When I have been asked this question about the dedication page of my novel at various events, it is hard to know exactly how to respond. The simple answer is that the slaves were the one group represented in the saga of Prospect Hill Plantation who had absolutely no legal voice in what happened to them. The complete lack of voice is summed up in the laws of a neighboring state to Mississippi during the time period leading up to the fire at Prospect Hill.
A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labor. He can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything, but what must belong to his master.
Louisiana Civil Code, Article 35
June 20, 1825.
When I wrote the dedication of Burning Prospects, it never occurred to me to dedicate the novel to anyone other than the Prospect Hill slaves. I don’t think this was something that I put a great deal of conscious thought into–it was just what I envisioned doing from the moment I decided to actually write the book. It was a book that I’d considered writing since I was a child. Having heard the story of the fire at Prospect Hill told so many times, it just seemed like it needed to be made into a book. Once Alan Huffman penned his wonderful book, Mississippi in Africa, I decided that I still wanted to make the story into a book of my own. But I wanted it to be historical fiction, for the simple fact that it would allow me to take some creative license with the characters. After all, no one could possibly know what words were spoken within the walls of the big house or the slave’s quarters on the days and nights leading up to the fateful fire. And I wanted to be the person to imagine what was spoken and to write it down on paper. In addition, I wanted to finally give the slaves a voice, even though I realized that it was too little, too late.
According to Ross and Wade family lore, as well as the Belton family (who are descendants of some of the Prospect Hill slaves), the house was burned to the ground by a small group of slaves in hopes of gaining the freedom they had been promised. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Captain Isaac Ross had freed his slaves in his will a decade before the fire. Ten years passed without the stipulations made in his will being carried out. Ten years of waiting and hoping that something would be done, and justice would eventually be delivered. Faced with no legal options and mounting desperation, it isn’t hard to imagine that killing the man standing in their way of freedom would eventually be decided upon. Obviously I find it heartbreaking that a young girl died in the fire that night. But I also find it heartbreaking that people were held in limbo, working in the fields and praying for a miracle–eventually realizing that no help was coming for them any time soon.
I doubt any of us living today can fully imagine the lives lived by the slaves of Prospect Hill. But most of us understand what desperation and powerlessness can drive a person to do if allowed to fester long enough. So, I make no apologies for my choice of novel dedication. But I would love to hear your views on it. Feel free to comment.