Prospect Hill

Jessica Crawford cannot get any more speeding tickets. The emphasis is hers. The Archaeological Conservancy’s Southeast regional director lives in Marks, and apparently the magnet of Prospect Hill near Lorman has, at times, pulled her south faster than the law allows.

It’s easy to see why on a spring day that catches south Mississippi at its best. A breeze teases Spanish moss into motion and blue phlox into friendly waves at the site, tucked deep in rural Jefferson County off a gravel road still rutted from recent rains. A line of cedars flanks the knoll where the raised cottage perches, and gray, gnarled branches of a dead one reach out like an ashen angel’s arms. On a less lovely day, the effect would be haunting.

Since 2010, a fraction of the former plantation has been the property of the private nonprofit Archaeological Conservancy, which acquires and preserves America’s most important archaeological sites. Prospect Hill’s history at the nexus of slavery and freedom, revolt and retribution, Mississippi and West Africa, qualifies.

This is where Captain Isaac Ross, a Revolutionary War veteran and Prospect Hill founder, arrived in 1808 with a large contingent of slaves as well as free blacks. His will left instructions that upon his death, his slaves would be emancipated, the plantation sold. It also stated that the proceeds of the sale was to be used to pay the passage, for those who chose, to Liberia in West Africa and the colony of freed slaves established by the American Colonization Society.

A grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, contested the will. In an alleged uprising and attempt on his life, the original mansion burned, claiming the life of a young girl. The uprising’s participants were reportedly lynched or burned alive by vigilantes in its wake. In 1845, the court upheld the will and more than 200 slaves emigrated to Africa.

Alan Huffman’s 2004 book “Mississippi in Africa” tells the saga of Prospect Hill’s freed slave settlers, and the legacy of conflict with indigenous people that contributed to civil war in Liberia.

Prospect Hill’s current 1854 house stayed in the Wade family until the early 1970s. When subsequent owners weren’t able to fully keep it up, time and the elements took a toll. A removed brick pier (for tractor parking), a fallen tree and abandonment escalated the decline.

Crawford’s Prospect Hill interest began with Huffman’s book, a Father’s Day gift she and her dad both loved. “I came out here and just fell in love with it. I see a lot of places that I think, ‘Oh, I wish I could save that.’ I see them all the time. But this one was just like, I have to!”

The Archaeological Conservancy preserves archaeological sites for research and pubic education. Restoring old houses isn’t part of its mission. “We manage what’s under the ground,” says Crawford, who oversees seventy-one archeological sites (nineteen in Mississippi) and is in charge of buying new ones.

Plantation archaeology is a growing field, “and this place was so pristine…archeologically” with foundations of outbuildings still visible, a yard undisturbed by modern-day plumbing and fascinating historical and international ties. The hope is to sell the house at a reduction and retain an archaeological easement for research on the more than twenty-three acres.

A new $114,000 roof, completed in summer 2016, should help—funded by a $50,000 emergency stabilization grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, $30,000 donation from a private individual, a gofundme campaign, half a dozen open- house fundraisers onsite and other random donations.

In her work boots, jeans, paisley blouse and ponytail, Crawford covers the grounds like a tour guide, revealing history, offering opinions, introducing tombstones and identifying plants. The cedar trees were planted by Captain Ross; their bases are brightened by lavender tulips—Crawford’s touch more than two centuries later.

“Every time I put a shovel in the ground, I dig up a bulb or a brick,” she says. Clearing privet and overgrowth revealed the jonquils, daffodils, camellias and more that add dashes of color and care to the grounds.

Crawford won’t be digging today, but that doesn’t stop stories from turning up on this soil—of champagne and oysters arriving by riverboat to Rodney in the past, and of kiddie pools catching leaks in recent times. Of cleanup involving 184 contractor bags of garbage and a father/son team who “weren’t afraid of anything.” Of the time she had to inform a relative, some thirteen years hence, about a former co-owner’s car accident death and onsite burial in an unmarked grave (since marked with a headstone).

