By Joseph McGill, Slave Dwelling Project
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I know for sure that I have spent nights in slave dwellings in twelve states. In the states of South Carolina and Mississippi, I have had some repeat stays. When placing a number on slave dwellings that I have spent the night, I state thirty nine however that might be a misnomer. I will let you be the judge.
There was one stay that eluded me. On April 15, 2011, I was faced with a decision that tested my resolve to remain true to the Slave Dwelling Project. It was on that day that I had my first opportunity to spend the night in the slave dwelling at Laurelwood Plantation in Eastover, SC. Its dilapidated condition and a desire for self preservation factored into my decision not to sleep in the cabin however, I did sleep on the porch of the “big house” which was also in need of restoration. Saturday, April 20, 2013, I would return to Laurelwood Plantation to spend the night in the restored slave cabin that I refused to sleep in two years prior.
The new property owners Jeremy and Jackie Thomas kept good a promise of restoring the cabin. This was not an easy feat because the two of them currently reside in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. Their ultimate intent was to be living in the restored “big house” by now but the necessity to hire a new contractor and an unexpected medical issue delayed its restoration however the work continues with the ambitious plan of having it completed by August.
When I arrived at 3:00 pm the site was bustling with activity. The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation was conducting an open house for the property. They played a major role in ensuring the property would be restored by purchasing and placing easements on it and holding on to it until they found a preservation minded buyer.
I bypassed all of the activities going on at the “big house” and proceeded directly to the restored slave cabin which is located a considerable distance away. This proved to be a wise choice because I got to spend some quality time alone with the place. I took many pictures and spent some time inside inspecting the work that was done to the building. Still missing a few windows, I was thrilled that the contractor used all of the material that was salvageable. My fear that the cabin would be constructed of all new material was put at ease because I knew the challenge that the contractor was faced with based on my knowledge of the dilapidated condition of the cabin when I saw and refused to sleep in it two years prior.
Satisfied with what I saw at the newly restored slave cabin, I then took a walk to the big house to participate in the happenings there. I met Grant McDonald, the gentleman responsible for the cabin’s restoration work. I could tell that my verbal approval of his work was a relief to him. The owner of the property, Jeremy, made the trip from England for the event, he introduced me to his mom, who made the trip with him and was seeing the property for the first time. Jeremy had plans to spend the night in the cabin.
Prinny Anderson from the group Coming to the Table and a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson came from Durham, NC as promised to spend her second night in a slave dwelling, her first overnight was Bacon’s Castle in Surry, VA.
Two Lower Richland High School seniors Harold Taylor a future Clemson University student with aspirations of being a veterinarian and Justin Castor a future United States Marine along with their history teacher Mr. Timothy Shipley showed up for the stay. Mr. Shipley met me at a teacher’s workshop earlier this year at the College of Charleston. The subject of the workshop was teaching the Civil War 150 years later. Terry “Old Reliable” James would show up after the visitors left.
I was summoned over to a group that was talking about the fate of a slave dwelling at nearby Kennsington Plantation. I was told of how the owner, International Paper, was doing everything necessary to move and restore the dwelling when defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory because an individual at a state agency did not move quickly enough to perform a necessary act that would have moved the process along. Now with a new plant manager in place and an expired grant, the momentum has been lost. Not surprisingly, I am now on an unofficial team to regain that momentum and move the project forward. This exchange was a reminder to me of how bureaucracy is often the worst enemy of restoring and interpreting extant slave dwellings.
It was a great pleasure to see how the visiting public was splitting their time between the mansion and the slave cabin. I interacted with as many of them as time would allow. Some were there at the gathering two years ago when I made the decision not to sleep in the cabin so they appreciated more the progress made thus far to the cabin and the mansion.
