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Historic Brattonsville aims to tell full, inclusive history at new Brick House exhibits

 The Brick House’s restored exterior in January 2021.
Culture & Heritage Museums Staff
The Brick House’s restored exterior in January 2021.

For a six-month period between 1870 and 1871 in York County, South Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its tyrannical violence in the area. In that timespan, about 600 African Americans were beaten, and 11 were killed.

The 11th, on March 7, 1871, was named James Williams. He was a member of South Carolina’s Black militia unit, a Union Army veteran and a leader in fighting for equality for former enslaved people. And he’s the subject of a new exhibit at Historic Brattonsville’s newly renovated Brick House in McConnells, South Carolina.

The Brick House opens its doors to the public Tuesday for the first time since 1885, said Zachary Lemhouse, lead historian for Culture & Heritage Museums and director of the Southern Revolutionary War Institute. Two exhibits there aim to tell the story of the Reconstruction Era in York County.

Focusing on that era, in particular, was a thoughtful choice, Lemhouse said. After all, Historic Brattonsville is a living history museum on nearly 800 acres that reflects life from the time that Col. William Bratton moved to the area in 1766 and established a plantation. It might have been easier to present a story of a more stereotypically genteel, Southern white family.

“We at Brattonsville are making a very conscious effort to tell more inclusive stories that focus on the enslaved African American population who lived, worked and died at Brattonsville,” Lemhouse said. “And we saw with the Brick House an opportunity to tell one of these stories.”

Lemhouse and a team of historians and advisers at Historic Brattonsville did meticulous research into Williams’ life and death to present the most authentic story. Among the vital research: Conversations with descendants of Williams.

Williams had two children, Lemhouse said, and his story was vetted and approved by their descendants before being finalized in the exhibit “Liberty & Resistance: Reconstruction and the African American Community at Brattonsville 1865-1877.”

His story of escaping from slavery on the Bratton Plantation, joining the Union Army and returning to fight oppression is told in panels in one of the rooms of the Brick House.

Historic Brattonsville even had a portrait of Williams commissioned. Although no known photographs of him exist, Charlotte artist Dan Nance drew from descriptions of Williams written in historical documentation, and a photograph of his grandson.

“Arguably, it is a conjectural painting,” Lemhouse said. “We realize that. But it is probably the best image — and as far as I know, the only image — of James Williams in existence and it's the best thing we're going to have unless a picture of him turns up through further historic research.”

 The recreated Brattonsville Store, as it would have looked in 1871, stocked with replicated goods based on archived receipts and records.
Culture & Heritage Museums Staff
The recreated Brattonsville Store, as it would have looked in 1871, stocked with replicated goods based on archived receipts and records.

The second of the two rooms opening in the Brick House is the rehabilitated Brattonsville Store, outfitted to look as it did in 1871. That was when the general store’s proprietor, Confederate veteran Napoleon Bonaparte Bratton, sold “dry goods, groceries, hats, boots, shoes, hardware and notions.” The store operated out of the Brick House from 1843 to 1885.

The store is also where Williams was brought after he was killed, Lemhouse said, so that the coroner could do an inquest into his murder. It was considered the largest community space in the area, Lemhouse said.

“So we've chosen this space because it has a very real connection to James Williams,” Lemhouse said. “Not only was he brought there after he was murdered, but we know that in life, through records, we know that he shopped at the Brattonsville store. I've been able to uncover several records where he was buying shoes from the Brattonsville store, so he frequented the store in life.

The restoration of the 178-year-old Brick House began in 2013, and detailed work has returned it to its original floor plan. Historic Brattonsville’s Assistant Museum Manager Joe Mester said in a statement that the project “gives us an authentic place to tell the truth of Jim Williams’ heroic story and legacy.” Mester emphasizes that “The Brick House isn’t a monument or memorial, but the physical place where Jim Williams bought goods and the place where the coroner examined his body following his murder.”

“We truly have a nationally significant story, a nationally significant event that we are telling with our Reconstruction exhibit,” Lemhouse said.

And focusing on Williams’ story during the Reconstruction Era was an important decision for Historic Brattonsville.

“This has been a conscious effort of ours for a very long time,” Lemhouse said. “We've always strived to tell the more inclusive stories.”

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Jodie Valade is a Digital News and Engagement Editor for WFAE. Since moving to Charlotte in 2015, she has worked as a digital content producer for NASCAR.com and a freelance writer for publications ranging from Charlotte magazine to The Washington Post and New York Times. Before that, Jodie was an award-winning sports features and enterprise reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. She also worked at The Dallas Morning News covering the Dallas Mavericks -- where she became Mark Cuban's lifelong email pen pal -- and at The Kansas City Star.