Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic

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9780300108675: Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic

Published some thirty years ago, Robert Manson Myers’s Children of Pride: The True Story of Georgia and the Civil War won the National Book Award in history and went on to become a classic reference on America’s slaveholding South. That book presented the letters of the prominent Presbyterian minister and plantation patriarch Charles Colcock Jones (1804 1863), whose family owned more than one hundred slaves. While extensive, these letters can provide only one part of the story of the Jones family plantations in coastal Georgia. In this remarkable new book, the religious historian Erskine Clarke completes the story, offering a narrative history of four generations of the plantations’ inhabitants, white and black.
Encompassing the years 1805 to 1869, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic describes the simultaneous but vastly different experiences of slave and slave owner. This upstairsdownstairs” history reveals in detail how the benevolent impulses of Jones and his family became ideological supports for deep oppression, and how the slave Lizzy Jones and members of her family struggled against that oppression. Through letters, plantation and church records, court documents, slave narratives, archaeological findings, and the memory of the African-American community, Clarke brings to light the long-suppressed history of the slaves of the Jones plantations a history inseparably bound to that of their white owners.

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From the Author:

Q: You’ve been working on this book for a decade. How did you first come to this story?

A: I began my research with the intention of writing a biography of Charles Colcock Jones, Sr. The monumental collection of the Jones family letters in Children of Pride covered only the last part of Jones’s life, but did not include the critical earlier years of his work among the Gullah people of the Georgia coast. The family papers included thousands of letters, extensive plantation records, journals, sermons preached to slaves, and documents describing slave life. A fascinating story of a wealthy, pious, and influential low-country community began to emerge. The Jones family, like many of their white planting neighbors, were highly literate, deeply committed to the public good of their white community, and convinced that slavery provided a necessary training period for African Americans on their way to some distant freedom.

Q: While the stories of white plantation owners are fairly well documented, the lives of their slaves are not. How did you reconstruct the lives of these individuals?

A: As I moved deeper into the documents, I began to discover individual African Americans emerging into plain view individuals with names, with histories, with distinctive traits and varied ways of resisting the deep oppression of slavery. While I knew that a great distance separated me from these Gullah people, I felt an increasing compulsion to try as best I could to tell their story too. And so I decided to attempt a kind of upstairs-downstairs history.

One story would be told from the perspective of whites who saw the low country from the piazzas of plantation homes. The other story would be told from the perspective of blacks who saw it from around the communal fires of slave settlements. In the end, I found I could not write a biography of Charles Jones without also writing about the life and struggles of Cato and Cassius, Patience and Phoebe, and the dense network of Gullah people who in their labors and resistance to slavery built their own remarkable community and culture.

About the Author:

Erskine Clarke is professor of American religious history, Columbia Theological Seminary.

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