I was once told by a genealogist early on in this project that “you concentrate on saving the places, we will put the people there.”
Since the Slave Dwelling Project started in May 2010, unexpected liaisons have been formed. At the Bush Holly House in Greenwich, Connecticut, I spent the night in the slave dwelling with two descendants of slave owners and the descendant of a slave owner and one of his slaves. At Bacons Castle in Surry, Virginia two African American sisters, whose great – great aunt was enslaved there, spent the night and they are now interacting with the property because of the project. In the dwelling on the campus of Sweet Briar College, one of the participants was the granddaughter of the last person who stayed in the cabin.
Along the way, I have had the privilege to address many family reunions. The locations of those addresses were usually in a banquet room of a nice hotel. My address to the Campbell family reunion would be the same but first let me set the stage.
When the project was in its infancy, I attempted to stay in the slave dwelling at Laurelwood Plantation in Eastover, SC. The dilapidated condition of the dwelling dictated that sleeping in the dwelling was not an option, however, in an effort to remain true to the project, I slept on the porch of the big house which also needed to be restored. New owners Jacqueline and Jeremy Thomas who at the time of purchase were living in England vowed to restore the cabin. Being true to their word, I returned in April of this year to spend a night in the newly restored cabin. I was joined by two Richland County high school students and their history teacher; Prinny Anderson, descendant of President Thomas Jefferson; Terry James, fellow Civil War reenactor who sleeps in slave shackles; and Jeremy Thomas, owner.
While at work, I got a call from Michelle Dawson. Once we verified that I was the person that she was looking for, she explained that she was doing research on her family tree and had traced her enslaved ancestors to Laurelwood Plantation. Through my blogs written about Laurelwood, she had tracked me down. She explained the challenge she had finding the physical location of the property and upon finding it, locked gates denied her access. Her true emotion was felt through the phone when I agreed that I would come to Myrtle Beach to address her family reunion. I stated that I could not make any promises but I would try to get them access to the property. A call to Jeremy a few days later confirmed that not only could the family have access but he would be at the property to greet them when they arrived.
Having addressed several reunions before, I knew what to expect, but this one would be different. I was once told by a genealogist early on in this project that “you concentrate on saving the places, we will put the people there.” Three years into the project and this quote was finally playing itself out. For now through the research that Michelle Dawson had done on her family, the connections had been made and I would have the pleasure of accompanying the descendants of the enslaved to a property that was one of the stays of the Slave Dwelling Project. That said, the presentation that I was asked to give was worthy of a customized power point so I developed one accordingly for I had lots of photographs from the two previous stays. Unfortunately, I could not give the power point because the proper equipment was not available.
Improvisation is no stranger to me and I gave a presentation of which I think the Campbell ancestors would be proud. As with all family reunions, there is always the chance that there are participants living in one of the twelve states where I have spent a night in a slave dwelling. In the audience were people living in Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina therefore, I got to talk about my experiences in all of those states. Obviously, the last half of the presentation was about Laurelwood Plantation and I made it clear to the descendants of the enslaved of that plantation that they inspired me by making the Slave Dwelling Project relevant. I explained to them that theirs was the first family reunion that I have addressed that had done the research into the place where their ancestors were enslaved and were willing to interact with that place. I further revealed that the owner Jeremy Thomas would be there to greet anyone who would be going to the plantation the next day.
As promised, Jeremy was there to greet the seven family members who joined us on the property. It was a pleasure for me to see how they all bonded, the group leader Michael Campbell checking his knowledge of his family heritage with that of Jeremy the property owner verifying that information. That was one of the moments in the project that will always stand out. We started with a tour of the big house. The carpenters among the group continually offered their advice to Jeremy. It was great to see all of the progress that Jeremy made on the restoration. The Campbell family was fascinated by the bricks that composed the fireplace so much so that they found finger prints embedded in a few of the bricks something that I had not noticed before. I could not help but think that they could possibly be the finger prints of some of the Campbell ancestors put there when they were making those bricks.
We then headed to the slave cabin seeing a black snake along the way. Having already had my moment with the space, I let the family go in first. This space meant more to them than that of the big house. Although there is no solid evidence that this one cabin left on the property is the one that housed the Campbell ancestors, this was close enough and the emotions of the descendants showed. My mission was accomplished, back at the big house, I had to depart leaving the Campbell family there to continue to bond with Jeremy. I don’t know the conclusion, but I do know that a request to have a future Campbell family reunion at Laurelwood Plantation was made.