“Different Dimensions of History”: Burwell School Site Celebrates 200 Years


Burwell School, still present in historic Hillsborough town center, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year.

Built in 1821, what was once an all-white school for privileged girls now offers free tours for visitors seeking the opportunity to learn about the history of the house and the people who lived and studied there.

The house became a school after Margaret Anna Burwell, along with her husband and children moved into the house in 1835. Burwell came up with the idea of ​​starting his own school after a local doctor asked her if she would donate. private lessons to his daughter.

Renee Price, chairman of the Orange County Council of Commissioners and a member of the Hillsborough Historical Commission, said having a girls’ school was important at the time.

“It was very difficult for women to even own property and couldn’t even vote 200 years ago, and yet we have Anna Burwell who teaches English and French and art and math,” said Price.

The Hillsborough Historical Commission was formed in 1963 and its members are appointed by the Governor. The commission was able to buy the house and work to restore it to what it would have looked like in the 1850s. The Burwell School opened to the public regularly in 1979.

The house has changed in physical form over the years, as has the outlook that surrounds it.

Carrie Currie, the Burwell School’s historic coordinator, said the tours originally focused on the school’s students. In recent years, information has been uncovered that gives better insight into enslaved blacks and free blacks who worked in the school.

“As far as interpretation is concerned, this is something that is going to develop in any place over time, and it comes and goes with what interest is and what people are aware of.” , Currie said.

Currie said that even since 2016 when she started working at the Burwell School, there has been a shift in their understanding of the history of the people who lived and worked there.

The current school tour focuses in part on Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly. Keckly was a slave belonging to the Burwell family, who, unlike most slaves of the day, could read and write.

From Keckly’s diaries, the commission discovered that Keckly had been severely beaten by the Burwells in what they interpreted as an attempt to break her mind.

Keckly was a skilled seamstress and was eventually able to buy her freedom through loans from her clients. She became a successful seamstress, author and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln.

While there are writings to describe Keckly’s experiences and life, much less is known about other blacks who lived and worked at the Burwell School. The Hillsborough Historical Commission on People of Color Task Force, which was established in 2018, is digging into this buried history.

“The task force was supposed to start and really start researching the other people of color who were free and enslaved, who lived and worked here,” said Currie. “We just felt like there wasn’t much to say specifically about these people and the commission as a whole felt that was of huge importance, something they wanted to take on and make available. . ”

The commission’s 2019 report and a growing database of names and biographies of people of color who have worked at the Burwell School are available on its website.

The site is supported by community members and the Hillsborough Tourism Board. Currie said free local history like the Burwell School exists thanks to active volunteers and support from the local government.

Sarah Waugh, a professor at the Burwell School, said the site is important because it can connect people to their community and help them better understand the experiences of others throughout history. She said that young people are specifically able to bring new ideas and perspectives to what is known from the past.

“The people of Hillsborough, Orange County, North Carolina in general, can all learn a lot about local history by learning about the lives of these groups of people, and the Burwell School is unique in that it has all these different dimensions of history. “said Waugh.

The site’s 200th anniversary recognition includes several events throughout the coming year to recognize the role the Burwell School has played in the history of Hillsborough.

“It’s a celebration of the fact that this place has been around for 200 years and has seen 200 years of history in this small town in Orange County, North Carolina,” said Currie.

@ k8e_mack

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