What I have found out since I started the Slave Dwelling Project in May 2010 is that a lot of the former slave dwellings are still on the American landscape because they were lived in well beyond emancipation. This cabin was lived in until the 1940s. On this day, I met Mrs. Nancy Floyd, the last person to live in the cabin and to my surprise, she was not African American. Unfortunately, we did not have time to hang out because I wanted to know more about her experience living in the cabin.
So far, all of the slave dwellings I’ve stayed in this year have come with amenities, more specifically, electricity and a nearby restroom. This would not be the case at the cabin at Laurelwood. Knowing of these challenges, I told all of the people staying to plan accordingly. Nevertheless, these challenges would still have to be overcome.
One other challenge to overcome was the unseasonably cold weather which was predicted to drop to 47 degrees. Prinny and I took to the surrounding woods to gather as much firewood as we could. With the help of Grant the contractor we would supplement our wood supply with some unusable wood from the debris pile that came from the interior of the mansion. For Jeremy, this would be the first opportunity to test the fireplace in the slave cabin and his skills at building a fire. He finally got the fire going but we had to let it burn out because we would all have to leave the site to find a place to eat dinner. We ate dinner at Mr. Bunky’s Restaurant and Market on Highway 378. While there, to exclude taking a shower, all of us took advantage of all of the opportunities that a modern bathroom would present.
When we got back to the cabin, Jeremy got the fire going again this time with much more ease although he expressed his reluctance to burn the historic wood that came from inside the mansion. That reluctance only made me think about the labor force that was necessary to prepare that wood to be used for construction.
In true Coming to the Table fashion, Prinny Anderson led us in a session to bless the space. We all took the opportunity to give thanks and express our reason for being there. Prinny talked about her slave owning ancestors; Terry talked about sleeping in shackles; Jeremy talked about his opportunity to restore the cabin; Tim talked about the teaching opportunities of the space; and the two students Justin and Harold talked about the learning opportunities of the space.
We continued the conversation with Jeremy stressing that the cabin should continue to be used for educational purposes in the future and for that I have unlimited access. Tim and I vowed to work together to coordinate the next date for students to join us in a sleepover in the cabin. Jeremy engaged me in a conversation about how the cabin should be furnished. I told him that since the cabin was in use far beyond emancipation, furnishings that fit that period would be appropriate. I added that it would be unlikely that there would be furniture in the cabin during the time of slavery. I further added that some stewards of like properties tend to over adorn them by placing items such as furniture and other fixtures that no average slave owner would have issued or allow their slaves to have. Furthermore, that space was used mostly for sleeping.
It was then time for all of us to claim our spot to spread our sleeping bags on the floor where we all drifted off to sleep. The last of us to get up the next morning was Justin, the future Marine. We all took the time to remind him that his sleeping habits will have to change when he enters boot camp. After a session of intense picture taking, we all went our separate ways.
“I am still unsure if I should label this as an initial or repeat stay. What I am sure of is that this cabin at Laurelwood Plantation is the best example of why the Slave Dwelling Project should continue to exist. The mansion and the cabin were almost victims of demolition by neglect. The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation stepped in and saved both. The new owners Jeremy and Jackie Thomas also deserve praise because of their willingness to breathe life back into these properties and go above and beyond to ensure that the cabin will be used for educational purposes.”
I am looking forward to working with all entities necessary to ensure that this cabin will reach its fullest potential in inspiring others to come up to the standards that The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation and owners Jeremy and Jackie have set. The ancestors would be proud!
Overnight at the Laurelwood Slave Dwelling
By Prinny Anderson
“This overnight stay highlighted for me in a personal and physical way what the lives of enslaved people might have been like. It made me much more thoughtful about the harsh contrast between the lives of free, privileged, European American slave owners, like my own ancestors, and the lives of the enslaved and intentionally deprived African American people. It gave the shame of benefitting from slavery a physical form, a cold night on the floor. It also gave me a way of contributing to the re-warming and restoration of “right relationship” among the descendants of the enslaved and the slaveowners, a way of taking tiny steps towards making amends and seeking reconciliation.”
