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.
I think it is a great place to give account of history where it took place to have a hands on experience. Something makes more since when experienced hands on to say. We learn, we feel,we understand, we see, we touch that which is untouchable in the natural. Seeing the unseen in the spirit that lives on.
So true Edith, when you are standing there it becomes real.
I’ve stood in some of those cabins and walked the plantations and cried at the thought that those humans are my kinfolk.
Thank you for commenting Jim. I looked at the spaces between the boards on the cabins and knew the winds came through when it was cold.
Such a moving post and a tremendous suggestion! As we commit to calling their names–we should commit to standing in the places where they stood! And for those who have been able to identify the places where they one lived, we owe the ancestors that act of reverence. It is upon their shoulder that we stand.
So true Angela, there is no other experience than standing where they stood.
Thank you. There is a comparable experience sharing the spaces of the elders; homeplaces, churches, schools etc. There is knowledge in the senses, touching, seeing, smelling the shared spaces and places of elders and ancestors is humbling and inspiring. If we do not preserve there will remain nothing to share.
So true Stephen. Removing, or failing to preserve, these sites of memory does much to erase the memory of those who lived and labored there.
My immediate response to the question is a quote from Alice Walker, “The world is not healed in the abstract. The healing begins where the wound was made.” You are going where the wound was made so the healing will begin and be powerful. Thank you for what you’re doing for us all.
Thank you Fran. These spaces bring home the reality of the wounds and cannot be denied.
Everyone does what theyfeel to do, but know that sleeping where they slept, etc. will never have you experience what they experienced. Let’s be clear about that. All the best with your work and your journey!
Thank you so much. Your point is well taken, too.
Your last sentence says all that needs be said when someone asks you why. It is brilliant.
Thank you James. It’s a subject close to my heart.
Thank you so much for inspiration words…I have made the journey and stood on the “auction” block in Louisville, GA, the place where my ancestors were bought and sold like cattle. There is no feeling in the world like stepping back, it humbling and intense and emotional to know that those who came before you stood powerless and afraid while their very existence was bartered like so much corn. I drives me to appreciate the freedoms we have today…and demand that I kneel at the feet of those who survived such inhumanity.
I can’t help but think the ancestors know of your efforts to honor them Elaine.