Saving Places: Prospect Hill Open House

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Musician William Ross, a student in Jackson State University’s Classical Music Program, warms up for playing “Amazing Grace.” as part of the welcome. (Photo H.P. Lail Photography)
Musician William Ross, a student in Jackson State University’s Classical Music Program, warms up for playing “Amazing Grace.” as part of the welcome. (Photo H.P. Lail Photography)

While most Conservancy preserves in the Southeast Region are prehistoric Native American earthworks, we do have a few more recent historic sites such as Colonial Era forts, Civil War earthworks, and we have one plantation that dates back to the early 1800’s. The plantation, Prospect Hill Plantation, is located in Mississippi and was established by a veteran of the Revolutionary War who moved there from South Carolina named Isaac Ross. By the time of his death in 1836, Isaac Ross owned nearly 3,000 acres and there were approximately 250 enslaved individuals on the plantation. This part of Mississippi was known for its large plantations and the concentration of wealthy planters, and that was not unusual. Prospect Hill has a more interesting aspect to its history because Ross left instructions in his will that allowed his slaves to emigrate to a colony that had been established by the American Colonization Society on the west coast of Africa in what is now Liberia.

A grandson challenged the will and during an extended court battle of nine years, there was an uprising at Prospect Hill. The original house was burned and a six-year-old girl died in the fire. Some of the slaves who were believed to have been responsible for the fire were executed on the plantation by the overseer and locals. The will was later upheld in court and although 200 of the enslaved workers chose to embark on the difficult and dangerous journey to Africa, some slaves did stay and went to other family plantations. Those slaves who were freed and left Prospect Hill found life in their new home difficult. The Ross estate was supposed to have used proceeds of the sale of one cotton crop and all the land, livestock and tools of the plantation to furnish the emigrants with supplies they would need to build houses, farm and even a school, once they arrived in Africa, but the long lawsuit had depleted its funds. Regardless, those who left Prospect Hill and survived the voyage across the Atlantic to a settlement named Greenville (after a town in Mississippi) persevered and many of their descendants became the most prominent leaders of Liberia.

Prospect Hill Gardens. Photo by HP Lail Photography.
Prospect Hill Gardens. Photo by HP Lail Photography.

The grandson who challenged the will did end up with the site of the original house and built the house that stands there now in 1854. This house, along with 23.4 acres is now The Conservancy’s Prospect Hill preserve. The site is unique for many reasons. Although only the house and one outbuilding are still standing, the foundations of many outbuildings are still easily visible, as are the remains of early to mid-1900’s tenant houses that are in the area where the slave dwellings were. There are also remains of the cotton gin.

Remaining Foundations of the Kitchen Laundry Building. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.
Remaining Foundations of the Kitchen Laundry Building. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

There has been very little ground disturbance on the property and when The Conservancy purchased it, it had been neglected for many years and literally had to be “cut out of the surrounding woods” so to speak. Unlike many preserved antebellum sites in Mississippi, Prospect Hill was an actual working plantation, unlike the famous restored town houses of nearby Natchez. Prospect Hill also dates to 1808, which is a little earlier than some of those around it.

The Main House at Propect Hill Plantation. Photo by HP Lail Photography.
The Main House at Propect Hill Plantation. Photo by HP Lail Photography.

As the field of Plantation Archaeology has grown in other areas and at famous houses like Jefferson’s Monticello House: Plantation and Slavery research, and his Poplar Forest Home, and the Slave Plantation Community. Prospect Hill has its own contributions to make to learning about the lives of those who were enslaved there.  There is also the Mississippi to Liberia connection, and the possibilities of recognizing traces of their lives in Mississippi at sites at the colony in Liberia.

Photographers and visitors look on as SE Regional Director, Jessica Crawford, and a descendant of the Prospect Hill family welcome everyone to Prospect Hill. (Photo Duke Beasley)
Photographers and visitors look on as SE Regional Director, Jessica Crawford, and a descendant of the Prospect Hill family welcome everyone to Prospect Hill. (Photo Duke Beasley)

We recently held an open house so those who have supported Prospect Hill and followed its progress could visit and see what we have done. Descendants of the Ross family and descendants of the enslaved mingled side by side and shared stories and photos. To begin that the day Reverend Sam Godfrey, 5th generation grandson of Captain Isaac Ross will bless the house and our new roof. Afterward, we will be treated to music from William Ross, who is a local from Natchez, and is in the Classical Music Program at Jackson State University. William is also featured on the soundtrack for the documentary “Mississippi Madam: The Life of Nellie Jackson” and has his own solo projects. James Belton, descendant of those who were enslaved at Prospect Hill was there with information about his ties to Prospect Hill and African American genealogy. Mary Belton, was the sister-in-law of Captain Isaac Ross and was visiting Prospect Hill when she died and is buried in our cemetery. Mr. Belton’s ancestors were originally part of the Belton Plantation back in South Carolina. Locals who are interested in sharing the story of Prospect Hill attended and friends who have volunteered on clean up days came and archaeologists with interests in the site were there, too.

