The Behind the Big House program in Holly Springs, Mississippi interprets the lives of enslaved persons through the structures in which they lived and worked. The program began in 2012 after Chelius Carter and Jenifer Eggleston, antebellum historic property owners, discovered that one of the structures on their property was a former slave dwelling. To them, it was clear that the personal lives and experiences of those enslaved in Holly Springs was missing from the larger narratives of the city’s Annual Pilgrimage Tour of Historic Homes and Churches. Since 1938, this tour has been an annual event allowing visitors to tour historic homes, cemeteries, churches, and museums in Holly Springs. To help remedy the exclusion, Carter and Eggleston, along with other community persons, started Behind the Big House. It is run through Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, Inc., a local historic preservation institution. The program’s major components are preservation, interpretation, and education. Its major source of funding support has been the Mississippi Humanities Council. It has also received funding from the Mississippi Development Authority, the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area, and the Holly Springs Tourism and Recreation Bureau.
Since 2012, Behind the Big House has taken place once a year in April, for a four to five-day period. It occurs during the pilgrimage tour, the city’s main tourist attraction. The program educates pilgrimage visitors, other tourists, and local Marshall County students who tour the site each year. The program operates on a largely volunteer basis, with local community persons and University of Mississippi students acting as program guides.
In addition to program volunteers, the program has featured Slave Dwelling Project founder, Joseph McGill Jr., and Afro-culinary historian, Michael Twitty, as interpreters. McGill sleeps in slave dwellings to bring attention to their historic preservation and Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene, studies and interprets African diasporic connections to American foodways.
Behind the Big House led to the founding of Gracing the Table, a multiracial organization established to promote community development in Holly Springs, through dialogue, candid communication and ultimately healing of the residuals of the institution of slavery. It was co-founded by private homeowner and Holly Springs resident, David Person, and then Chair of Humanities at Rust College, Dr. Alisea Williams McLeod, along with several of McLeod’s students. It is a cooperative effort between private Holly Springs citizens and Rust College and University of Mississippi faculty and students. The group’s motto is “community healing through communication” and its four basic tenets are: 1) uncovering history, 2) making connections, 3) working toward healing, and 4) taking action. The group has sponsored an annual African-centered libation ceremony, a conference on slavery and remembrance, community dialogues, and reunion tours for African American descendants of Burton Place, one of the Behind the Big House program sites.
Behind the Big House also led to the establishment of the Behind the Big House program in Arkansas. Dr. Jodi Barnes, of Preserve Arkansas, visited the program in Holly Springs in April of 2015 and began a program in Arkansas the following May. This program focuses on a different city in Arkansas each year.
In 2014, Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, Inc. received the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s Heritage Award for Preservation Education for the Behind the Big House program. In 2015, it received the Mississippi Humanities Council Preserver of Mississippi Culture Award, as well as a Mississippi Historical Society Award of Merit. In 2018, the National Humanities Alliance launched its Humanities for All website, which is a catalog of nearly 1500 publicly-engaged projects. Behind the Big House is one of 51 featured programs to have an extended profile on this website.