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Behind the Big House

Behind the Big House is a community-driven tour and programming series that illuminates the African American history of grand historic homes in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Behind the Big House was created in 2012 by Chelius Carter and Jenifer Eggleston to coincide with the Holly Springs Pilgrimage, an annual tour and celebration of the city’s antebellum homes. Behind the Big House broadens this narrative, preserving, interpreting, and educating about the legacy of the enslaved people and their quarters that are often overlooked in programming that focuses on the grandeur of the Big House.

Behind the Big House co-founder, Chelius Carter, giving a tour to students in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Image courtesy of Jodi Skipper.

Carter and Eggelston were inspired to create Behind the Big House after purchasing the Hugh Craft House, a historic home built in 1843 in Holly Springs. When Carter, an architect who works in historic preservation, toured the house and its grounds, he says he noticed an older renovated outbuilding that, at least initially, appeared to be a shed.

“I opened the door and recognized that it was a timber framed structure,” Carter says. Climbing the stairs to the attic, Carter noticed that it had a solid floor. “I said, 'Why is there a solid floor in the attic space of this shed?’” Carter recalls, “Then it kind of hit me, this is where they slept. It began to dawn on me that this structure here is far more culturally and historically important than the main house and far more rare.”

“It began to dawn on me that this structure here is far more culturally and historically important than the main house and far more rare.”

Beginning in 2012, Jodi Skipper of the University of Mississippi has supported this grassroots project’s preservation, interpretation, and education efforts. In addition to producing content and curricular materials, Skipper has integrated Behind the Big House into University of Mississippi coursework in Southern studies, African diaspora studies, and archaeology.

By integrating Behind the Big House into her teaching, Skipper enriches the learning experience with experiential and service learning.

“Students in my heritage tourism and African diaspora courses work as program guides each year. For them, it is an experiential and service-learning project. Several are repeat volunteers and have used the program as a stepping stool to doing other forms of public work in the state,” Skipper notes. “My colleague, Dr. Carolyn Freiwald, and I began an excavation at one of the slave dwelling sites several years ago and that project continues. It has given our anthropology students opportunities to excavate, as well as interpret the recovered information to program visitors.“

Members of the Burton Family tour the Kitchen Quarters at Burton Place, the home where their ancestors were enslaved. Image courtesy of Jodi Skipper.

Involvement with Behind the Big House has helped Skipper address a gap she identifies in Southern public history. “I was inspired to work collaboratively with them, in an effort to remedy the paucity of sites [where] slavery [is] visible on the Mississippi landscape,” Skipper explains.

In addition to offering important practical learning experiences and showing the impact of slavery on the South, the project can begin important and difficult conversations, Skipper notes: “I have also observed that students have taken this as an opportunity to talk about race, with other students and the broader community, in a relatively safe space.”

Gracing the Table demonstrates an African libation ceremony at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Image courtesy of Jodi Skipper.

This capacity to start conversations about race has spread to the broader community, as well.

“The Behind the Big House program led to the founding of Gracing the Table, a multiracial organization established to promote community development in Holly Springs through dialogue, candid communication, and ultimately, healing of the residuals of the institution of slavery,” Skipper explains. Led cooperatively by local residents and faculty and students of Rust College and the University of Mississippi, this group meets for monthly discussions around its motto: “community healing through communication.”

Banner image: University of Mississippi African Diaspora Student, Kyle Chandler, giving a tour of the Hugh Craft Slave Dwelling as a part of the Behind the Big House program. Image courtesy of Jodi Skipper.

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