Felicia Furman produces social, cultural and historical documentaries for television and theatrical distribution. Her production credits include: Passing It On: A Tap Legacy (1997 Denver International Film Festival and the 1998 Dance on Camera Festival); Classroom Boulder (CUBE, Kansas City, Missouri); and documentaries on African-influenced religious practices in Cuba for the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in America at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Shared History is her first documentary feature. She is formerly the Managing Director of the Colorado Dance Festival in Boulder, Colorado.
is the story of the reconnection of the descendants of enslaved people at Woodlands Plantation, Midway, South Carolina, with the white slave holding family—my family, the Simms. My great, great grandfather, William Gilmore Simms, was an author and the last slave holder of the plantation. After the Civil War, several of the families stayed on the place and after my family failed at farming, the Black families who stayed continued to farm and hunt the lands as tenants or sharecroppers.
The film features three narrators. Rhonda Kearse descends from the Rumph family whose members were managers of the property before and after the Civil War. As the character representing the Simms family, I reveal and contest the many stories my grandmother told me about the benefits of slavery at Woodlands. Charles Orr’s great grandfather, Isaac Nimmons, was the coachman of Woodlands and was accused of burning the plantation toward the end of the war. He was arrested but the Simms family rallied to his support. The real story is still a mystery. Could the Simms family have refused to believe that their faithful coachman had betrayed them? It would mean that the paternalistic system that justified slavery to many white slave owners was not infallible. He was exonerated and William Tecumseh Sherman, who was also in the neighborhood, was blamed. Others in the family believe that whether Nimmons had burned the plantation or not, the Simms family knew if they did not support him the beloved family servant would be lynched. Nimmons left the Simms plantation and was able to buy property near Woodlands. He educated his seven children at Claflin College in Orangeburg, SC.
In the film, these descendants come together to consider the longevity of the relationship and what responsibility they have if any to continue this historical connection. Through a series of family gatherings, the narrators explore the mythologies that may have kept their families together—at least superficially—and discuss what attracts Charles, who did not know his ancestors had been slaves at Woodlands until he found the Shared History website, to encounter the descendants of the enslavers of his family. The three discover that some family stories had different versions or were false. For instance, the Simms believe that their ancestor gave each family who stayed on the place after the war 40 acres of lands. This story has been told in the Simms family over the decades and for some had absolved them of the guilt of their slave owning past. However, we discover later that the Simms did not give the freedmen land. They briefly allowed them to live and farm on the land until they could determine how best to reinstate a new form of the slave system—i.e., sharecropping. It is revealed that in fact the Rumph family had bought former plantation land in 1921.
I began this project in 1993 as a family oral history project. Many of the descendants of the enslaved people of Woodlands I knew as a child were quite old. Some had known their grandparents or great grandparents who had been slaves. I wanted to record their stories before they were lost forever. The film came out of my desire to ensure that my descendants knew the real story of slavery at Woodlands Plantation. My family, through slavery to the present, only visits the plantation. I believe that we continue to own the property because the African American descendants cared for and cared about the property. It was their homeland too.
The film was broadcast in 2006 for four years on national public television stations across the country. The family history project lives on in a website and blog, with the hope that future generations will know of the historical interdependence our families. We need each other today for community, fellowship and forgiveness as we continue to share our history—our personal stories that connect us directly to slavery and forge a pathway toward reconciliation.
This project is also a part of a larger project, Coming to the Table. Coming to the Table is about connecting people and the past to the present and future in a way that is relevant for our nation. Housed at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peace building, CTTT was launched when people whose ancestors were connected through an enslaved/enslaver relationship realized they had a shared story that remained untold. Today, they and many others believe that the legacies and aftermath of slavery impact our nation in seen and unseen ways and they are committed to writing and telling a new story about our nation’s past and the promise of our collective future.