James Belton, a descendant of the enslaved at Prospect Hill discusses his genealogical research and his ancestors. (Photo Duke Beasley)
James Belton, a descendant of the enslaved at Prospect Hill discusses his genealogical research and his ancestors. (Photo Duke Beasley)

The house is still standing, but after years of neglect, it needs lots of work. In 2011, Prospect Hill was included in the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s list of of Mississippi’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites. Because the Conservancy purchased it to preserve the archaeology of Prospect Hill, we are hoping to find someone willing to purchase the house and land from us, while we retain a protective easement on the archaeology. (Help support our efforts Saving Prospect Hill)  Its location near Natchez, Mississippi, a place known for its beautifully restored antebellum mansions, will hopefully result in a buyer. (Interested in becoming a partner? Contact us!)

Local officials have taken an interest in the preservation of Prospect Hill and met at the Open House to discuss the significance in saving the history of the area. (Photo Duke Beasley)
Local officials have taken an interest in the preservation of Prospect Hill and met at the Open House to discuss the significance in saving the history of the area. (Photo Duke Beasley)

Until last November, there was a resident peacock at Prospect Hill who moved in the house 12 years ago, when the last owner abandoned it. He was more than happy to be photographed by visitors and was like a pet to me. Then, suddenly, he disappeared. We named him Isaac.

While it is not typical of the Conservancy’s projects and it has required a lot of extra time and work, it has brought together an extraordinary and diverse group of people who care about it. In order to stop some of the deterioration of the house, the Conservancy recently put a new roof on the house. We applied for and received a $50,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and raised another $64,000 through individual contributions specifically for the roof. We’ve received support from locals, historians, Historic Preservationists, and descendants of the Ross family and descendants of the enslaved at Prospect Hill.

A refreshment table beneath the 200 year old cedars was stocked with donated sweets from our supporters. The open house began with a “blessing of the new roof” by a descendant of the Ross family. (photo Jerry Bangham)
A refreshment table beneath the 200 year old cedars was stocked with donated sweets from our supporters.
The open house began with a “blessing of the new roof” by a descendant of the Ross family. (photo Jerry Bangham)
Well-known photographer, Butch Ruth, photographing Prospect Hill with an early 1900’s camera that could have been used when it was originally built. (Photo Duke Beasley)
Well-known photographer, Butch Ruth, photographing Prospect Hill with an early 1900’s camera that could have been used when it was originally built. (Photo Duke Beasley)

In 2004, a book about Prospect Hill, Mississippi In Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and their Legacy in Africa Today, and its author, Alan Huffman, who has become a great friend and supporter was there as well.

Mississippi in Africa by Alan Huffman. Book Cover.
Mississippi in Africa by Alan Huffman.

Just working on the acquisition of the site, trying to stop the house from falling into complete ruin has been a learning experience for me and as a Southerner, put me in the position of confronting some uncomfortable aspects of the place that is my home. Until just recently, I had never had an in-depth conversation about slavery with a descendant of someone who was enslaved. As an archaeologist, my research interests were in Archaic cultures of the Southeast. I’ve learned so much through my own research and contact with archaeologists working at sites related to enslaved Africans and those who work with descendant African American communities. I was able to take part in an overnight stay “Charles Towne Landing: Ground Zero for the Slavery that Existed in South Carolina” with Joseph McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project in Charleston, South Carolina and hope to host him at Prospect Hill. I’ve seen the descendants of enslaved people conducting excavations at slave dwellings and that’s important.

The Conservancy’s preserve at Prospect Hill has an important role to play in all of this. I’ve already seen it touch people very deeply. It has touched me very deeply. It’s an example of how as an organization, The Conservancy does much more than just protect archaeology. What we do touches lives and it’s far reaching. In this case, it reaches all the way to Africa. We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time and effort ensuring that Prospect Hill will endure to become a place for research and even reconciliation. It was obvious at this very special Open House Saturday, April 29th, that it is well on its way.

The open house began with a “blessing of the new roof” by a descendant of the Ross family. (photo Jerry Bangham)
The open house began with a “blessing of the new roof” by a descendant of the Ross family. (photo Jerry Bangham)

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