My overnight stay at Laurelwood was my second sleepover in a slave dwelling, and as expected, it was different from the first one. Two themes from the stay continue to echo in my mind. Bringing seven people together to sit around a fire in the hearth, talk and tell stories, and sleep in the cabin was like a housewarming event. And much of what stood out to me about the visit were the ordinary aspects of life – how it probably was 150 years ago compared to how it is now, how it was for enslaved people compared to how it is for a privileged, comfortably off, middle class professional.
The notion of “house warming” resonates in several ways. For one thing, that April evening was unseasonably chilly, and fortunately, a couple of people in our group knew how to build a fire and then looked after it diligently. That fire warmed the house enough to make our evening delightful and our overnight stay tolerable. Since our overnight stay was the first time in several decades since anyone had slept in the building, and since the cabin had been restored, with parts of the foundation, the floor, the walls and the roof having all been reconstructed, we were “re-warming” the space. We were bringing life back into the building. What’s even more important to the seven who spent the night is that we were the first people since Emancipation, as best we know, who came to sleep in the cabin with a focus on the enslaved people who had lived there. We were there to “re-warm” the memory, honor and respect those people should have.
Finally, for me, there were echoes of my experience at the community gathering held at Monticello. In 2007, descendants of all the people, enslaved and free, workers and owners, African and European, gathered at Monticello to become acquainted with one another, to talk about our shared heritage, and to look for ways to reconnect. As we came up to the mansion, the President of the foundation that cares for the building called out, “Welcome home, welcome back home.” At Laurelwood, we were welcomed home by the current owner of the property. We the living and the memory of those gone on were all welcomed home.
The other aspect of my experience was paying attention to the very ordinary details of life. The cabin has no furniture now; it probably had very little furniture when it was a slave dwelling. We pulled planks together to create seating, and we had all brought bedding for the night, so we were reasonably comfortable. But we reflected on what the enslaved people would have had – probably no chairs or tables; probably a thin, straw-filled pallet to lie on at night; and, if the overseer was doing his duty, a blanket, but maybe only one blanket. That chilly April night would not have been very comfortable. January would have been much worse. And back in the day, the owners and overseers mostly likely didn’t give a second thought to allowing people to live in such conditions.
There was no running water at the cabin; we brought our own water, in jugs and bottles. Perhaps there was a well or a pump somewhere on the property in earlier times, but fetching it and storing it would have been a constant chore performed by enslaved people, first for the convenience of their owners and then for their own use. Carrying water is time-consuming and exhausting, to the extent that still there are places in the world where people do not wash and do not stay sufficiently hydrated simply because of the effort involved. Was that the case for the Laurelwood enslaved community?
Of course, with no running water, there were no toilets. There might have been a latrine. Or the enslaved inhabitants of the cabin may have had the same experience we did, of finding a sheltered spot in the woods. That’s manageable for camping. Imagine it as a daily way of life. Imagine it as daily life for people whose duties included emptying the chamberpots of European Americans who did not have to run out to the latrine or find a quiet spot in the woods.
This overnight stay highlighted for me in a personal and physical way what the lives of enslaved people might have been like. It made me much more thoughtful about the harsh contrast between the lives of free, privileged, European American slave owners, like my own ancestors, and the lives of the enslaved and intentionally deprived African American people. It gave the shame of benefitting from slavery a physical form, a cold night on the floor. It also gave me a way of contributing to the re-warming and restoration of “right relationship” among the descendants of the enslaved and the slaveowners, a way of taking tiny steps towards making amends and seeking reconciliation.
by Tim Shipley
“As I teach students history, I often encourage them to look into their own past and heritage. One cannot understand where they are going until they understand where they have been. I look to future experiences at Laurelwood with my students. This will be a great way to open their eyes to the past in knowing their heritage.”
