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Bethania, North Carolina August 9, 2004
by Steve Nash

Residents try to recover their past before it's lost for good.

Georgia Byrd and Michael Hartley (Steve Nash)

During one night of "Stoneman's raid"-- a long and punishing foray into the South in the spring of 1865--the namesake Union general marched his army right through the center of tiny Bethania, North Carolina. "The oral tradition in one family," says archaeologist Michael Hartley, "is that a most memorable sight in the life of one of their women was the glint of moonlight on the bayonets of Stoneman's infantry on its march up the street."

Relief was intense that Stoneman left Bethania intact."...they had pressed a Negro of the town to pilot them to the Shallow-ford on the Yadkin," a local diarist noted. "The army left between 11-12 0'clock, doing us no further harm, for which we felt thankful to the Lord." It was April 10, the day after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Today, Bethania and its archaeological record are under the shadow of a new threat: the explosive growth of the city of Winston-Salem, just down the road. New homes are going up on the back lanes of the picturesque little town and out on country roads where most of the black population lives.

"I think that Bethania is an immense database for the presence of African-Americans on the landscape, enslaved and free, and that is an interesting contrast," Hartley says. He came to know Bethania when it lay in the path of a highway project, and spearheaded the archaeology that ended with the redirection of the highway and the inclusion of part of the town in the National Historic Register. "Because of the presence of their descendants, there is a whole continuum to be examined from the inception of slavery to its end, and after that into the present," Hartley says. Archaeology could explore, for example, how relationships played outbetween white Moravian founders--some of whom opposed slavery for religious reasons--and their slaves, some of whom were also Moravians, during and after the Civil War.

That is, if their traces do not disappear under new roads and housing subdvisions. A nearby site offering plenty of archaeological opportunity is a crossroads called Washington Town, a free black settlement established in the 1830s, some sixty years after Bethania was founded. "What kinds of dynamics began to act on these people as the war ended?" Hartley asks. "We know that African-American schools began to spring up in the late nineteenth century, and that could be explored."

Georgia Byrd knows about one such school, and wishes she knew more. It is nearly gone now, just a scatter of bricks next to a stream under a bridge. After the war ended, schools were something like the epicenter for black aspirations. Byrd and her brother Ali Shabazz have been working, with severely limited means, to interest local government in initiating archaeological investigations and protecting at least some of the landscape. "We had a school here, and somehow,we let it go. We didn't know how to hold onto that history," she says. Byrd lives in a trailer east of Bethania, near what used to be called the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road."Every black family on this road can pretty much trace their roots back to the time when their parents worked for the white settlers. My great-great-great ancestors were some of the first to purchase land as free black persons, right after the war. My grandmother used to tell me the people just tented out up here."

Buried in an adjacent, overgrown parcel, Byrd's grandmother once said, are the remains of her great uncles. She says many people don't believe her and her brother. "Real estate people tell their clients, just don't believe those people, they're crazy. But we're not lying. We're not just making up these stories. These are facts. When people live on the land this long, a hundred years, there has to be some history some place."

Byrd and Hartley both seek something like an antidote to the onset of a cultural Alzheimer's disease in Civil War-era archaeology: "We want to say, Wait a minute, we have a history, too," Byrd says. "We want to leave a legacy here. Don't just bulldoze us down and say we never existed. I guarantee there's something [to find]. An old slave tag. The heel of a shoe. We're just coming into ourselves to realize the worth, the value, the history that we have here."

Hartley's view is similar: "It's not about boxes of things stuck back on a shelf, but how to translate them into some meaningful information about ourselves." And he's heard the "who cares?" questions about digging up old artifacts many times. "It is very easy for us to lose our way when we ask what is the significance of this or that. I would respond, Well, how many subdivisions do we need? How many four, five- or eight-lane highways do we need, and how much good are those things doing us now, as we begin to consider how we impose ourselves on the landscape?"

Steve Nash, teaches in the journalism and environmental studies programs at the University of Richmond.

* For more on Civil War sites, see "Battle Over Battlefields," in our September/October issue and "Unlocking a Civil War Prison," our InteractiveDig at Johnson's Island, Ohio.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America