PLEASE TAKE TIME TO READ! Prospect Hill-1268 hdr
THE LEGACY OF PROSPECT HILL PLANTATION
Of all the historic places that I have visited, there has never been one that has captivated me like Prospect Hill. The story of Prospect Hill is a tale of wealth, prosperity, tragedy, sorrow, grief, greed, revenge and murder spanning more than 200 years and two continents. It is a story forged by war and the brotherhood of men fighting side by side, black and white. It is a story rooted in the ways of the Antebellum South and the conflict between right and wrong. It is a story that is being played out even today in the country of Liberia, so many miles away from rural Mississippi where it all began.
I first visited Prospect Hill on a beautiful, cool, crisp autumn day. Seven miles deep in the woods of rural Mississippi, she sits atop of a hill as a sentinel to what once was, but is nearly lost now. The home stands in ruins now and holds only a glimpse of what she once was. The beautiful fireplaces have grown cold and no longer add warmth to the space that was loved by so many and called home to generations of family members. The brightly colored walls show only remnants of the colors that they once boasted and the wall paper hangs in shreds. An old piano sits weathered and in ruins, no longer filling the home with its beautiful music but rather remains silent knowing its last note has resonated. A beautiful brass mirror still sits above a fireplace, but its reflection is now tarnished by years of abandonment, no longer does it catch the gazes of familiar faces, but rather darkness, emptiness and hopelessness as the house crumbles around it. As I walked around the yard, I couldn’t help but notice the remnants of what I am sure were once lavish gardens, and even today flowers are still blooming against the overgrown entanglement of weeds and vines as if they too have a story to tell and are begging not to be forgotten. A strange peace and tranquility surrounds the place, leaving me feeling far removed from the cares of life and wishing I could just sit under the shade of the ancient cedar trees and imagine what life would have been like. I begin to wonder, where they gathered when the original house burned and can only imagine the screams filling the night air as they realized little Martha didn’t make it out, yes somewhere on this hallowed ground the soil was saturated with tears. I look upon what was once a mighty oak but is now only a decaying mass of wood and chills run down my spine as I imagine the slaves being lynched on the very limbs that they had surely sought refuge under before. Maybe it is a fitting end to the tree, it’s time too has come to an end, just like the home it once shaded.
Captain Isaac Ross was born in South Carolina in 1760. He fought in the Revolutionary War alongside men of color and forged a friendship with many of them. This brotherhood was the basis for his respect for the black man despite being raised in the ideologies of the antebellum south. Captain Ross moved to Mississippi in 1808 with a large contingent of slaves and free men of color and built Prospect Hill Plantation. He was a successful businessman and the fertile Mississippi soil soon made him an extremely wealthy cotton planter. Captain Ross treated his slaves favorably, teaching them to read and write, which was illegal in many areas at this time. He also taught them specific skills and trades that made them valuable assets to his plantation as well as equipping them for a future on their own, the latter of which may or may not have been intentional. Captain Ross encouraged his slaves to marry and even allowed some of the ceremonies to be held at the Prospect Hill mansion. Many of these ceremonies were attended by Captain Ross himself, complete with gifts for the bride and groom. He seemed to have a respect for his slaves that was missing in most areas of the south at this time.
Captain Ross started to realize during the latter years of his life, that he owed a great deal of debt and gratitude to the slaves who had worked so hard for him and alongside him to build the empire of which he proudly called his own. Whether by spiritual awakening, or some type of epiphany, Captain Ross began to set in motion a series of events that would play out on two continents and affect the lives of countless individuals including his family, the slaves with whom called him master, and generations of their descendants. Captain Ross drew up a will in August of 1834, which upon his death, would free his slaves. Working through an organization called The American Colonization Society, the plantation was to be sold and the proceeds were to fund the transport of all of his slaves to a new colony in Africa called Liberia. This colony, which was soon called Mississippi in Africa, would be a fresh start to the slaves that wanted to travel there and Captain Ross even set aside provisions for a school to be established there so that the slaves could further their education and live a prosperous life in the new land. He included many of the slaves closest to him in his will and granted them money to start a new life if they chose to stay in Mississippi.
In 1836 Captain Isaac Ross passed away and the years that followed was a tumultuous time for the slaves and Ross’s family alike. Isaac Ross’s grandson, Isaac Ross Wade contested the will and the years that followed were marked with bitter disputes and litigations as well as unrest and anger on the part of the slaves. In 1845 tragedy struck, the slaves tired of waiting for the freedom that had been promised them by their beloved Captain Ross, had the cook drug the family and the house was set on fire, burning it to the ground. Everyone got out safely but little Martha, Captain Ross’s 6 year old granddaughter. A vigilante group was quickly formed and 11 slaves were hung to their death in an old oak tree out back of the burnt mansion. The present mansion was constructed in 1854.
After several years of litigation and tragedy, a group of nearly 300 Ross family slaves made the arduous journey to Africa but the story doesn’t end here. The slaves built for themselves, elaborate mansions reminiscent of the ones belonging to their masters back in Mississippi and some even enslaved the native peoples of Africa resulting in years of conflict and civil unrest which still goes on to this day. Most of the mansions built during this time were also destroyed during the years of civil unrest that followed. Copies of letters written by the Ross slaves to their families and former masters back in Mississippi still exist and sometimes outline less than desirable conditions in their new land of freedom. In an ironic twist of fate, seems maybe estranged family members or perhaps the slaves themselves had the last laugh. While all of the graves in the Ross family cemetery face presumably east, Isaac Ross Wade’s grave faces in the opposite direction, forever memorializing him as the man who stood in opposition and perhaps casting a light of shame on him for as long as the cemetery remains.
The legacy of Prospect Hill does not end with the massive oak or the crumbling mansion but still lives on in Liberia in the lives of the people whose ancestors came from Mississippi and in the descendants of the freed slaves who chose to stay. Her legacy lives on in the precedent that was set paving the way for people of color to gain their freedom and in the stories passed down from generation to generation. This Legacy still lives on in the cemetery bearing the name of all who called the mansion home and in the hearts and minds of the photographers who have been fortunate enough to capture her beauty even as she lay in ruins.
Special thanks to my awesome tour guide Mrs. Ann Brown. She made this tour possible and was such a wealth of knowledge. I can’t thank her enough for the hospitality and enthusiasm that she shared concerning the history of this area.
For more information there are two books published about Prospect Hill. Mississippi in Africa by Alan Huffman and Burning Prospects by Melissa Miles