A Nash Central High School class takes a different approach to plantation field trips
My family and friends who went to school south of the Mason-Dixon line have this isolating experience of visiting a plantation, but not actually learning about slavery.
For North Carolina specifically, Stagville, Rosedale, and Duke-Homestead were reasons for elementary school kids to get out of the classroom and onto a big yellow bus to have fun. Fun, as in — learning to churn butter and picking cotton.
With Critical Race Theory being voted out of some schools, it is no surprise that a field trip to a school Plantation may not include any information about slaves. However, some teachers look to educate on more than what textbooks teach.
For social studies teacher, Marisa Corcoran, her first experience with Plantations came as a student teacher at Nash Central High School.
“I personally never took a field trip to a plantation. I grew up in the North,” Corcoran said. “But when I came to the south, and I started doing my student teaching... My kids, were telling me that they went to plantations, in like fifth grade… It didn't really make sense to me when they were telling me that they were taking these like, huge, monumental field trips, that should be something that you take when you're older.
"It really downplays the severity of it.”
I still remember my first trip to Duke Homestead where we played hide and seek in a vast house that once held masters and slaves. However, Corcoran's visit was much different.
“I had an AP U.S. History class. And there's a very famous plantation house in Rocky Mount, it's called Stonewall Manor," Corcoran said. "We had a year-long project where we found out all the slaves' names.”
Corcoran described how that project impacted her trip to Stonewall Manor.
”We traced their ancestry to see if they have any family members," Corcoran said. "And then we contacted this company to create a plaque of all the slaves that worked there, and like all their names. And then we did like a showcase of the plantation, we invited all the families who are still alive today to come to see, their ancestors be honored.”
In 2022, Corcoran worked alongside Nash Central High School APUSH teacher, Renny Taylor who created the year-long project. He was prompted to create the project after visiting a plantation in Charleston that had done something similar.
“They had a wall that had the names of every enslaved person that had worked at their plantation,” Taylor said. “And I thought that was a great idea. So, I took it back to my students.”
Coach Taylor, as his students call him, serves on the board of Stonewall Manor, a plantation in Rocky Mount dedicated to education, preservation, and the interpretation of history. After speaking with students who were in his APUSH class, it was clear that their experience was like no other.
“Coach Taylor would always tell us about the Stonewall plantation, which is here in Rocky Mount,” says Camryn Eley, a student in Mr. Taylor’s APUSH class.
Taylor has his students serve as docents at the plantation throughout the year.
“We had to do a lot of researching and digging through a lot of old auction books and runaway slave beds and wills and deeds to make sure that we didn't miss any slaves and just do our best to honor the slaves that were there," Eley said.
Neither the students nor their teachers could have predicted the impact their project could have had. Emily Winston, another student, recounts her feelings while completing the project.
“For me, when we were doing the research, it was kind of frustrating because we struggled to find names a lot of the time," Winston said. "It felt like we were doing something meaningful, because we were trying to, like find these people to like recognize them. So, I guess that kind of motivated us because we knew what we were doing was something that would be bigger than just research.”
The biggest surprise came at the culmination of the project when Robyn Inez Berenato drove down from New Jersey to see her descendant “Haywood” be honored.
“She had done her ancestral history,” Taylor says. "Before we even did this… It came back to a name we had. And so she was able to stand beside it and take a picture of herself with this name... It’s almost like they're able to reach out and touch a picture of their ancestor.”
Even with the work that teachers like Coach Taylor and Marisa are doing to ensure the truth is taught, the question still stands: When is the right time to teach about slavery and plantations? And how?
In writing this story, a few questions came up when I spoke with teachers. If students are going to be taken on field trips to Plantations, shouldn't they know the truth? And to understand the truth, shouldn’t they be old enough to comprehend what went on in history? It’s a hard subject to navigate with adults, so how do you teach an adolescent child? Or in many of our cases, do you just not?
With books being banned due to the erasure of Critical Race Theory in the classroom, teaching the honest truth about history in this manner is becoming a tricky subject. History that was already white-washed in classrooms is being erased in front of our very eyes.
Corcoran studied under Taylor and that kind of unapologetic truth teaching has excited and inspired students just like her.
Now full-time teacher Corcoran says, “I am not afraid to offend some students to get the honest truth… And the way I kind of get around that is I email parents, and I tell them that I don't teach out of a textbook, I teach based off of actual history. I follow the curriculum strands, but I also bring up real facts and pictures, and videos that may be disturbing to some people. And I kind of just have to hope and pray that people don't get me fired.”