The following is the conclusion of a two-part feature on Kenneth Spellman. The first story ran in Tuesday’s Dispatch.
HENDERSON — Last year, Henderson resident and Virginia native Kenneth Spellman began the process of buying 14 acres of land off Satterwhite Point Road from the Wortham family, adding on to the 2.5 acres he had already bought in 2020.
The land contained a 2,168-square-foot house, the framework of one of the oldest schoolhouses in the county and multiple structures Spellman was informed had been constructed as slave quarters.
Dense undergrowth obscured much of what lived beyond the “Big House,” which was built in 1834, Spellman learned.
Spellman, who is Black, set to work clearing the lot and unearthed what he believes to be a slave burial site in addition to a number of grapevines that were hidden in the back woods for decades. Could the vines be the product of a secret garden, planted by enslaved people?
One day recently in late spring, Spellman said he and his landscaping workers discovered a collection of stones planted half-buried, a stone’s throw away from the house that was last occupied by the late Rowland and Isabel Wortham.
Based on his own research, Spellman believes those stones mark the site of a graveyard containing the remains of enslaved people. Looming overhead is a crooked tree, which Spellman, citing historical tradition, believes once served as a visual reminder of the gallows whether anyone was hanged there or not.
Rowland Wortham notes in “Vance County Heritage — North Carolina 2011” that John Wortham founded the “farm” around 1800. Spellman believed that the Wortham family never had “bad blood going on, to where they were doing anything except what everybody else was doing. That was the thing to do.”
“It’s hard for me to be sad about it, or vengeful,” Spellman said. “It’s a feeling of appreciation that somebody could endure that and still survive.”
If the fruit was in fact planted by enslaved people, or the sharecroppers that were to follow, Spellman appreciates the resourcefulness and stealth it would have taken to reap the benefits.
“Now it’s a place that I can celebrate that that time is over,” Spellman said, “and I can present a place of history for Blacks and whites to come in and appreciate the fact that this is history and that it’s a fun place now. It’s a peaceful place. It’s a place you can come, you can walk around and there’s no restrictions. It’s a place where food comes out of the ground. You don’t have to pull it out of your bag. You can get your apples and grapes off the trees. You got chickens. You got animals. That’s how I feel about it.”
Since Spellman bought the property that he named “Back to Eden,” he’s made a few additions. He is cultivating an apple orchard and three vegetable gardens. He also dug a pond, beginning initially with a shovel and pickax before he saved enough money for proper equipment. Now, it's stocked with 500 fish.
He envisions Back to Eden being a site for tiny homes, which are booming in popularity as both rentals or permanent dwellings.
More than anything, Spellman loves visits from his grandchildren.
He built a treehouse, with two zip lines, closer to the house he lives in adjacent to the land containing the old Wortham home. Golf carts and four wheelers help keep his younger relatives entertained. Fire pits and picnic tables were placed periodically along a winding path through the woods.
“I wanted to build a place for them that they could grow into,” Spellman said, “or even as teenagers, they have a place they can go and wouldn’t have to walk the mall, wouldn’t have to hang out just to hang out. They can have their own place.”
For the future, Spellman said he’s planning a ribbon-cutting with the Henderson-Vance County Chamber of Commerce. There will be food trucks and picnic tables set up for people to ride around.
“I think it’s good because nobody knows that this is in Henderson,” Spellman said.
An Amazon delivery driver asked to take a look at the property once, Spellman said, and claimed that “If you put a blindfold on somebody at Lowe’s, and rode them around [Interstate] 85 for 20 minutes, and pulled up back here, they wouldn’t even know they were in Henderson.”
“That’s what I like, I like the fact that it’s a place here,” Spellman continued, “and you don’t have to go far, and it’s got things on it you [would normally] have to travel for.”
Spellman has an older brother, a man who lived through segregation, who posits that now that Kenneth owns the land, the slaves’ spirits have been freed.
“I didn’t say this out of arrogance. I said, well actually, the slave became the master,” Spellman said. “Because, by me owning it, I can make the decisions now. And I can make decisions that are right for people regardless of what the color of their skin is, or what they’ve done, or what their background is, or whether they came from prison or whether they came from broken homes or whether they have mental problems. I can make the decision to be an asset and not a liability to them.”
For now, Spellman’s projects on the property continue, through rain or shine. He maintains the slave quarters to preserve them. He added “Spellman House” signage to the former “Big House” along with displays around the property for visitors to learn more about his own history as well as the property’s. He recently happened on what looked to be an old medicine bottle, and an iron, on the burial site.
What other relics and stories are waiting to be discovered?
Spellman will keep digging.