The idea of staying overnight in a slave cabin would never have crossed my mind until I met Joe and Jeremy. Over the past year, Jeremy has worked to connect our school with the slave cabin and offer the use of it to teach students. Well, after an overnight stay in the slave cabin it has been interesting since, as I talk to others about the experience and they say “you really stayed”. Normally, as a history teacher, I would look at this as another experience to use in the classroom however, having looked into my own family history the past few years made this experience different.
Sleeping overnight in the conditions I was not used to opening my eyes to what even life must have been like for my own ancestors much less African-Americans. It made me wonder how my ancestors might have been towards people of other races. I do know that there were sharecroppers in my past, but for them the conditions still were not to the level of ridicule and segregation of African –Americans during that time.
As I teach students history, I often encourage them to look into their own past and heritage. One cannot understand where they are going until they understand where they have been. I look to future experiences at Laurelwood with my students. This will be a great way to open their eyes to the past in knowing their heritage.
Slave Cabin Stay
by Harold Taylor, Student
“To compare the lifestyles of the white man and the black man on the plantation is to compare day and night. The master lived in a big, lavished, warm, cozy house, while the slave toiled all day only to return to a shanty shack with barely a fireplace to warm the hearth. The black man worked to carry the economy the white man thrived on. The white man took what the black man broke his back to give, maybe not freely, but in the same sense, the black man had to give.”
Slave cabins were the lodgings of individuals who were forced to work for nothing in the United States in the beginnings of the creation of the United States. The slaves were forced to do labor just about every day in the field for fear of abuse or attack. These men and women went day in and day out working, more often than not, for people who cared nothing of their well being as long as they were alive. At the end of the day these poor souls would be forced to return to cabins that were little more than large sheds.
While in the Laurelwood plantation’s slave cabin it was hard not to notice the size of the cabin itself. The cabin was no bigger than around twelve by ten feet. This cabin was devoid of anything more than a few shanty doors and drafty windows, with only a single fire place to heat the whole home. The slaves returning after a hard day’s labor in the field would do little more than come inside and go to sleep. In fact, according to several individuals who stayed at the cabin overnight, that is all the cabin was probably used for. This shows what kind of torment the slaves lived in. The cabin itself was quite cold without a fire, very drafty if any open area was not blocked, and covered with small cracks in the floor that made sleeping in a sleeping bag almost unbearable.
Many slave cabins had little to no furniture on the inside so slaves were forced to sleep on the cold hard floor. According to a one mister Joe, the cabin might have had a small table with just enough space to set a few items on to eat or what not. In this way the slaves obviously had to become very resourceful to stay warm during the colder winter months. As those who experienced the overnight stay will recall, the cabin was quite cold. The individuals who stayed will also recall that they stayed in the spring, as the weather was warming up. Slaves who lived in the cabin had to live there year round. During the summer, the slaves had to fear snakes crawling through the floor boards, and during the winter the slaves had to fight the cold just to stay warm. Both of these tasks were hard as cracks in between the floor boards made plenty of room for snakes to enter and the sole fireplace required constant attention to warm the room.
The slaves must have relied on each other immensely. During the summer, the slaves could open the windows for a cross breeze, but the draft could put out the cooking fire. The slaves who stayed in that cabin, must have found a way to keep the place cool, but cook at the same time. Surely it was difficult, but the winters must have been worse. The slaves relied upon whatever they were given or could find. Slaves would probably make blankets and huddle together to keep warm, but even the mornings were cold and they would be forced to go to work.
To compare the lifestyles of the white man and the black man on the plantation is to compare day and night. The master lived in a big, lavished, warm, cozy house, while the slave toiled all day only to return to a shanty shack with barely a fireplace to warm the hearth. The black man worked to carry the economy the white man thrived on. The white man took what the black man broke his back to give, maybe not freely, but in the same sense, the black man had to give.
