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When I started the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010, I established some rigid rules. Here are a few: 1) No sleeping in dwellings that are not in their original location. 2) No sleeping in dwellings that have been recreated.
On Thursday, May 2, 2013, I broke both rules by spending a night in the recreated slave dwelling at the Woodburn House in Pendleton, SC.
Additionally, when I received the invitation from Richard Owens (a board member of the Pendleton Historic Foundation) to stay in the dwelling, the 2013 calendar for the Slave Dwelling Project had already been well established. More specifically, it was an invitation to be the keynote speaker for the Annual Pendleton Historic Foundation membership meeting and social. Richard made it an offer I could not refuse by offering bluegrass music, barbeque and samples from Palmetto Moonshine followed by dancing.
Its website describes the Woodburn House as follows: “Woodburn is a graceful four-story clapboard plantation house built c. 1830 with a wrap-around-2-story piazza built as a summer home by Charles Cotseworth Pinckney (1789-1865). The house is an excellent example of an early 19th century SC Upcountry plantation house. While owned by members of the wealthy Adger family of Charleston, the house was expanded to 18 rooms, and the farmland was increased to over 1,000 acres. The historic site now consists of the house museum furnished with antebellum antiques and family artifacts, situated on 10 acres of the original plantation with a walking trail to the ruins of other farm outbuildings. Also on site are three outbuildings, a reproduction of the Adger Victorian Carriage house that contains the traveling coach of Thomas Green Clemson; a one-room c.1810 log house built by Robert Moorhead serving as the cookhouse; and a reproduction of a slave/tenant house interpreting the life of Jane Edna Hunter, the African-American activist who founded the Phylis Wheatley Society, who was born in such a house at Woodburn in 1882.”
Presentation at Mt. Lebanon Elementary School
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In true fashion of the project, I requested that my host maximize my time in the area by planning other events. To that end, a presentation was scheduled for Mt. Lebanon Elementary School. There I met my host and conducted a presentation that went over extremely well. Afterwards the third and fourth graders asked relevant and engaging questions during the question and answer period.
Stay at Woodburn House
When I arrived at the Woodburn House I was impressed at the size of the “big house” but I could not help but wonder who cut down the trees that were made into the lumber for building the house. I met Tim Drake the knowledgeable site historian who offered to give me a tour of the grounds. Knowing that the slave dwelling that I would sleep in was a replica, I was anxious to see where the original cabins once stood. Tim took me to those places. The thought of some of the plants that I was walking through being poison ivy did cross my mind but what I was witnessing and learning minimized that threat.
I learned that the plantation made most of its money by raising horses and cattle. I saw the chimneys that were left of the cabins that once stood in those spots. I saw a nearly intact cistern that was made of brick. Those bricks and all other bricks that composed the antebellum buildings on the property were made by slave labor. I saw the ruins of the brick building that was once used for milking of the cows.
I saw an intact barn that was a clear indication that the raising of horses on that property was once a massive operation. I saw the remains of the cobblestone street that was laid that led to where the horses were kept which was a clear indication to me that the owner took pride in what was located on both ends of that street and wanted his family, visitors and clients to have access with ease.
Knowing that the slave cabin at the Woodburn House was only a replica, made bonding with it quite different from all the previous cabins. While I have stayed in one cabin that was disassembled in one spot and reassembled in another and several that were restored using 50 % of new material, this would be the first that I would sleep in that was a total replica.
Its close proximity to the “big house”, and the attempt to interpret its transition beyond emancipation made it seem a bit cluttered. I had to also take into account that as a “self proclaimed” expert on the matter, I could be overly critical. I also had to take into account that slave owners on the frontier with less means tended to have more interaction with the few slaves that they owned which in a system of chattel slavery tended to favor the enslaved. The potential to have a fire in the fireplace and sleep in the bed were quite welcoming.
As the audience for the meeting and bluegrass and barbeque began to assemble, I took every opportunity to interact with as many people as possible. The threatening rain still allowed for a robust turnout for the event. I began to notice a trend which was that everyone that I talked to believed in ghosts and had at least one story to justify their beliefs. I had the pleasure of meeting a representative from the John C. Calhoun house which is located on the campus of nearby Clemson University. This gave me the perfect opportunity to share with him some information that was just presented to me which was that John C. Calhoun, “the Great Nullifier” has African American descendants. His response was scholarly and non committal. He did verify that there is an upcoming Calhoun reunion that will include some of the African Americans who have made that claim.
For my presentation, the absence of powerpoint, dictated that I use a method of presentation that I had used only once before. I would query the crowd to check their relationship with the 12 states in which I had stayed in slave dwellings. Their choices were Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Using this method, only Connecticut and Pennsylvania were left out but they were talked about as a group anyway for I had to make it clear to this group of southerners that this was a project that focused on preserving buildings used in telling the whole story of how slavery existed on this continent and the north does not get a pass. After the presentation, the question and answer period far exceeded the five minutes that I was allotted. Knowing that there was a Bluegrass Band waiting to perform, I had to end the question and the session. As the band performed, I continued to interact with members of the audience.
When the crowd left, I proceeded to the cabin and to my pleasant surprise, a group had gathered there. With a roaring fire in the fireplace, I knew that this gathering had the potential for meaningful conversation about many subject matters. All members of this splinter group had ghost stories.
We had a beautiful conversation about the economics of slavery. We even covered the subject of bastardy and women’s rights during the period of slavery. The overall conversation was quite stimulating, with all participants feeding off each other’s passion for their reason for being in the space at that time. In the end, only Tim Drake, the site historian; Andy Sova, the recent Clemson University graduate and the bartender for the Bluegrass and barbeque event; and special quest Carol Burdette, the former Mayor of Pendleton would spend the night in the cabin with me. The following morning, we began to leave the cabin Carol Burdette first, me second. I left without disturbing Tim and Andy as I had to be on the road no-later-than 6:00 am.
The stay at the Woodburn House was not my first stay in the upcountry of South Carolina for I had already stayed on Morris Street in Anderson, Roper Mountain in Greenville and the Price House in Woodruff. The support for the project thus far in this part of the state has been great. Sure there is more work to be done for there was not one African American audience member there for the program but that is a good problem to have because it can easily be fixed. When trying to save places that interpret slavery in America, authenticity is important but having any tangible place that can do that also has its value. Had I stuck to my rigid rules, I would not have gotten the opportunity to spread the slave dwelling project to the Woodburn House in Pendleton, SC. I applaud their effort to tell the whole story and I will continue to do all that I can to assist.