By Laurie Paolicelli
Hillsborough, North Carolina, just down the road from its more cutting-edge sister townships, is one of the most historic destinations in our state and in our nation. While it can also claim a distinguished collection of fine shops and restaurants and a Riverwalk of incomparable beauty, it’s rightly known as the heart of our storied past. And what stories they are.
The Burwell School, celebrating its 200th anniversary last year, has a story worth telling. Built in 1821, what once was an all-white school for privileged girls now offers free tours to visitors seeking the opportunity to learn more about the home’s history and the people who lived and studied there. Within the walls of this beautifully restored home dramas unfolded touching on women’s rights, slavery, literacy, and freedom.
The house became a school after Margaret Anna Burwell, along with her husband and children, moved into the home in 1835. Burwell was inspired to start her own school after a local doctor asked if she would tutor his daughter.
Renee Price, chairperson of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners and a member of the Historic Hillsborough Commission, said having a school for girls was significant at the time.
“200 years ago women couldn’t vote, and it was very difficult for women to even own property,” Price said. “And yet we have Anna Burwell teaching English and French and art and mathematics.”
Burwell, the wife of a Presbyterian minister, was also the mother of sixteen children.
The Historic Hillsborough Commission was formed in 1963 and its members are appointed by the governor. The commission was able to purchase the house and work to restore it to what it would have looked like in the 1850s. The Burwell School opened to the public on a regular basis in 1979. Though there are only two items from the original family belongings — a side chair and a tea pot given to Mrs. Burwell by her students — all other furniture has been donated in keeping with the 19th century era.
One of the more dark and complex stories associated with the Burwell School is that of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly. Keckly was an enslaved person owned by the Burwell family, but who, unlike most enslaved people at the time, was able to read and write. Much is known about her, in fact, because she was one of the first African-American women to publish a book, her 1868 autobiography, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.
The title itself hints at her remarkable life story. Keckly was a skilled dressmaker who, with the help of loans from her clients, was eventually able to buy her freedom. She went on to be a successful dressmaker, impassioned activist working alongside Frederick Douglass, and friend and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife.
She was also the illegitimate daughter of Armistead Burwell, and her six years in the Burwell household were dark ones. She was cruelly beaten and humiliated, beatings encouraged by Anna Burwell herself, who Keckly described as “morbidly sensitive” with a “cold, jealous heart.” The beatings were so harsh and frequent that even in the early 19th century they were regarded by the town as remarkably vicious. That she survived and went on to such an illustrious later life feels miraculous.
Keckly’s extraordinary story has resonance today and will it seems maintain that resonance in years to come, as African-Americans and people of color everywhere continue to struggle against forces that would seek to alter their lives’ trajectory.
According to Mark Bell, Town of Hillsborough board member and Chairman of the Chapel Hill Orange County Visitors Bureau, “The Burwell School honors its past by emphasizing the role of the enslaved people who built and sustained the school through much of the 19th century. It is a core institution in Hillsborough that is open to the public and hosts numerous events each year that contribute to our sense of community and connection to our shared past.”
History is a collection of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and those stories are always changing. This is why the Burwell School is so important and so fascinating, in all its darkness and light. It helps us gain insight into others’ experiences. There are many other stories, too, of the young girls who were educated here that are captivating in their own right. This small school can tell us so much about ourselves and our complicated history.
“The Burwell School,” Price says, “is unique.”
Get to know the Burwell School through tours and by attending their local events: https://www.burwellschool.org
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.