Columns, Featured Stories, Grace Notes

The imprints we leave behind

Jean Johansson

This fall I visited my friends Lynnette and David for several days at their home in North Carolina. They live in the piedmont region, the middle 35 percent of the state, between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean coastal plain.

One afternoon Lynnette and I drove to Stagville Plantation, near Durham, North Carolina, to take a tour of this historic site. We learned that, by 1860, Stagville was the center of one of the largest plantation complexes that existed in North Carolina. The complex consisted of 30,000 acres, the combined holdings of the Bennehan and Cameron families. More than 900 slaves worked the land.

Could the people who left those prints possibly have imagined that someone would be seeing them more than 150 years later?

Located about a mile from the relatively modest plantation house at Stagville are four two-story, four-room timber structures in which enslaved families lived, one family to a room. Typically, a family of five to seven individuals would be housed in each 17- square-foot room. Walking through the two rooms on the first floor of one of the houses, the wooden floor creaking, I tried to imagine the lives of the occupants of those rooms.

Outside, our tour guide directed our attention to the chimney at one end of the house, which was constructed with bricks that had been made on the property by slaves. After the bricks were fired, as slaves removed the bricks from their forms, the prints of their fingers pressed into still-soft clay. We could see these traces of the past as we peered closely at the bricks.

Even more memorable was the footprint of a child visible on one of the bricks making up the chimney. Could the people who left those prints possibly have imagined that someone would be seeing them more than 150 years later and that they would bear witness to the lives of the slaves at Stagville? It caused me to think about prints I have left behind.

Cement does not forgive

Well, one afternoon when I was walking home from elementary school, I accidentally stepped in some cement that had been poured recently enough that it hadn’t yet hardened. I vaguely remember being shouted at by a middle-aged man who likely had been working with the cement, and the rest of the way home I did my best to get the remnants of rapidly drying concrete cleaned off my saddle shoes. For weeks I took a different route home, although I suspect the damaged cement had been repaired. The experience had not been a pleasant one.

Back in the late 1980s, after my then-husband poured a cement boat ramp near the shore at our cabin, our two young children and I put our handprints into the damp concrete. I wrote our names under each set of prints. People looking, years later, at the three sets of prints in that ribbon of concrete might have wondered where the father’s handprints were.

I’ve thought often of those fingerprints and the footprint in the chimney bricks at Stagville. They palpably evoked the presence of the people who had left them so very long ago.

Imprints that we can see do tell a story, and give us clues about those who made them. More lasting, however, is the imprint we leave on each other’s hearts and souls. The kindness, understanding, love, respect, and generosity that we imprint on each other’s hearts are infinitely more important than anything the eye can see, and a worthy legacy.

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