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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Talking monuments and famed conjoined twins, Millie-Christine

On a beautifully sunny day that would take your breath away, Gwenyfar and her friend Elise headed out to Whiteville to see if they could find Millie-Christine McCoy’s monument.

“Died October 8th and 9th?” Elise and I both shivered.

“So they must have died overnight.”

NEW MONUMENTS: Gwenyfar ponders the life of  ‘The Carolina Twins’ Millie-Christine McCoy and visits her gravesite.   Photo by Elise Seifert

NEW MONUMENTS: Gwenyfar ponders the life of ‘The Carolina Twins’ Millie-Christine McCoy and visits her gravesite. Photo by Elise Seifert

We were visiting the monument at Millie-Christine McCoy’s gravesite, also known as “The Carolina Twins” and “The Two Headed Nightingale.” Born as conjoined twins into slavery in 1851 in Columbus County, they are one of three sets of famous conjoined twins buried in North Carolina. Perhaps the most well-known set are buried in Mount Airy. Eng and Chang are the twins who coined the phrase “Siamese Twins.” The third set are buried in Charlotte: The Hilton Sisters were the basis for the musical “Side Show.”

But of all three, Millie-Christine fascinate me most (and that is saying something). Born slaves, they were sold for the first time at 10 months old, kidnapped repeatedly by the age of 5, and taken across international borders by their captors in an effort to avoid fugitive slave laws. They were freed from slavery in Britain (where slavery was abolished in 1833), and yet returned to enslavement and life on a plantation. After the Civil War, they were able (through their work as performers) to make enough money for their family to purchase the farm where they were born.
I’ve heard myself say during discussions of public art that we should question who to have statues of. That should include more than who we don’t want. We should be asking: What are the qualities and accomplishments we want to honor?

I’ve long said we should have a statue to Dr. Hubert Eaton, but then he does have a school named after him (Dr. Hubert Eaton Sr. Elementary School). It seems a fitting way to honor the man who made it a personal crusade to ensure equal education was made available to all students in New Hanover County.

Then one day I passed a sign advertising a funeral monument company. Something started to click about that word and its many associations. Part of why graveyards are important to people is they provide a location to focus memories. They are essentially gardens open to the public (unless they are located on private land) filled with memorial art.

So on a beautifully sunny day that would  take your breath away, Elise and I headed out to Whiteville to see if we could find Millie-Christine’s monument. We found Millie-Christine Road and drove up and down a couple of times looking for the address. Elise pointed out some small American flags close to the ground beyond a field. After a few more passes, we found a driveway, angled away from the road, leading to the cemetery. The remains of a gate and wire fence were visible, but it is now an open area. Crops grow on three sides, and what appears to be family land surrounds it. It looks like any other farming area in southeastern North Carolina:  trees on the margins, an old barn here and there, plenty of tenacious wildflowers in the gullies, bees buzz, butterflies mingle, and it really does feel like a little piece of heaven on earth. Several families share the graveyard, and clearly someone comes and tends to the plots: It had been recently mowed. There were flowers at the sites and each had an American flag.

“The Fourth of July?” I mused to Elise.

“Probably,” she nodded.

Later I wondered if maybe they were there for 9/11.

We circled the graveyard looking for Millie-Christine. I had seen pictures of her monument and knew we were looking for a long, flat stone close to the ground.

“There’s a McCoy,” Elise pointed to a tall monument for a husband and wife. Next to it (or behind it, depending upon where one stands) was the Millie-Christine monument.

One side says “Millie-Christine” and the other says “Christine-Millie”.

“Do you notice that all the language is singular?” I asked Elise. “‘She’ lived a life… not ‘they.’ The place of ‘her’ birth, not ‘their.’”

That’s when we noticed the two death dates to the one birth date.

“Millie-Christine: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” by Joanne Martell is an incredible biography of the twins. In her author’s note on the first page, Martell explains throughout her life Millie-Christine was alternately referred to in the singular and plural. She shared a pelvis from which four legs ambled and above two spines separated. She saw herself as “two hearts that beat as one.” Christine was stronger of constitution and a tiny bit larger than Millie.

There are so many aspects of their story I find fascinating. Obviously, I am just as curious as everyone else about their conjoined state. They were exhibited publicly from infancy until just before their death because people were fascinated. After emancipation they were able to control their own business arrangements and parleyed public curiosity into a remarkable and highly profitable career.

More so, I find myself amazed at what they overcame: born into slavery; repeatedly kidnapped; the subject of confusing and bizarre court cases; routinely subjected to degrading medical examinations by rooms full of male doctors; and exhibited publicly before they could speak. They became some of the wealthiest people in Columbus County by the time of their death. In the 19th century, there were very few economic options open to women, and even fewer to former slaves. Yet, Millie-Christine flipped the script on everybody—even staying in the best hotels when their mother would not have been served a glass of water there, if she dared to ask. They became philanthropists. Lloyd Iman is quoted in Martell’s book:

“She built a church and a school for black children and gave money to Shaw University in Raleigh, Bennett College in Greensboro, Johnson C. Smith College, Henderson Institute and Palmer Institute.”

She conversed fluently in several languages, which she learned touring Europe and meeting crowned heads of the day. She sang in two-part harmony, composed poetry, played piano and organ, and even danced quite gracefully. She also sued a white man (a rival circus owner) for libel in the early 1880s without fear of violent reprisal. The case settled out of court with the defendant paying the court costs.

Millie-Christine were welcomed back to the loving arms of their family, who protected them to the best of their ability, unlike the Hilton Sisters—whose mother sold them in infancy and who died in obscurity after being abandoned during a foreign tour (they were born in England)—or even Eng and Chang, who passed more of their lives outside rather than in Siam. After being rescued from their kidnappers in England, once they returned to the family fold, they never had another moment without familial love and support. In turn they cultivated the family, their near-by community, and paid it back with great dividends.

“She was a talented, generous black woman who was one of the greatest black women of her time,” Martell quoted Iman in her book. “She said when God made her, he gave her two heads and two brains because her responsibility was so great.”

Her monument is not actually at the family burial ground, where she was originally buried. Fifty-four years after her death she was reinterred down the road in Welch’s Creek Community Cemetery. The Columbus County Historical Society and NC Department of Archives and History jointly oversaw the excavation and reinternment, as well as the presentation of her new marker—or monument.

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