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Thursday January 20th

'Different dimensions of history': Burwell School site celebrates 200 years

Historic Hillsborough Commission works to highlight histories of enslaved people who worked at the school

Sarah Waugh of the UNC class of 2020 gives a tour inside of the Burwell School Historic Site in Hillsborough, N.C.
Buy Photos Sarah Waugh of the UNC class of 2020 gives a tour inside of the Burwell School Historic Site in Hillsborough, N.C.

The Burwell School, still standing in historic downtown Hillsborough, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. 

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.

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.

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

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. 

The house has changed in physical form over the years, and so has the perspective surrounding it. 

Carrie Currie, historical coordinator of the Burwell School, said the tours originally focused on the students at the school. In more recent years, information has been uncovered that provides more insight into the enslaved Black people and free Black people who worked at the school.

“When it comes to interpretation, that is something that in any location is going to develop over time, and it ebbs and flows 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 an evolution in their understanding of the history of the people who once lived and worked there. 

The current tour of the school partly focuses on Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly. Keckly was an enslaved person owned by the Burwell family, who, unlike most enslaved people at the time, was able to read and write.

From Keckly’s diaries, the commission discovered that Keckly was severely beaten by the Burwells in what she interpreted as an attempt to break her spirit. 

Keckly was a skilled dressmaker and was eventually able to buy her freedom with the help of loans from her clients. She went on to be a successful dressmaker, author and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln.

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

“The task force was supposed to hit the ground running and really start the research on the other people of color who were free and enslaved, who lived and worked here,” Currie said. “We just felt like there wasn’t a lot being said specifically about those individuals and the commission as a whole felt that was a huge importance, something that 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 worked at the Burwell School are available on its website.

The site is supported by members of the community and the Hillsborough Tourism Board. Currie said that free, local history like the Burwell School exists because of active volunteers and local government support.

Sarah Waugh, docent at the Burwell School, said the site is important because it can connect people to their community and help them gain insight into others' experiences throughout history. She said young people specifically are able to bring new ideas and perspectives to what is known from the past.

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

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

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

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