‘Persistence and survival’: One of N.C.’s largest plantations tells story of slavery

DURHAM — The thumb prints of enslaved people are molded into the bricks.

There are knuckle prints too, formed from slaves gripping the clay, turning over the bricks to harden in the sunlight. Up higher on the wall of the former slave dwelling, the markings of five little toes can be seen — the foot of an enslaved child leaving its mark.

More than 900 people were enslaved at one time on the Stagville Plantation. Down the gravel road in Durham, trees cover the land of what used to be one of North Carolina’s largest plantations.

The 47-square-mile plot of land was once mostly bare of trees, filled with crops and slaves at work. The white plantation owners documented their history through letters and land deeds, dominating the narrative of slavery in America, a story that began 400 years ago when the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.

But below the surface of Stagville’s paper trail lay the fingerprints of a larger story — one of horror, resistance and sacrifice.

That’s what weighs on the minds of historians at Stagville as they sift through tens of thousands of documents to piece together the past. And many documents don’t have names of the slaves, leaving researchers with holes as they read between the lines, said Vera Cecelski, the site manager at Stagville.

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