A June 6 email detailing Kenneth Spellman’s purchase of the Wortham property on Satterwhite Point Road piqued my interest at the speed of light.
I learned from the correspondence that Mr. Spellman had purchased the centerpiece of what I was being informed had once been a 135-acre plantation, including a 2,618 square-foot home built in 1834. On this property, Mr. Spellman said, a slave burial site and remnants of hidden orchards, perhaps planted by slaves, had recently been uncovered.
Mr. Spellman is Black, and was released from prison in 2019 after serving 19 years. He had renamed the Satterwhite grounds “Back to Eden” in an effort to “bring life, peace and joy to a land that once was dark and hopeless to many.”
Now that’s a story.
But that wasn’t entirely the reason I jumped at the chance to interview Mr. Spellman. I was given an address for the “Big House” on Satterwhite Point Road, but I didn’t need it to find the place. I had been there many times before.
The previous owners were my late great aunt and uncle Isabel and Rowland Wortham, which I did not disclose to Mr. Spellman until I met him outside of what had been to me for the last decade or so since Rowland’s death, “Isabel’s house.”
Now that’s a story.
Isabel, my maternal grandmother’s sister, was born a Pace, and married into the Wortham family. She passed away in March at age 97.
I hadn’t known the history of the property nor had I ever considered asking about it because, well, I’m not a Wortham.
I didn’t think much about it.
The slave quarters out back? As a blissfully ignorant kid, those were just sheds to me, structures I skipped past on the way to play with Isabel’s and Rowland’s goats.
The historic schoolhouse that was moved to the property? I didn’t know it as historic or a schoolhouse.
I remembered it as a remodeled home, where Isabel’s mother and my great-grandmother Mabel lived out some of the last years of her life in the mid-1990s. For a time, my mom and I would stop by there to visit “Mama Pace,” as my family called her, while we waited for my sister to get out of after-school dance class.
When I see the front porch of the old Wortham house, I’m reminded of scurrying about Isabel’s and Rowland’s front yard as a youth alongside visiting distant cousins that I was close in age with.
Isabel had four siblings and she and Rowland had their own children and grandchildren, so the family gatherings I attended were often bustling, and more like reunions since a lot of the family was scattered around different states.
I associate the dining room, or for that matter, any dining room where Isabel and her tight-knit group of sisters merrily congregated, as happy places.
They were always laughing about something, long after dessert had been served.
Photos of influential Black leaders like Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman are now on display in that dining room, and the rest of the house’s walls feature Spellman’s family photos, illustrating how greatly and sometimes swiftly times can change.
My great aunt no longer lives there. It’s the Spellman House now.
There’s a sign out front that says so.
Upon reflection, it’s amazing, and a little jarring, that I was able to build such profoundly positive memories on land that might understandably be a symbol of oppression and cruelty to others.
But that’s America, and there’s no sense in avoiding our complex history. Or being afraid to learn from it and watch it evolve.
Mr. Spellman is close to a lockbox when it comes to revealing emotion, but he beams when he speaks about his family.
The last time we spoke, he was looking forward to a visit from one of his young granddaughters.
Like the child version of me, she probably won’t think too much about the property’s history or who owned it before her granddad until many years later.
She’ll be free to roam and free to forge her own peaceful memories. Free to view the place where she spends time with her family however she sees fit.
Now that really is a story.