Prospect Hill ‘This house has more to say than your typical plantation’ Slaves’ descendants reunite at worn Jefferson home

Published 12:05 am Sunday, November 20, 2011

JEFFERSON COUNTY — When cousins Evangeline Wayne and Louise Fayad walked up the gravel rise from Tillman Road to the old Prospect Hill plantation house here eight days ago, it was the end of a 5,400-mile pilgrimage that turned back the clock nearly 170 years.

Wayne, 45, and Fayad, 40, drove the 17 hours it took to reach Prospect Hill from their homes in Maryland, but they really began the trip nearly 20 years earlier — fleeing civil war in their native Liberia in 1992 for the country their ancestors left in the 1840s as the freed, repatriated slaves of plantation owner Isaac Ross.

“It’s indescribable,” said Wayne. “We’re just trying to get our bearings right now.”

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Wayne stood in a group of about 50 people who came Nov. 12 for a reunion of sorts with descendants of Ross, his grandson Isaac Ross Wade — who had contested the will which freed the slaves — and slaves like Mariah Belton, who remained on the plantation when others left and whose sons were involved in a deadly uprising that saw the first house on the site burned.

Later in the day, the house, acquired in August by the Albuquerque-based Archaeological Conservancy, was opened for its first-ever public viewing, with about 60 people attending in two tours.

“It’s a circuitous story,” said Alan Huffman, author of “Mississippi in Africa,” a book about the men and women who immigrated to Liberia. “In the 1840s, you had all of these people here — the Rosses, the Wades, the Beltons, and (the Wayne-Fayyad ancestors). Their paths were all running parallel, even though their lives were very different….There were all these different stories, side by side, interwoven, and then they all diverged in that period.”

The old plantation house is missing many of the stone steps that led visitors up to its wide porches, and parts of the roof hang off rafters like the moss draping the trees, but the core of the home is structurally sound, noted Jessica Crawford, executive director for the southeast region of the Conservancy.

The group usually does not acquire buildings — “We’re interested in what’s under the ground,” Crawford said — but hopes to turn around and sell the house to an individual or organization that will restore it, and give the conservancy a permanent easement to mine the land for its archaeological treasures.