Overall, from one night of staying in a slave cabin, it is easier to see the misdeed of early white Americans. While history favors the white man early on, it is deeper to feel the pain and suffering of the early black man. However, it is important to recall that without each of their contributions, the white man’s cruelty and black man’s sacrifice are part of the reason why Americans today can live together in harmony. Without the pain of slavery there wouldn’t have been the joy of today, when the white man and the black man can look upon each other as equals, as friends, as brothers.
My Experience at The Laurelwood Plantation
by Justin Castor, Student
“I can say that the experience has made me a better person. It’s taught me humility for those who lived daily in the conditions I experienced for only 12 hours. It’s shown me an importance in knowing and attempting to learn about your history. Most of all, it has proven that history is real.”
I have never quite taken the time to contemplate the idea of slavery or the fact that, at one point or another, my ancestors went through it. As I visited the slave cabin at Laurelwood, I was faced with 2 conflicting views, and that is exactly how I wish to present my experience. On one hand, being a student in IB history lent to my interest and the analytical approach I took upon first arrival. On the other, being an African- American didn’t sink in until the night. I had to come to terms with the magnitude of the event. The stay caused me to question the system of slavery, the current state of the African Americans in America, and me. Hopefully by explaining these views, you can gain an insight not only on the physical conditions, but also my personal feelings involved with staying at Laurelwood.
From the historical perspective, slavery had and has always been an institution since biblical times. I had grown accustomed to looking at “the bigger picture”, and the bigger picture tells me that slavery in North America was much more civilized than in Latin America. That being said, it was hard for me to empathize with slavery, much like Americans who fail to understand soldiers. The cabin was about half the size of the average high school class room, and was split into 2 main rooms (the porch of the cabin was enclosed in at a later period, creating a 3rd room which we did not use). History tells us that the space allocated would have held a family of 10+, with minimal consideration for basic living conditions. This space actually would have worked fine, considering that the house would only be used to sleep in, as the slaves would have been working on the 2500 acres that the Laurelwood plantation would have covered.
Growing up, I neglected doing research into my ancestors and my own family line. I thought that it was simply “the cool thing to do” for African Americans and held no real substance. I had grown to refuse a connection to my slave ancestors, as I felt too many people would use these ancestors as a crutch to continue various negative social practices in the African American society. When I arrived at the cabin, it took a while for me to fully digest what I was feeling. I eventually understood that heritage was a very important thing. I understood that learning your history can be one of the most enlightening experiences you can ever hope to undergo. Being so close, you can literally imagine what may have happened in the past. Suddenly, what I read in textbooks became something I was able to see in my mind’s eye.
In some ways, the event is indescribable. Joe told us that “every stay is different” and I am sure that each stay will mean something different to each person. I can say that the experience has made me a better person. It’s taught me humility for those who lived daily in the conditions I experienced for only 12 hours. It’s shown me an importance in knowing and attempting to learn about your history. Most of all, it has proven that history is real. I think that students in history classes can sometimes forget that that what they read in books was once as real their own lives and experiences. Slaves slept on the very floor I slept on, braved the same cold, and did so with less than half of the accommodations I enjoyed. Knowing that, I can personally say that the stay in the slave cabin is something I will never forget.
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I respect the endurance and commitment of all of you. Certainly the slave cabins should be preserved or restored. If we cannot remember history, we are doomed to repeat it. People should know all about slavery and the conditions of the slaves. My ancestors were slave owners, and yet none of my family every would say a word about slavery. That's not right. The whole nation has to process that terrible injustice in order to get to a place of healing.
AMEN, miranda 709. You hit the nail on the head. We need to open up discussions and communications so that America can apologize and we can begin to heal.
My ancestors were slaves. I am so greatful for the Slave Dwelling Project. Thanks to all that make it possible.
Thanks for sharing yet another inspiring experience that's relevant today. Stay true to your vision, Joe. When you're at the forefront of something bigger than yourself, there will be others who will join the effort. You've got the testimonies to prove that point. GREAT GOING!!!