About the Film
I had always known that my ancestors were slave owners; in fact, I had interacted with the descendants of the enslaved people from Woodlands Plantation throughout my childhood when my grandmother took me and my cousins to the plantation for visits. It was not until I was much older that I realized that the longevity of our families’ connection might be unique, yet might also illustrate an undercurrent in the common culture of the United States.
In 1993, during a meeting of my family about the preservation of the plantation house, Junior Manigault dropped by to say hello. Mr. Manigault, who died in 2007, was descended from Jim Rumph, a slave who was owned by my ancestors. He was born in African in 1810 and died in 1922 at Woodlands at the age of 112. Jim Rumph, his son and grandson, all of the same name, had been the caretakers of Woodlands over a span of one hundred years. Mr. Manigault became somewhat of a caretaker of the property too. He worked for the county highway department but also raised pigs across the road on property his grandfather had bought from the Simms family. He and my hunting cousins had a deal with Junior: he would use some of the fields at Woodlands without cost to plant and harvest corn to feed his pigs and, in return, my cousins would benefit because the gleanings would attract deer and birds for hunting. In the moment of Junior’s visit, I was struck by the continuity of our families’ relationship and decided to look more deeply into our connection that had lasted for over 260 years. I wondered if our families—descendants of the enslaved people of Woodlands and my white family—could come together to confront the realities of our shared history.
I am descended from William Gilmore Simms, a 19th-century American writer. Simms was one of the principal apologists for slavery in the debates leading US in 1860. My grandmother, Mary C. Simms Oliphant, an apologist for segregation, was an historian and author. She had told us that our ancestors had been “good masters,” a story that helped me assuage the discomfort I felt as a child about my family’s slave-owning past.
I began Shared History to document the history of the relationships between my family and the descendants of the enslaved people of Woodlands before those who remembered passed and their stories were lost. I wanted my nieces and nephews, the inheritors of Woodlands, to not only know this history, but also to fully appreciate that the continued ownership of Woodlands by our family had been made possible by the descendants of the former slaves who stayed at Woodlands after the Civil War and cared for the property. I wanted them to understand it was not so much the old relationship with our family that made the African American families seem attached to Woodlands but the fact that it was their ancestral home too and that we should respect their claim on this property. The development of the project ultimately forced me to come to terms with our ancestors’ participation in slavery and our own responsibility to acknowledge our particular attitudes and behaviors related to race today.
After the first of many conversation with my mother, who, as a child, had lived off and on at Woodlands, I combed through the boxes of my grandmother’s files in my mother’s attic labeled “Woodlands” and found a photograph of an ancient black man that I found out later had been taken by my grandfather in about 1921. My mother said the photograph must be of a member of the Rumph family and that I should contact Junior Manigault’s sister, Dorothy Manigault to see if she could identify it. Dorothy was the scribe of her community and had kept us up-to-date with news about her family and others connected to Woodlands. She lived on the Rumph property—where Junior raised his pigs. She showed the photograph to her aunts who told her it was Jim Rumph, the Jim who had been a slave at Woodlands.
Dorothy became my friend and helped me navigate matters of family, church and community—I’m sure with some degree of trepidation. Without her help, I would never have been able to approach the descendants of those enslaved at Woodlands. I am deeply grateful for her help and friendship.
I met Rhonda Kearse, Dorothy’s great niece, a few years later. Her grandmother introduced us at a “homecoming” event I hosted at Woodlands in 1996. Rhonda, who has lived in New Jersey all her life, is an architect with the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey. She agreed to be part of the project and to help create a reason for our families to come together. On November 24, 2001, we held the “Woodlands Families 50th Anniversary Gathering” to commemorate a similar event in 1951 held on the plantation grounds. It was then that we met Charles Orr, who had found us at www.sharedhistory.org. Charles, a social work administrator in Detroit, Michigan, is the great grandson of Isaac Nimmons, the slave coachman who left after the Civil War. The three of us agreed to work together to break the silence mandated by the old etiquettes created by our ancestors and start a different kind of conversation—one that used our historical relationship as a base from which we could discover and reconsider the realities that might genuinely connect our common backgrounds.
Shared History is our story and the story of our country’s continuing struggle to address the realities of our past.
Felicia Furman, Producer/Director