it into the site's narrative at all, and if they did it was as objects rather than subjects. In the final decades of the twentieth century, Somerset Place began to celebrate the lives of the 850 slaves who lived and worked at the plantation during the antebellum era, framing their history as a story about kinship, triumph and reconciliation. Both versions of the story--as well as the many other stories that the site has told since the end of slavery in 1865--require careful historical analysis and critique.
This dissertation considers Somerset's history and varying interpretations since the end of Reconstruction. It examines the gradual invention of Somerset Place State Historic Site in order to explore the nature and implications of representations of slavery, and the development of Americans' historical consciousness of slavery during their nation's long transition into freedom. It employs manuscript sources; oral histories and interviews; public documents, records and reports; and material artifacts in order to trace Somerset's gradual shift from a site of agricultural production to one of cultural representation, situated within North Carolina's developing public history programming and tourism industry. This research joins a rich body of literature that addresses southern history, epistemology, memory, and politics. It is comparative: it sets two centuries side by side, excavating literal cause-and-effect--the ways in which the events of the nineteenth century led to those of the twentieth--and their figurative relationship, the dialectical play between the ante- and post-bellum worlds. By examining the ways twentieth-century Americans employed the antebellum era as an intellectual and cultural category, this dissertation sheds light on slavery's diverse legacies and the complexity of living with collective historical traumas.
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