Not every overnight stay in an extant slave dwelling fits the mold of the intent of the Slave Dwelling Project. There was that overnight stay in a replicated slave cabin at Woodburn Plantation in Pendleton, SC. There was that overnight stay in a freedman’s cottage at Middleton Plantation in Charleston, SC. There was that overnight stay in Cherrydale Mansion on the campus of Furman University in Greenville, SC. I’ve slept in a slave dwelling at Roper Mountain in Grenville, SC which was moved there to keep it from being torn down.
A chance to sleep among the ruins of the slave dwellings once located on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina would be a first for me. All of the dwellings that I have slept in to date have been enclosed. Before that could happen, I had to make a side trip to the Heyward House in Bluffton, SC. This was the site of the second slave dwelling of which I had spent a night. I have been going back each year since the project started to give supporters an update. Unfortunately, rain forced us to relocate the presentation from outside in front of the cabin to inside the main house. A high quantity of people did not attend but the quality was superb and we are now making plans for a second stay in the cabin.
Many people were enslaved on the sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. A prolonged lack of access to these islands managed to nurture the Gullah Geechee culture. As defined: “The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee, which some scholars speculate is related to the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia. “Gullah” is a term that was originally used to designate the variety of English spoken by Gullah and Geechee people, but over time it has been used by its speakers to formally refer to their creole language and distinctive ethnic identity as a people.”
In recent decades, the islands where this culture tended to flourish most are being encroached upon by development. One such island is Daufuskie. Located there is Haig Point, a gated community. Located within that gated community of Haig Point are the tabby ruins of slave dwellings that once belonged to the Mongin-Blodgett Plantation. Those ruins have been stabilized by the Haig Point and it was my intent to spend a night there under the stars.
To get to Daufuskie Island one has to catch a boat. I had visited the island several times before so I knew what to expect. I had not visited since Haig Point stabilized the tabby ruins of the slave cabins. This would be my second stay in a slave dwelling on an island of which to get there I had to catch a boat. The first was Ossabaw Island located off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. The cabin I stayed in on Ossabaw Island was one of three made of tabby, all fully enclosed. Prinny Anderson, the descendant of Thomas Jefferson, drove six hours from Durham, NC to meet me at the site on Hilton Head Island where we would catch the boat to Daufuskie Island. This would be Prinny’s ninth stay in a slave dwelling.
Upon disembarking onto the island, we were shown our room in the Strachan Mansion, built in 1910, it was moved from St. Simons Island, GA to Haig Point in 1986. The Mansion was essentially given away to International Paper by the Sea Island Company as they wanted the Mansion removed. The Mansion was barged up the Intracoastal Waterway and restored to its present state. Haig Point made the room available to us to store our luggage and freshen up the morning after the sleepover in the tabby ruins. We then toured the recently stabilized ruins. There was evidence that at least twelve or so cabins once dotted the landscape of this plantation. Evidence of one door and one fireplace was an indication that the cabins were designed to house one family. None of the ruins had roofs. A decommissioned light house which was built in 1873 is now located where the big house once stood.
Bricks were scattered among the ruins of one small building near where the historic mansion was once located. I immediately started looking for the fingerprints of the enslaved who may have made those bricks. I found none but I did find the paw print of a raccoon which was an indication to me that the bricks were made outside and quite possibly on site before being placed in a kiln for firing.
My host Haig Point in partnership with the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation had a lot planned for the time Prinny and I would spend on the island. Under a big tent, very near the tabby ruins, I would address the invited members of Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation at dinner about the Slave Dwelling Project. Prinny again wowed the audience when she talked about her involvement with the Slave Dwelling Project. The event delivered the biggest audience in recent memory. As the event continued, it began to thunder in the distance.
It is seldom that I get to spend a night at a site with the descendants of those who were enslaved there. Yvonne Wilson a descendant of the enslaved along with three of her grand-children would spend the night with us among the tabby ruins. After dinner, Yvonne took us on a tour of the grave yard which contained some of her ancestors. It was great that the descendants of the enslaved can still have access to this site that is located well with this gated community because I have heard lots of horror stories that have turned out not so pleasantly. While in the grave yard it began to rain lightly as Yvonne revealed to us her relatives who were laid to rest there one of which was her enfant child. After barely making it back to the tent, it began to rain heavily. We discovered that two of the audience members from the earlier gathering would be joining us for the sleepover and we all made a collective decision that we would all sleep under the tent.
