Strength To Go Forward - Dr. Breanna Henley

With one academic year closing and another gearing up, we reflect on this season of new beginnings.  There is a hope that the remainder of 2021 will be better than 2020, a hope for a brighter future amid the great upheaval and change we have all experienced. Yet there are spaces that exist that, despite the events in our lives, cannot truly be altered. Spaces that are enduring. Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site is one such site that offers reflection and the hope for new beginnings in these changing times. These spaces are “sacred” or considered “hallowed ground” to someone like Dr. Breanna Henley, the first known doctor and healthcare worker in her family descended from two enslaved workers who were purchased and later forcibly placed at Redcliffe Plantation.

Dr. Henley is no stranger to change, to having to adapt and pick up and move across the globe. She describes herself as an “Air Force brat” after all. But circumstances inevitably brought her back to South Carolina to pursue her career in dentistry, where she has living relatives but only suspected she had ancestors too. 

Dr. Henley had attempted several years ago to research her Henley ancestors in South Carolina and couldn’t find much. She then gave it another shot in 2019 and Googled “Henley family plantation” and it was as if the floodgates opened. Census records, tax documents, and further sources like with additional records repeatedly pointed to the Henley family connected to Redcliffe, where they were formerly enslaved and later worked as paid staff after emancipation. She discovered through these available documents, and some family research, that her great-great-great-grandfather was Louis Henley, one of the children of Anthony and Lucy Henley, purchased by James Henry Hammond in the 1830s and 1840s. Louis Henley was also born into slavery in 1847 and lived through emancipation.

Upon these discoveries, Dr. Henley and other family members decided to visit Redcliffe for the first time. Upon driving up the gravel road and looking out at the landscape, she noticed how “pretty” it was, but what really stood out was an immediate “sense of belonging” and “attachment” to the land she was visiting for the first time. Looking back on her first visit, touring and exploring the grounds where her ancestors were enslaved, Redcliffe has a significance that no other place possesses.

"It’s a sacred place to me, because like I said I’ve always moved around…I’ve never had a really deep connection to a place before, so I’ve kind of been unrooted but now I kind of feel more rooted to not just a location but to my ancestors."

Dr. Henley returned to Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site most recently for this interview, right after taking her last dentistry board exam. When I asked why she wanted to come to Redcliffe that day, she replied,

"[I] wanted to show my respect and my gratitude for my ancestors here and just kind of show that what they sacrificed has allowed me to become a doctor and I never would’ve been able to do that without them."

The day of Dr. Henley’s board exam was a pivotal time in her life. She stood on a precipice where she was looking forward at her potential career and back at what she spent the past several years of her time and resources working toward. Everything depended on the results of this exam. 

At this turning point, when the future is unknown, what better place to turn to than that place where she felt rooted, where she could turn to her ancestors. 

I was happy to learn that Dr. Henley did pass that exam and is now just beginning her career in a Medicaid dental office in South Carolina, fulfilling her goals of providing care to underserved populations with very limited access to healthcare. On this journey to her past, going back is where Breanna found the strength to go forward.

--Written by: Park Manager, Chelsea Stutz, Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site