Plantations were the sites of unspeakable tragedies – unrelenting labor from sunup to sundown and in many cases, violence and rape. Enslaved people lived in houses where an entire family shared a small, single room with a fireplace and nothing more. In some slave cabins, two of these rooms were joined together so that two families shared a single structure.
Why on earth would Lowcountry Africana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring enslaved ancestors and restoring their names to the historical record, do public history work at plantations?
A Good Question
After working for four years to document enslaved ancestors, I was invited to speak at Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, Florida for a history event.
They welcomed me to the plantation, explained that I would be staying in lodging at the plantation, and that when the plantation was closed to the public, they would all go home and leave me on the plantation alone. They did just that, and the moment the public gates were closed, I went straight to the ruins of the slave cabins. I wanted to get that ground beneath my feet.
I walked into the ruins of where an enslaved family had lived, and suddenly I was in their presence.
I stood where they lived. I walked where they worked.
Being an archaeologist in Florida, I had personally experienced unbearable heat and humidity, where the air was so full of water you couldn’t take a breath without feeling like you were gasping for air. Enslaved ancestors worked in these conditions in Florida every day.
I Never Fully Understood the Experience of Enslaved Ancestors Until I Stood in the Ruins of Their Homes
Since then, I have stood on many lands where the enslaved ancestors stood. I have walked through their homes in South Carolina and wondered how they survived the Lowcountry climate – unbearably hot and humid in the summer, with unrelenting mosquitos a constant presence, and bitterly cold in the winter.
Why Do We Do Public History in These Spaces?
Why not choose sites that are universally revered by the African American community to give presentations?
There’s a simple reason:
Standing where they stood, where they lived, where they labored, makes their experience real.
Go and stand where they stood.
Sleep where they slept.
Spend a night with Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project.
What better place to do public history than in the spaces where enslaved ancestors’ lives were spent?
I can’t think of a better place.