Tour Guide: Sonia D’Andrea
Priscilla Brank: Simone Roos Snook
Ghost of Christmas Past: Stephanie Hickling Beckman
Ghost of Christmas Present: Jerrell Henderson
Puppeteers: Zachary Gladwin, John O’Neil, Aaron Snook
Adapted by: Kimberly Floyd and Aaron Snook
Created by: Aaron Snook
Special thanks to our Volunteers:
Storytelling can do many things but in my humble opinion its most essential ability is to create empathy. There is no greater example of this than Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story asks, “Can we take someone without a shred of empathy for his fellow man and turn that around?” That said, I’ve always found “empathy” to be a tricky word and one without any true synonym. So, all I’d like to share with you prior to your experience is this simple definition from the Oxford Dictionary:
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Enjoy the show!
Aaron Snook, Curator, AMC
A Note on the Show
Thank you for visiting the Vance Birthplace this evening! We are excited to partner with the American Myth Center to present our unique version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The following is a key to the journey that is about to unfold. Read it before, during, after, or not at all. It is entirely up to you.
As you prepare for your tour this evening you will notice that your ticket is a “Zeb” name tag. This is because you will be walking in Zebulon Vance’s shoes during your tour. Tonight, you will be visited by the ghosts of your grandmother, Christmas past, present, and future as you learn the story of Venus, an enslaved woman.
Priscilla Brank, Zebulon Vance’s grandmother sets the tone for this evening's play with the role of Marley. It can be difficult to read wealthy landowners' wills from the 1800s. They speak freely of their property, discussing enslaved people just like the land, furniture, and livestock. Vance family wills are no different. David Vance Sr. bequeaths multiple people to his children, willing eight people to his wife Priscilla: Richard, Aggy, Jo, Leah, Moses, Isham, young Leah, and Washington. However, he then states,
“Richard, Agga [sic], Jo and Leah. It is my will and desire that they have full liberty and I do by these presents give them full liberty to go and live with any of my children where their own children live, not as slaves, but as old acquaintances who have labored and spent their strength to raise my children and their own also...”
We do not know why David Vance Sr. wished for these four people to be freed. We do know that Priscilla did not honor the request. They continued living and working for Priscilla until her death in 1836. Richard, Jo, and Leah would all die sometime before 1835. Aggy would be willed to David Vance Jr. and die after Priscilla in 1837.
We do not presume to understand the difficulties of life in the early 1800s, on a farmstead in the mountains of North Carolina. Priscilla had no electricity, no running water, no right to property, and no right to vote. But, we are all responsible for our actions. As Marley states in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
Act I, Past:
Venus was a nanny for the Vance family children. She is fondly recalled by Robert Vance in the Clement Dowd biography of Zeb. She was auctioned, along with eleven other enslaved people, at the 1844 David Jr., estate sale. Robert states that Venus went up to the auction block carrying his younger sister and declared that anyone who took her also took “her” child. Mira Vance repurchased Venus for $1 with no contest from anyone present.
While Mira did purchase Venus for $1, the truth of the family legend is unclear. Since she does not appear on the 1850 slave schedule for Mira Vance, it is assumed that Venus died sometime between 1844 and 1850.
Act II, Present:
Retracing the lives of enslaved people is a difficult process. Census records often only count the number of slaves with no regard to age or gender. By utilizing Vance family wills and deeds we can often gather more information including names and—occasionally—ages. These sources can also offer a defining point between living in one place and another.
Unfortunately, even with these resources some people are lost to history, known only as a number on a page. We do not know if Venus had any children. If she did, those children would have been shaped by the Jim Crow Era. This period (circa 1877-1964) was defined by the creation of state and local laws to enforce racial segregation and continue the disenfranchisement of African Americans—often resulting in violence.
Act III, Future:
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843 when the Vance family still owned this property. In fact, many credit Dickens with influencing the spirit of our Western observance of the holiday: gathering of family and friends, sharing food and drink, dancing, and the general generosity of spirit.
While we cannot say for sure if Vance would have changed his ways about slavery, today we have the opportunity to reexamine the decisions that Vance made. We can think, if it were me, what would I do? Or, based on the decisions that Vance made and the impact that he had, where do we go from here?
Join us at the bonfire, ask any questions on your mind, and start any conversations that have been sparked. Whether or not you are ready to talk, we would like you to take an ornament from the bonfire host and think about this question:
How can we create empathy in others?
We invite you to ponder this on your way back to the Visitor Center. When you arrive, please write your answer with the provided pens next to the Christmas tree and then hang your ornament wherever you please.
Have a Merry Christmas!