With 150 years of history, the Bellamy Mansion Museum has seen many things, from jazz shows and educational tours to more sinister events that taint its past. Now, with an eye on education, the director of the museum hopes to foster an open dialogue on the house’s history in the midst of keeping it running as a business.
By Casey McAnarney
The Bellamy Mansion, a Greek Revival and Italianate-style Mansion located in downtown Wilmington, was owned by John D. Bellamy and his family. A man involved in many local establishments, Dr. Bellamy owned a medical practice and operated a turpentine distillery in Brunswick county. However, it was his ownership of a ten-thousand acre produce plantation in Town Creek and his 82 slaves for which this man and his eponymous house are often remembered.
Gareth Evans, the director of the museum, is a native of Wales who first came to Wilmington in 1997 seeking a master’s in American history from UNC Wilmington after finishing his undergraduate career with degrees in history and American studies from Swansea University.. He began working with the nonprofit Historic Wilmington Foundation and in 2010 became the director of the Bellamy Mansion Museum.
“As the director I’m supposed to have the strategic, long-view idea of what goes on here,” Evans says, “like where we’re going to be in a couple of years.” Evan’s vision for the museum has seen an array of contemporary events held on its grounds because “the museum has to diversify the programming that it does in order to survive.” These events range from art and history exhibits, film screenings, live music, lectures and education-based activities. Evans has also worked hard to keep the mansion’s past a relevant and integral part of its present.
“There is a balance there,” Evans says. “I’ve always found that the best approach really is just to tell the straight, truthful story, and that’s the best way to do it. We use the place in a sense as a teaching tool, if you want to put it that way.”
Some of the ways in which Evans has worked to bring attention to the darker details of the museum’s history include exhibits on the Bellamy family’s slaves and discussions with tour groups. Last fall the museum’s operations manager Leslie Randall-Morton worked on an exhibit that focused entirely on the lives of the house slaves. The exhibit is now a permanent installation in the slave’s quarters on the property and gives tour groups a glimpse into the lives of Guy, Tony, Sarah, Rosella, Mary Ann, Joan, Caroline and three unnamed young slave girls. “I always think of it as people getting that history in an osmosis kind of a way,” says Evans, “just by being on site and seeing the signage and seeing the buildings. When the kids are here for family day, we give them a 20-minute version of it all depending on their age range.” In Evan’s opinion, it does seem to have worked, since they are now receiving up to 20,000 visitors a year compared to 12,000 to 13,000 previously. “So that’s kind of by virtue of having a diverse bunch of events and far fewer weddings than they used to do, as well,” explains Evans. Where other Southern plantations use weddings as a means to reach financial goals, Evans sees them as a potential issue if not handled properly.
“You know, it’s kind of funny having a wedding outside the slave quarters. I don’t ever let anybody use the inside of that building for anything commercial or rental. I feel that the building is more of a sacred space; a hallowed ground kind of thing because of what it was and who was there. It’s an unvarnished look.”
For some plantation sites, these kinds of choices mean being able to financially support a historical site. The majority of the Bellamy Mansion Museum’s funds come from tour sales, though they do make some funds from other events. “Really it’s a self-sufficient entity right now,” Evans reflects. “The way I always describe it is kind of like a corporate arm of a nonprofit.”
Nevertheless, considering potential impact when planning events is vital to Evans. He expresses the importance of figuring out one’s history and where one comes from. He says, claims that it informs themes of American history which still exist to this day.
“I think when coming to a site like this where people can stand and go, ‘Oh right, you know so black people were enslaved here and white people owned them, and they fought a war over it,’ there is then room for discussion on motives,” Evans reflects? “This time in history still resonates with today’s society. It’s still thrashing around in American history and current politics and society right now. So, that’s the point of studying history—to derive lessons for the present day.”