Book Review: Somerset Homecoming

Slavery. Blacks and whites have both continued to respond to that word with shame and embarrassment. But Dorothy Spruill Redford has purged herself of those feelings and offers readers the same opportunity to free themselves from the chains of the past.

As a twelve-year-old, black girl, Dorothy could not understand how an entire people could allow themselves to be enslaved.

"Slavery was never mentioned around our house. The first time I heard the word, I thought some shame was attached to you if you even uttered it. I told myself it was just another thing about this place [Virginia] that had nothing to do with me. It was some kind of distant stain, something deep in the soul of the South far removed from me and the life I'd lived in New York."

Later Dorothy discovered that many whites like the descendants of Josiah Collins III who first lived on Somerset Plantation which his grandfather started building in the 1780s, rewrote their family genealogies, including details of weddings, deaths, land owned, places lived, details about life from season to season, year after year, but excluding information, even reference to, slaves.

"They were shifting facts to fit their situation, to create the images they wanted, to put on the face they needed, just as I had done as a young woman. Apparently blacks weren't the only ones weighted down with antebellum baggage."

Dorothy and her daughter Deborah joined the rest of the country to watch the television production of Alex Haley's Roots in 1977. Deborah started to ask about her ancestors, about whether they were slaves and if they came from Africa. Dorothy didn't have answers to give to Deborah, but she decided to find them.


Someset Homecoming is the story of Dorothy's search. She traced her past to Columbia, North Carolina, then "over de river" to Somerset Plantation in Creswell, and finally to the Camden, the eighty-ton brig "sent north in the winter of 1784 with a hold full of tobacco, pork, beef, rice and molasses" which returned "to Edenton a year and a half later carrying eighty Africans."

The Camden was as far back as Redford could trace, and from there she started forward again, using census reports, genealogies of white families, bills of sale, deeds of trust, birth, marriage, and death certificates, parish registers, and any other historical document she could find. Redford talked to other descendants of the Somerset slaves and also referenced modern studies on antebellum slave life.

The benefits of reading Somerset Homecoming are three-fold: Dorothy's tale is as engrossing as any best-selling novel on the market today; the detailed historical information contained in the book have an unqualified educational value; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dorothy conquers her own racism and freely shares the experience.

By the end of 1984, Redford had started planning a homecoming. "The idea of a reunion was nothing new around Creswell and Columbia. Black families had been having them for years. . . . But no one ever though of pulling them all together. No one thought that twenty-one family lines came off that slave plantation, and that the entire group--relatives in blood as well as spirit--deserved a reunion of its own."

The focus of the homecoming for Redford was to show "that we can live with the past without being dragged down by it. That we cannot deny what happened here--that we must not deny it--and that we must restore this place to reflect all our histories."

Redford's struggle to face her past and her discovery of "a chance to build a monument to the lives and labor of my family," will inspire reader's of every race. Redford isn't looking for anyone to blame.

Copyright Dineane Whitaker 2008 - Please do not copy and paste this article, but feel free to post a link using this url:

More by this Author

Comments 1 comment

A. Jill 8 years ago

What a wonderful book review! It's fascinating reading in itself.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article