‘The Slave Has Become the Master’: North Carolina Man Discovers Nearly 50 Graves of Enslaved People on His Property

When Kenneth Spellman sought out his first piece of land on Satterwhite Point Road in Henderson, North Carolina, he wanted a quiet place where he could grow a garden and raise chickens.

Spellman purchased the 2.5-acre swath of land that was formerly part of the 135 acres of Wortham tobacco estate. He became the first Black person to own property on that side of Satterwhite Point Road. He did not know then that the stretches of land were once toiled by enslaved African-Americans.

Spellman, who owns a construction company, wanted to build a tree house for his four grandchildren. He had promised them a play area. He also installed zip lines and carved out nature trails. It quickly attracted other children in the community. People started asking Spellman to rent the property for parties and other events. It also got the attention of one of the former property owners.

Last July, one of the Worthams wanted to relocate his mother from the piece of land next door, where she lived in “The Big House.” Spellman said the man was prepared to sell the property through a real estate agent, but he offered to sell it to Spellman before making it public.

“He immediately said that ‘I love what you did with my uncle’s property,’” Spellman told Atlanta Black Star, recalling the interaction.

Spellman had also preserved many of the trees around the property, and the Worthams wanted to make sure they could freely visit the family cemetery on the land.

The 14 acres of land includes the 2,168-square-foot plantation house, which the new Black owner renamed the Spellman House. It also has 10-by-12 slave quarters, he said. Spellman has named three of the buildings after his deceased siblings.

However, Spellman and his employees made an even bigger discovery while clearing land on the property. They found a row of rocks he believes are markers for the graves of enslaved people.

Spellman had expected to find at least one grave on the land. The seller had recalled seeing a “slave being buried back there.”

“He said, ‘when I was a little boy, my grandfather told me that he stood on the porch and a horse-drawn carriage came by with a pine box on it,” Spellman told Atlanta Black Star. “Black people were walking behind it singing and they went in the back somewhere, but we don’t know exactly where that person was buried.”

Spellman and his workers have found about 40 to 50 stones in the backyard to date. He believes it means at least 100 people were most likely enslaved on the property. Historians also found John Wortham’s 1860 will leaving around 40 enslaved people for his wife.

The graveyard is marked by a tree, where an elderly neighbor told him slaveowners would hang ropes even if they didn’t use them— to remind enslaved people they were captives.

“When I looked up, there were six stones where there was a tree that was about 400 years old, with a big arm hanging off the side of it and it just sent chills up my spine,” he said. “All eight of us that were standing there, wasn’t a dry eye, standing on that ground looking down realizing that some of our ancestors … had come here as children 4 or 5 years old in chains, and worked until they were 70 and 80 years old.”

By the time the “Big House” on the Wortham property was built in 1834, there were around 330,000 enslaved African-Americans in North Carolina.

“They worked all day. Six days a week just for food. No pay, no phone calls,” Spellman said.

Spellman and the workers also found several artifacts near the stones such as jars and medicine bottles. Archeologists say the items were used as additional markers linked to the person’s identity or job. The new homeowner has turned one of the former slave quarters into a tiny museum, displaying the artifacts he found near the graveyard and other parts of the property.

Spellman now conducts most of the business for his construction company from the former “Big House.”

Three years ago, the 64-year-old man, who now has a street around his home named after him, only dreamt of restarting his life after serving 19 years in prison. He purchased his first property right outside of Henderson from the county in an auction for $750 and closed on the home with an additional $500 with income tax return from his work-release program. Spellman rented the first property and was able to use some of the proceeds to purchase the 16.5 acres of the former Wortham property and over a dozen more.

Spellman has built a fence around the newly-discovered graveyard and has opened tours of the property to the public. His grandchildren and a host of neighborhood children enjoy the “Eden” that he has created. Still, he is not incognizant of the significance of his purchase.

Spellman believes the enslaved people buried deep into the land are finally free because it is now in the possession of a Black man.

“I say to kids when I bring them here don’t let nothing stop you from achieving your goals. Because what you look like now is not what you got to look like years from now,” he said. “What I looked like 100 years ago was somebody in chains working the lands, but now the slave has become the master.”

“The same skin but different positions. It’s the same place, but it’s not about your place. It’s about your position,” he added.

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