I was overwhelmed with tranquility while driving along the everlasting gravel road, encased by looming, forest green trees. This healing reconnection with nature towards the entrance nearly allowed me to forget the purpose of my visit at Historic Stagville in Durham. However, as we arrived closer to the entrance of this state protected historic site, I recalled the haunting darkness of America’s past. Approximately 25 minutes away from Duke University lies what was once the largest plantation site in North Carolina, owned by the Bennehan and Cameron families. At its height, the families owned 30,000 acres and over 900 enslaved people.
Richard Bennehan married Mary Amis in 1776 and acquired the original 66 acres of historic land in 1787. Their home, Stagville, was built by enslaved people on this land and further renovated with an additional story in 1799. They would raise two children, Rebecca and Thomas. Rebecca married Duncan Cameron in 1803 and had two sons and six daughters. Despite their plethora of children, most of the estate was given to their son, Paul, as the other children died and/or did not have heirs. Paul would eventually marry Anne Ruffin and have seven children. These generations of Camerons along with the original Bennehans furthered their infamous and appalling familial legacy of undeserved wealth through slavery.
Despite the Bennehan/Cameron family’s power, wealth, and dominance, the enslaved people of Stagville remained resilient against their injustices. For instance, Emma Turner Henderson decided to continue working for the Camerons as a cook after their emancipation; however, she and her family were evicted on a count of “imprudence” as Emma had claimed ownership of her newfound freedom, claimed ownership of the equality she shared with the white woman who had previously owned her, and claimed ownership of the violence she endured under their regime. According to Paul’s records, Emma had told Margaret Cameron that their disrespectful treatment is not justified as “[Emma’s] skin is nearly as white as [Margaret’s]– that her hair is just as straight– and that she was quite as free”.
Mary Walker was the fifth generation of formerly enslaved people for the Camerons, born in 1820. She was given to four of Duncan Cameron’s daughters when she was nine years old. These young daughters would eventually pass away from tuberculosis, which is why she was given to their sister, Mildred. Mary Walker would act as Mildren’s caretaker as she had an unknown illness that required a wheelchair. She would frequently travel to Philadelphia during the summer, a free state, with the Camerons for Mildred’s medical appointments. By this point, Mary Walker had three children of her own and she constantly feared their safety. Therefore, Mary Walker evaded the Camerons on her last visit to Philadelphia in 1848 as her freedom was protected under the 1847 Personal Liberty Law. She was employed as a seamstress and spent the rest of her life attempting to reunite with her children. Walker attempted to purchase them from the Camerons or even kidnap them from the estate. Even with three known rescue attempts, Walker was unable to live with her children. That is, until seventeen years later, in which a Union soldier reunited Mary Walker with two of her children, Agnes and Bryant, after the Civil War. Historians do not believe that Mary reunited with her eldest son, Frank, as it is assumed that he escaped. His escape from the plantation was a miraculous feat as it would have taken Frank around two weeks to walk off the estate alone. While the Camerons did place ads for Frank, he could have passed as a white man as he had fair skin, blue eyes, straight black hair, and freckles. The greatest act of resilience from Mary Walker was her success as a seamstress after she settled in Cambridge as she created a strong reputation and a healthy life for herself and her family, despite the evil conditions of her past because of the Camerons.
As I explored Stagville and Horton Grove, where the enslaved laborers built their homes and lived as they worked for the plantation, I felt the looming presence of their horrifying traumas throughout the estate. I spent time in each room of the luxurious (for its time period) Stagville home in which enslaved people were constantly beside those who committed the most injustice against them. I compared this to the unlivable conditions of the enslaved family homes in Horton Grove where eight people would stay in each room per building. Along the brick walls of these homes remain fingerprints from enslaved people from the creation of the bricks. One brick, in particular, encased the toe-prints of a small child from hundreds of years ago.
Despite the unimaginable injustice generations of enslaved people endured from the Camerons, their resilient legacy continues with dignified honor. A number of formerly enslaved families continued to sharecrop at Stagville until the 1970s, when it became a state protected site, or settled in nearby locations as a testament to their familial heritage.
Bennehan/Cameron Stagville home
Average dwelling on Horton Grove
A child’s toe prints on the right-side of the third brick from the bottom of a brick on Horton Grove
By Samera Eusufzai, Class of 2026