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S.C. program that honors former slaves wins award
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Sonja Burris, a volunteer interpreter at Historic Brattonsville, is seen during the annual “By the Sweat of Our Brows” event in September 2013. (Photos: Courtesy of the Culture & Heritage Museums of York County)

Dontavius Williams

An annual program at Historic Brattonsville that seeks to shed light on the lives of former slaves has won the 2014 Project Award from the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission.

Held each year in September, “By the Sweat of Our Brows” is part of the living history programming at Historic Brattonsville, a former slave plantation about an hour from Charlotte in McConnells, South Carolina. Drawing on both scholarly research and the collective memories of descendants of Bratton slaves, the event features the experience of the African American journey from enslavement to today.

Dontavius Williams, historic interpreter and project coordinator, said more than 400 people attended the one-day event last fall. He spoke with Qcitymetro about his work at the 778-acre former plantation and what he described as an effort to honor the enslaved men, women and children who worked and died there. The Q&A below was edited for brevity and clarity.

Historic slave interpreters at Brattonsville. (Photo: Culture & Heritage Museums of York County)

Q. What do you do at Historic Brattonsville?

I’m actually an historical interpreter, and that title holds a lot. Mainly what I do is interpret the slave life here. I can’t tell the slave story without telling the story of the Brattons, so I interpret history based on the Bratton family and the lives of the people that lived in the Carolina Piedmont from 1760 up through 1871.

Q. Do you portray a particular character or slave?

From time to time I do. It’s not like I walk around everyday as this slave. So when visitors come up, they won’t meet Adam the blacksmith; they meet Dontavius. I do third-party interpretation, for the most part, but at specific times, I take on the role of a slave. So at the end of a tour that I may give, visitors may get an opportunity to meet Adam the blacksmith. So I go into character and go into first person and become Adam the blacksmith.

Q. Was there actually a Bratton slave named Adam?

Yes, there was. Adam was the blacksmith on the Bratton plantation. He was worth a thousand dollars. He had a wife and five children. His wife was a seamstress. So we can follow Adam from when he first got here in the early 1800s up through the 1843 estate record of Dr. Bratton. He’s not here in 1865. We don’t see his name on the slave list or the freed slave list. But he was an actual slave here, and the story that I wrote, it’s based on Adam’s life, but because we don’t have all those filler details, I had to use stories of other slaves in this area that we do know of, slave narratives that I’ve read.

Q. What made Adam so valuable?

That’s one of the things we really don’t know. A thousand dollars was an extreme amount of money in the 1840s. Different things made slaves valuable – your skills, your makeup, your work ethic – all those things equated into the slave’s property value. Adam was a blacksmith, so I take it that Adam was very good at what he did.

Q. As a black man, is it difficult to play the role of a slave?

To me it’s not difficult. I’m a young guy. I’m only 31. But the life I’ve lived in these 31 years is not so far separated from the lives of the people who lived here. What we think of as primitive living is not so removed from me. I’m just a country boy. I know what it is to cook over a wood stove or to cook over fire or to have to carry water. At times it can get emotionally difficult because of the story that I have to tell sometimes. It’s a tough story to tell. It’s a story of separation. It’s a story of anguish. But it’s also a story of hope. It’s the story of a future. So I don’t focus on the negative, but I don’t always focus on the positive of it, either. I have to tell a balanced story whenever I’m doing my first-person interpretation.

Q. How did you get into this line of work?

It was a beautiful accident, I like to say. I was in college, working on my degree in business, and was taking an African American studies class. Ms. Bertha Roddey – the great Bertha Roddey from Charlotte – was my professor, and she offered extra credit for students who wanted to come and participate. I didn’t need the extra credit, but I had some interest and I really wanted to come. And from the moment I came onto this property…I felt so connected to this site. I felt so connected to the story here that I continued to volunteer for about six years. I didn’t think I would ever be doing work like this. I did it for free for six years. I’ve been getting paid for about three now.

Q. You also coordinate “By the Sweat of Our Brows.” What is that program?

It’s an African American-focused program here at Historic Brattonsville. We honor the slaves that lived here and worked here and made the sacrifices to give us as a community – and not just the African American Community – an opportunity to live like we live today. We focus on not just one particular time period. It’s a mainly 19th century programs, so we focus mainly on the 1800s. But it goes from the 1800s up through today. We take bus tours to different local sites where African American history has taken place. Last year we went to a church that’s not very far from here and visitors go to hear hymn choirs singing. It’s an art that a lot of people don’t recognize in churches anymore because a lot of people don’t do it. A lot of the old people are dying out, and that craft is dying out with them. We make it relevant for the guests. They get to see what life was like here on the plantation and see how life has changed. It’s to honor the sacrifice that these people made such a long time ago.

Q. What has been the biggest surprise for you so far?

Last year’s attendance. The site opens at 10 o’clock. By 10:15, we had people almost on top of one another. We had about 150 people here by 11 o’clock that day. I was so shocked, so surprised. And the fact that everyone stayed all day long. That’s been my goal, to keep people here all day. I don’t want you to have to leave and go and get lunch, so I have hotdog vendors here. You can do everything you need to do right here.

Q. What do you want people to take away from the experience.

I want people to take away the fact that we have come a very long way as a community. By the sweat of the brows of those slaves we made it. We stand on the backs of these people, and I don’t want to let them down. We shouldn’t, as a community, let any of them down, because they sacrificed so that we can have the freedoms that we have today.

Also Read: Local History in Black and White

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October 10, 2015
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