Beaufort architecture illustrates meaning of emancipation

mlutz@historicbeaufort.orgDecember 9, 2013 

SUBMITTED PHOTO

History just won't let us alone in Beaufort. It's always popping up with unexpected stories. A current restoration of a 19th century house underway on West Street immediately behind the U.S. Post Office is the most recent structure to reveal its secrets.

Representative of the post-Civil War era in Beaufort, the Benjamin Deveaux House has something to say about those who settled in Beaufort after emancipation from slavery. During this important era, many African-Americans found they could do something they could only have dreamed of before -- they were able to choose where they would reside. Many of them built modest homes throughout what's now Beaufort's National Historic Landmark District.

A lot more research needs to be done to know just who Benjamin Deveaux was and where he came from. White planter Andrew Deveaux and his family were prominent in 18th century Beaufort and were loyal to King George III. They eventually fled the Lowcountry during the American Revolution and established plantations in the Bahamas. Whether Benjamin Deveaux had any connection to the white planter family has not been established; all that's known is that Benjamin Deveaux was in Beaufort in 1874 when he purchased his small lot.

The property had been recovered by Jane McGrath, widow of Patrick McGrath, who built the two houses immediately in front of the Deveaux house on North Street before the Civil War. All of the McGrath property was confiscated by the federal government during the war for nonpayment of taxes, but Mrs. McGrath was able to reclaim it. That's about the same time the lot showed up in deed books as belonging to Benjamin Deveaux.

It's surmised that Benjamin Deveaux had an appreciation for education, but it hasn't been established whether he had an education himself. One of his daughters, Katherine Deveaux, became a well-known nurse in the community, tending customers at the Gold Eagle Tavern on New Street and operating the first African-American infirmary at the corner of North and West streets across from her family home. It was torn down during the construction of the post office in the 1970s.

Katherine Doctor, his granddaughter who died just five years ago, was known to many Beaufortonians as a teacher, a historian and an avid supporter of her church, Grace A.M.E. and of the Beaufort County Public Library. She lived in her grandfather's house until just before her death.

In addition to instilling a love for education in his family, Benjamin Deveaux was either a talented craftsman or he hired highly skilled workers to construct his home on West Street, according to contractor Mike Sutton, who is restoring the house for current owner Jeannie Creech-Avent. The house is a scaled-down version of a plantation house with eight fireplaces in appropriately-sized rooms. Constructed by the post-and-beam method, it is made up of heavy pine beams that are pegged together. Post-and-beam construction is commonplace in wooden buildings from the 19th century and earlier in which logs and tree trunks were used. There were no high tech saws, but skilled woodworkers used axes, adzes, hand-powered auger drill bits (bit and brace), and laborious woodworking to assemble a building capable of bearing heavy weight without excessive use of interior space given over to vertical support posts.

The house deteriorated rapidly after Katherine Doctor moved out, and its restoration appears to be happening with no time to spare. Twentieth century additions, as is often the case on 19th century buildings, were wracked with termites and had to come off. The degree to which the foundation piers were failing was a surprise to Sutton, as was the damage done by earlier renovations which appeared to have been done with scrap materials. The house bears much of the same damage that Sutton has observed in other Beaufort houses that survived the Great Hurricane of 1893.

Nevertheless, Benjamin Devaux's house stands, evocative of a new period of American history in Beaufort, and representative of a people who could now decide where they would live. This house is a testament to the meaning of emancipation.

Log on to Sutton Construction's Facebook page, follow the project to its completion and drive by and take a look.

Maxine Lutz is the executive director of Historic Beaufort Foundation.

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