Reclaiming The Black Past: An Artifactual Journey

SMITHFIELD – The Johnston County Heritage Center is hosting a special Black History event this fall highlighting stories, places, and artifacts from Johnston County and beyond. “Reclaiming the Black Past: An Artifactual Journey” will take place September 29-30, with two main events featuring special guests, performances, and even a meal.

“We are excited about this unique opportunity to bring greater awareness of those whose contributions have been overlooked far too long,” said Todd Johnson, the Center’s Executive Director.  

Joseph McGill, Jr.

The first event will be Friday, September 29, starting at 6 PM. Living historian Joseph McGill, Jr., of Charleston, South Carolina, will lead a campfire discussion at the Boyette Slave House located at 3696 Glendale Road, Kenly, NC. McGill is the Founder and Executive Director of the Slave Dwelling Project, which seeks to use what is embedded and preserved in the buildings and artifacts of people of African heritage to build a new narrative that honors the contributions of enslaved persons and inspires all Americans to acknowledge their Ancestors. Reservations are required for this event, though it is free to attend.

On Saturday, September 30, all activities will take place at the Johnston County Agricultural Center at 2736 NC Highway 210, Smithfield. From 9 AM to 10:45 AM, there will be displays of artifacts and historical information. Philip J. Merrill, African American historian, collector, appraiser, and author, will be on hand to consult with visitors about artifacts. The event is free, but attendees with artifacts they wish to display or to show and discuss with Merrill should make a reservation.

Philip J Merrill

From 10:45 AM to 11:45 AM both Joe McGill and Philip Merrill will be speaking. Merrill is a native of Baltimore, Maryland, and formerly worked as an appraiser for the Antiques Road Show on PBS. He served on the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) and has consulted with the Smithsonian, Johns Hopkins University, the History Channel, and the National Park Service. He has provided content for films, books, and magazines. His oral history collection is archived at the Library of Congress. He has a forthcoming book, entitled Artifactual Journey Through Black North Carolina (Blair Publisher). His work follows the directive of historian John Hope Franklin to “go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”

A lunch prepared by Chef Denise Allen will feature traditional African American dishes. Admission to the event is free, but tickets must be purchased for lunch. After lunch, attendees will enjoy spirituals and storytelling by singer Mary D. Williams and a monologue (“I’ll Fly Away”: A Daughter Remembers) by Denise Joyner Bennett.

Mary D Williams

Mary D. Williams is a gospel singer, historian, and educator with a voice and a presence that demands attention. Born and raised in Garner, N.C., Williams grew up spending summers with her grandparents near Smithfield. Music was an integral part of her daily life. Her father was a quartet singer, and her grandmother was always singing. Williams weaves together African American spirituals from the Civil War era with more modern anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, connecting generations of music and social change.

Denise Joyner Bennett is a native of Kenly and was one of the founding members of the Johnston County Heritage Commission in 1996. Her career in communications, public relations, and cultural diversity spans more than 35 years in the non-profit, private, public, and governmental sectors, including serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin West Africa as a rural community health worker. While in West Africa, she also created and delivered cultural diversity training workshops for Peace Corps Volunteers and Peace Corps staff in Benin and Ghana. She serves on the Johnston County Heritage Commission’s Black History Committee, the planning team for the Heritage Center’s annual Black History events in February. She has used her special gift as a dramatic interpreter on many occasions to bring to life personalities from Johnston County’s black past.

Denise Bennett

To close out the day’s activities, attendees can join guests at 2:00 PM at the Sanders-Smith Cemetery next to Ag Center to honor the memory of enslaved persons buried there.

All reservations can be made, and lunch tickets may be purchased, at the Johnston County Museum, 329 E. Market Street, Smithfield, or online at the Heritage Center’s website, For more information, call 919-938-5912, or visit the website.