“Nothing surprises me out here anymore,” she says. “The paths it leads me down are not always fun, but things always turn out for the best somehow.

“Guardian angels must be working overtime out here.”

A higher level

Crawford herself was pretty high up—30-something feet from the ground—when Huffman first met her at
Prospect Hill. She was on the roof when he
walked up.

She waved, came down and led him up to the widow’s walk that he didn’t even know existed. He was impressed. “This was the first time she had ever been there. She had found her way through the wormhole of this little trapdoor on the back porch, on this rickety 18-foot-long wooden homemade ladder and had gotten up all the way to the absolute, as far as you could get, top in that house,” he says.

“Looking back, it’s just so typical of Jessica.”

She’s taken other things to a higher level, too. Huffman found and brought people under the umbrella of his “Mississippi in Africa” story, he says, “but Jessica created a way for all those people to actually come together physically and exchange ideas in a way I could have never envisioned when I was writing the book.”

Open-houses at Prospect Hill since 2011 have drawn together descendants of the slaveowners and of the enslaved people, including some from Liberia, as well as preservationists, for gatherings described as surreal, enlightening and touching to the point of tears. People fill in gaps of ancestors’ stories and explore shared history on common ground.

“She has really breathed life into the story—in a way that you could only dream of, as a writer.

“It kept the whole story alive and dynamic and continuing to unfold.”

Work continues

“I have worked like a dog out here, and I don’t mind saying that,” says Crawford, a slim and steely 5-foot-4. “I can’t tell you how many tarps I nailed down—before we got the roof on it.

“But I’ve had a lot of help, too,” she says, saluting preservation-passionate volunteers and entities, descendants and neighbors who’ve pitched in. Tasks have ranged from chainsawing fallen trees to dragging out rotten freezers to salvaging architectural details. “Sometimes it just seems insurmountable.”

Crawford makes the 31⁄2-hour drive to Prospect Hill nearly weekly this time of year, when people want to visit and work needs to be done. Local historian Ann Brown meets visitors when she can’t. For years, an onsite friend greeted her—the peacock she dubbed Isaac, Prospect Hill’s sole resident. The old bird disappeared after the new roof went on; though presumed dead, Crawford prefers the “just gone” description. Peacock decor dots the property now, and a stone from Natchez Monuments will honor Isaac’s “Beauty in Ruins” role.

Prospect Hill’s cemetery is dominated by a marble monument over the graves of Captain Ross, his wife and daughter, erected in 1838 by the American Colonization Society. In the 1940s, family members put concrete inside its gates, to cut down on upkeep. “Now, it’s not doing the monuments any favors,” says Crawford, a member of the Association for Gravestone Studies. Restorers told her she really needed to get a jackhammer in there and get the concrete up. “OK, I’ll put that on my list,” she deadpans.“Way down” on her list. What’s higher? Putting siding back on the house, plus box gutters.

Architectural elements of the Mississippi Landmark, such as columns and dental molding, are stored in lower back rooms to await reuse or replication. Fire ant poison and weed control —“upsides of being married to a farmer,” she quips—are stashed there, too.

Out back, brick foundations where outbuildings once stood are ripe for study, says Crawford. She hoped to snag a student’s interest when a crew from the Center for Archaeological Research at Ole Miss came by, and get help mapping the site with ground-penetrating radar.

Prospect Hill’s social calendar includes a visit from Friends of the Raymond Battlefield in late April and a sleepover with the Slave Dwelling Project in May.

“If you’re going to come out here and you’re going to look at this house, you have to talk about the people that built it,” Crawford says. That’s why a brick she found, finger marks embedded in its surface, has an honored place inside.

A garden spot ringed by crepe myrtles and boxwoods has brick pathways Crawford is still uncovering. An angel stands sentry in a shady corner. “Slaves are buried out here somewhere. I don’t know where,” she says, hoping that spot can serve as their memorial.