The night continued with all of us sitting in a circle enjoying a session of conversation heavily laced with the telling of jokes with the youngsters holding their own pretty well. As I faded in and out of sleep, the rain would occasionally pay us a visit, making our decision to sleep under the tent a good one.
I wonder if My Ancestors Were Allergic to Oysters?
The next morning, I became obsessed with the beautiful sunrise and spent a lot of time taking pictures as it began to take its place in the eastern sky. Yvonne took the time to visit the graves of her ancestors once more. We all began to gather among the ruins some even spreading sleeping gear there just to symbolically complete the purpose of our intent. One of the young men upon getting a closer look at the oysters shells embedded in the tabby ruins stated that he was allergic to oysters and then he asked the question that made the trip worth it for me: “I wonder if my ancestors were allergic to oysters?” It was certainly the power of that place that prompted that question.
The rest of the day was spent interacting with people who caught the boat over from Hilton Head Island. They took part in an all-day celebration during which visitors could go on an historical walking tour highlighting the tabby ruins, the Haig Point Lighthouse, Haig Point’s pre-Civil War cemetery and the Strachan Mansion. Prinny and I left the island already making plans to return. The partnership between Haig Point and the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation has ensured that the tabby ruins will remain on the landscape for generations to come and the descendants of the enslaved will always have access.
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Remember the Children – Laughter and Tears
By: Prinny Anderson
The Slave Dwelling Project overnight at the tabby slave cabin ruins of the former Mongin-Blodgett plantation on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, included four descendants of formerly enslaved people of the plantation community, Grandmother Yvonne, her two grandsons, and their little sister, her granddaughter. Our intention was to sleep within the ruins, but intense thunderstorms sent us running for the shelter of the enormous wedding tent erected nearby by the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation, the hosts for our stay.
Typically, when a group joins the Slave Dwelling Project for the night, we sit around a campfire, a candle or a fireplace and talk about the history of the place, the lives of the enslaved people who occupied the spot where we’re sitting, and everyone’s experiences in learning about and preserving local history. But enjoying an evening with three youngsters under age 12 called for a different kind of entertainment.
So we set an electric lantern on the grass under the big tent, pulled up chairs from the picnic tables, and carried on, talking and giggling. We told stories, sang songs, posed riddles and told jokes. Everyone joined in, and the intellectual quality and social maturity of the entertainment slipped closer and closer to third, fourth or fifth grade level. We wore ourselves out laughing, shouting, and jumping up and down.
Finally, the children were ready to sleep, but the giggling continued as each one made himself or herself comfortable on the ground. Giggles subsided to whispers and then to gentle snores.
In the quiet, my mind went back to the stories that Grandmother Yvonne had shared about how her family came to Daufuskie Island. In particular she told about how her great great grandmother was enslaved in or near Charleston, and there, she had three children. Subsequently, she was sold away from Charleston to a plantation on Hilton Head Island, and she had more children. Once more, she was sold to a slaveowner on Daufuskie Island, and gave birth there to Grandmother Yvonne’s direct ancestor.
This story was recounted in a matter-of-fact manner, with no particular emotion and no descriptive detail. But the longer I thought about the bare facts, the sadder I became. Sad for that resilient great grandmother of 150 years past, sad for all her descendants, sad for all those abandoned children. In that stark story lay heartbreak and tears.
Three little children cut off from their mother when she was sold away from Charleston. Three little children never to be seen again, never to be held again, never to be kissed good-night again. Three little children who would not sing songs or giggle in bed with their mother.
Two more babies left behind on Hilton Head Island, never again to be bathed, cuddled, scolded and caressed by the woman who bore them. Two Hilton Head Island babies growing up without their mother, without a connection to their past, left to mature untethered from the most basic family link.
The family that did survive as a family was at the far corner of the earth, isolated on an island, only connected to the mainland by boats. Perhaps that very isolation was what protected them, ensured that at last Great Great Grandmother could watch at least one child grow, learn to walk, sing songs, tell stories, and make up silly jokes.
In the morning, the sight of Grandmother Yvonne’s three grandbabies snuggled deep within their sleeping bags, sound asleep as the rising sun’s light touched the treetops, was precious and moving.
Clear as dawn’s light was the imperative: not only must we make sure the children of today know the history that the Slave Dwelling Project seeks to preserve, we must also remember and honor the children and the mothers of the past, their laughter and their tears.