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Stately Oaks experiences 'Victorian mourning' with special tours

Stately Oaks junior docent Kayla Frank stands in “mourning” at the front door of the living history plantation house in Jonesboro. Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County Inc. is offering Victorian Mourning Tours throughout August at Stately Oaks. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

Stately Oaks junior docent Kayla Frank stands in “mourning” at the front door of the living history plantation house in Jonesboro. Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County Inc. is offering Victorian Mourning Tours throughout August at Stately Oaks. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Stately Oaks junior docent Kayla Frank lays out a black bodice for mourning at the plantation museum Wednesday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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A painting of former Stately Oaks docent Ted Key hangs in a bedroom at the plantation museum in Jonesboro. Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County Inc. has dedicated this year’s Victorian Mourning Tours in memory of Key, who died last September. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

JONESBORO — Death has come to Stately Oaks Plantation.

The porch is draped with black cloth. A black and white wreath hangs on the door. Mirrors are covered and a small, wood coffin sits on a table in the front parlor. A white rose rests atop the coffin.

“A rose means a child has died,” said Kayla Frank, a junior docent with Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County Inc.

Historical Jonesboro began its annual “Victorian Mourning Tours” at Stately Oaks Wednesday. Throughout August, visitors will be able to relive the death of Sarah McCord, the daughter of the family that owned the house in the 1860s.

“We try to show the rituals the family would have done and the different meanings of (mourning traditions such as) the mirrors being draped, or the windows being draped,” said Frank.

Visitors to the 1839 living history museum will learn why the mourning period could last up to two-and-a-half years for women, and three months for men. They will get to see examples of mourning garb from the Victorian Age, such as weeping veils and mourning crapes, purses intended to show the varying stages of grief a person was in, mourning broaches and fans painted black to show a person had suffered a loss.

They will also learn why symbols of the sea were important features of African-American mourning and burial traditions during that time period.

“Throughout the house, you’ll notice black borders on a lot of things, such as handkerchiefs and calling cards,” said Frank. “The thicker it was, the earlier in mourning a woman was, and the thinner it got meant the later she was.”

While October might seem a more appropriate time to do tours centered around death, there is a historical reason, dating back to the Civil War, to explain why August was chosen instead.

“We do it in August because it’s the anniversary of the Battle of Jonesborough,” said Frank.

However, the origins of many mourning traditions do not come from this area. They come from one woman, mourning her prince in London, England.

She just happened to be the queen for whom the Victorian Age is named.

“Victorian mourning actually comes from Queen Victoria,” said Frank. “She mourned her husband (Prince Albert) for nearly 40 years. He died in December 1861 and she died in January 1901, which was the same year that (U.S. President William McKinley) died. Everybody admired her so much that they just began using her traditions.”

This year’s mourning tours are dedicated in memory of former Historical Jonesboro docent Ted Key, who died last September. Key had been involved with Historical Jonesboro for several decades as a storyteller and helped found its Native American Heritage Festival and Black History Month Celebration.

He also played Father Christmas at Stately Oaks’ annual Christmas celebration, which stopped after his death.

Historical Jonesboro have placed a painting of Key in traditional Native American clothing in an upstairs bedroom at the plantation museum. They are in the process of gathering more photos to put with their tribute to him.

“Every year, we dedicate our mourning tours in memory of someone who has passed away,” said Historical Jonesboro President Barbara Emert, who is also Frank’s grandmother. “Last year, it was Ann Rutherford, who played Carreen in ‘Gone With The Wind,’ and this year we wanted to remember Ted.”

Stately Oaks is located at 100 Carriage Lane in Jonesboro. Admission is $12 for adults, $9 for senior citizens and members of the military, and $6 for children ages 3 to 11.