Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the pastGeorge Orwell, 1984
This fact has been brought to light once again by Black Lives Matter, a movement seeking to end systemic racism in the United States and throughout the world. But of course this situation is nothing new. From the beginning of American history, slavery was a part and parcel of the economic system, and it provided the rationale for the brutality inflicted on enslaved black people, especially at the hands of white authorities. Unforgivably, this brutality continues to the present day.
Beyond that, racism has caused past contributions by black people to be overlooked or ignored altogether. Whether building national monuments (like the White House and Capitol), constructing railroads, digging ditches, growing food, raising families, or giving birth, enslaved black people had a hand in every facet of American culture from its inception. Some slaves even helped white women to give birth, bringing into the world the very people who would later oppress and exploit them.
One of these slaves was Fanny Breeze, a black woman who lived in Durham, North Carolina before the Civil War. Despite being a slave, Fanny somehow managed to leverage her status to become a midwife, delivering babies — both black and white — up and down the Eno River Valley. As such, she earned herself a reputation among local people that persists to this day.
Even so, there’s almost no historical record of Fanny Breeze on the internet. There are no photos, no birth certificates, no genealogies. There’s not even a date of birth and death on her gravestone. The only real record of Fanny Breeze that I’ve been able to find is the home site where she lived, in what is now Eno River State Park.
So in the hope of finding out more about Fanny Breeze through the landscape where she lived, I recently decided to go hiking to this very place.
Arriving at the Fews Ford Access (6101 Cole Mill Road, Durham, NC 27705) on June 14th, 2020, I drove past the first parking lot and parked on the curb of the second, due to the large crowd.
Sitting in my car, I went over my plan. I would take a side trail south to the suspension footbridge, cross over, head north on another side trail, join Fanny’s Ford Trail, switch over to Cox Mountain Trail, and finally reach the Fanny Breeze Home Site. All in all, this would take an easy 2.7 miles over gentle terrain, and there would be plenty of scenic views of the Eno River along the way.
Getting out of my car, I quickly headed west to the starting point of my hike. Reaching Fews Ford, I was surprised by the festive mood, almost like a carnival on the river.
There were children splashing in the water, parents watching from the sidelines, and teenagers hooked to their phones. Meanwhile, the late afternoon sunlight bathed the area in a scintillating radiance that made everything seem larger than life.
Turning left onto an unmarked side trail, I started hiking south along the Eno River.
After a quarter mile, I reached the most distinctive landmark in the area. Stretching across the Eno River and suspended by two wooden towers at each end, the wooden suspension footbridge swayed gently back and forth as I approached.
Soon I was climbing the stairs up to it and heading across.
Ignoring the swaying of the footbridge — which can be more than a little unnerving at times — I quickly made my way to the west side of the Eno.
Immediately to my right, an unnamed side trail appeared.
Turning onto it, I started hiking north, passing through thick vegetation and overhanging canopy that occasionally threatened to envelop me.
After a quarter mile, I reached the west side of Fews Ford, where the late afternoon sunlight had shifted slightly but continued to bathe the area in a scintillating radiance.
Splashing and swimming, people continued with their festivities in a rich palette of colors that matched their mood.
Hiking north, I covered another tenth of a mile before reaching Fews Falls, where more people were sunbathing on boulders and dipping in the water. Then a line of stones came into view ahead of me.
Crossing the stones, I soon passed onto Fanny’s Ford Trail and continued hiking north.
Within a few hundred feet, I noticed a view of the Eno that demanded my attention.
Darting onto an outcropping of rock, I looked north and admired the flowing water as it rounded a bend in the river, overshadowed by a lush green forest and azure blue sky.
Returning to Fanny’s Ford Trail, I hiked another tenth of a mile north before the trail turned west. As it did, I followed suit and soon came to a flat stretch of marshland. With the Eno River on my right, I hiked another quarter mile before reaching a lonely wooden bench on the north side of the trail. Next to it, a steep path descended to the riverbank.
Quickly descending it, I came to the place that gave the trail its name.
Looking at the north bank of Fanny’s Ford, I wondered how many times Fanny Breeze waded across the river at this point and made her rounds to help local families 150 years ago.
In a few steps, I returned to Fanny’s Ford Trail and continued west. Then I reached a fork in the trail and continued straight, passing onto Cox Mountain Trail, which would very soon lead me to my destination.
Before reaching it, however, I heard the sound of footsteps behind me.
Turning, I was just in time to see a fellow hiker passing by, oblivious to the lush green forest and small pools of golden sunlight that dotted the landscape.
Within a couple hundred feet, I made it to the top of the hill and turned left to catch my first glimpse of the Fanny Breeze Home Site.
Apart from piles of stones dotting the landscape, there wasn’t much to be seen. About thirty feet off trail, however, there rose up a great cedar tree with a split down the middle of it. Heading off trail, I stepped gingerly through encroaching vegetation and old stones to get a closer look.
Though it’s hard to be sure, this old cedar tree was probably here during Fanny Breeze’s lifetime, giving shade to humans and shelter to wildlife. As such, it may be the oldest living link to Fanny Breeze that we still have left.
Surveying the home site, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was glad it was still here, close to a trail, and documented online — thereby making my visit possible. But on the other hand, there was so much that could’ve been saved that wasn’t, either because of bad luck, poor workmanship, or failure to allocate funds for the purpose.
Standing there amid stones and vegetation, I wondered how many times Fanny Breeze made her way from where I was standing down to the Eno River — where she crossed not only boundaries of geography but of race, sex, and class. After all, to be a black woman has never been an easy thing. But to be a black woman and a slave, venturing out to help white families who may try to kill you for trespassing, must have required the greatest strength and fortitude.
Looking at the old cedar tree again, it occurred to me that Fanny Breeze must have had a lot in common with this old sentinel of the forest
After all, they were clearly both indomitable forces of nature.
Returning to the trail, I retraced my steps to the junction with Fanny’s Ford Trail, where I turned right and headed south for a quarter mile to finish the loop. Then I reached another junction and turned right, heading west and then south for another quarter mile. Finally I reached a third junction and turned left, heading south and then east for the last quarter mile.
After passing through what seemed like an interminable vegetative labyrinth, I finally reached the suspension footbridge and crossed it with a sigh of relief. Once on the east side of the river, I turned left and headed north. After the last quarter mile of my hike, I reached Fews Ford and looked north into the distance.
Ahead of me, the Eno River stretched languorously over boulders and cascades, accompanied by the fading hues of the lush green forest and the azure blue sky overhead.
Standing there and soaking in the beauty of the moment, it occurred to me that Fanny Breeze probably saw the same scene many times during her life. And though I could never speak for her, I would like to think she would be proud of this place, this river, and the trail named after her. Though it could never make up for the racism that was prevalent in her day and even in our own, it serves as a reminder that black people have lived, worked, contributed, and died on the same land that we now hold dear.
And that should be a reminder to all of us that black lives do indeed matter.