After spending nights in fifty four extant slave dwellings in twelves states over the past four years, one would think that I would have slept at a National Park Service site by now. Until I got the invitation from Cane River Creole National Historic Park that was not the case. Located in Derry, Louisiana on the Red River, Magnolia Plantation would be the site of the stay.
The National Park Service has many antebellum buildings under its stewardship that once housed enslaved people. Up until the point of the Magnolia Plantation stay on Friday, May 2, 2014, the bureaucracy of this national organization would not allow the project to be conducted at any of their sites. Private owners, non-profit organizations, institutions of higher learning and even state owned entities had been far more receptive to the project.
Appropriately, the stay in the cabin would not stand alone. As a part of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the park was commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Red River Campaign which was a major action of the Union Navy during the War. Friday’s event was an academic Civil War Roundtable which occurred at the building of National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) which is on the campus of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Various scholars covered such subjects as: Misunderstanding of the Trans-Mississippi Wet: The Red River Campaign; William Smith; A Blacksmith’s Son Goes to War; Black Stories of the Red River Campaign and How Not to Capture an Entire Federal Army: Hamilton Bee, a Former Slave and the Battle of Monett’s Ferry.
This would be my second overnight stay in a slave dwelling in the state of Louisiana, the first was Evergreen Plantation in Edgard. Scheduled to stay in the cabin with me were my host, Park Ranger Nathan Hatfield, Chief of Interpretation; Keilah Spann, Director of Programming for Cane River National Heritage Area; and Jeanne Cyriaque, African American Programs Coordinator at State of Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Although Jeanne made the trip from Atlanta, she far underestimated the time the trip would take and was in need of accommodations with modern conveniences so she would not spend the night in the cabin. This was unfortunate because of her ancestral ties to the site (her ancestors being enslaved there). As fate would have it, that fourth spot would not go unfilled. Ranger Hatfield and I put out the call for more people to join us in the stay but neither of us got any takers. Not aware of the invitation to spend the night, Sarah Vining visited the site and accepted an invitation to sleep over right there on the spot.
According to its website, Magnolia Plantation: “The land on which Magnolia Plantation stands was originally acquired by Jean Baptiste LeComte I in 1753 and has since remained within the LeComte/Hertzog family for more than 250 years. At the height of their prosperity in 1860, the family produced more cotton than anyone else in the Natchitoches Parish. Magnolia suffered greatly during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The original main house, built in the 1830s, was burned by federal troops in 1864 and was not rebuilt until the 1890s. Following the war, the cotton market was unstable, leading to economic hardships throughout the South. Though much land was lost, Magnolia Plantation survived numerous financial panics, the Civil War and the Great Depression. The main house and agricultural fields of Magnolia are still owned by the Hertzog family and large portions of the land are still cultivated. The plantation outbuildings comprise the Magnolia Unit of Cane River Creole National Historical Park.”
Upon arrival at the site, I was given a thorough behind the scenes tour by Park Ranger Jo Ann St Clair. Up until that point, most of the sites that I encountered had slavery that was influenced by the English, Magnolia was influenced by the French which was common in the state of Louisiana. On the site is an extant slave hospital which is an indication of some semblance of humanity that existed within the institution of chattel slavery. There is also a blacksmith shop which used a method of erecting vertical had hewn timber with a mud type mixture in between. The antebellum cotton press was massive and was originally powered by mules. The eight slave cabins were made of bricks and were lived in until the 1970s. As slave cabins, they were duplexes and as the archaeology indicated, they initially had dirt floors. After emancipation, the dwellings became single family units with additions that are no longer there. The one that we slept in is currently being prepared to be exhibit space therefore it has electricity and lights. This was by far the best and most varied collection of antebellum out buildings that are still in their original location that I had ever encountered.
We all gathered outside of the cabin and engaged in meaningful conversation. That got interrupted when we heard coyotes howling in the background. To the locals, the howling meant nothing but it did make me a little nervous knowing that they were somewhere in the vicinity. The conversation continued until the light inside the cabin which is activated by motion turned on yet there was no one in there. Upon further investigation by the park ranger, it was still a mystery as to why they activated. While we were all inside the cabin, a mouse would constantly appear and we speculated that it was possible that the mouse was the motion that turned on the lights.
When morning came they all began to leave the cabin one by one, first Keilah, then Nathan and then Sarah. The solitude gave me time to go on a self-guided tour of the property. It was then that I got to embrace the full potential of what this site had to offer. African American history from the plantation, reconstruction, sharecropping, the great migration, all of these subjects and more could be interpreted through the built environment that existed at this site.
The rest of the day would be filled with activities for the general public which included: cavalry demonstration; a band and period dancing; archaeologist presentation; and presentations on the Slave Dwelling Project. Several of the audience members stated that they would have spent a night in the slave cabins had they known the opportunity was available to them.
Before leaving the site, I was fortunate enough to have a thorough conversation with Laura Gates, Superintendent of Cane River Creole National Historical Park. She was somewhat surprised that she was the first to allow the Slave Dwelling Project an overnight stay at a National Park Service site. We both were in agreement that bureaucracy could be a challenge but she was living proof that sleepovers at the National Park Service sites can occur. Now that she has experienced the project first hand, Superintendent Gates vowed to have a conversation with her colleagues about allowing the Slave Dwelling Project to exist at their sites. She, Ranger Hatfield and the rest of her staff must be commended for their willingness to step out of the comfort zone of only interpreting the lives of plantation owners. They are doing what is necessary to ensure that the whole un-sugarcoated story of this nation is interpreted and they have the well preserved built environment to assist them. So to you, Superintendent Gates and your staff, keep on marching to the beat of a different drum and you and the Slave Dwelling Project can always collaborate. I will end this blog as I stated it: Bureaucracy Be Damned!
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My name is Sarah Vining. I graduated with my Masters in History from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and am currently a teacher. When I heard of the Slave Dwelling Project, I was very interested and was excited to learn about the upcoming stay at Cane River’s Magnolia Plantation. So on May 3rd, 2014, I spent the night in one of Magnolia Plantation’s slave cabins. During my stay, I was definitely not accustomed to sleeping without modern amenities like air conditioning and a bed, let alone in an almost 200 hundred year old slave cabin. The most surprising aspect of my experience was the connection with nature. Surrounded by woods and fields, the slave cabins, minus the new wood floors and electricity, offer limited protection from the outside environment. I heard a pack of coyotes howling, was visited by a mouse, and fell asleep to the sounds of owls hooting. In our modern world, it is easy to forget the existence of uncorrupted nature and our past and present connection to it. Slavery was the epitome of human connection to nature. Planting and harvesting crops, growing and preparing food for the plantation, and raising livestock, slaves interacted with nature for a living, both as part of their enslavement and for sustenance. In other words, their connection with nature was integral to their survival on the plantation. My encounter with nature at this slave cabin on Magnolia Plantation helped me visualize slavery’s past and the people it impacted, ultimately bridging the past with the present.
A Mouse In This Place.
Trains, Owles, Snores, Coyote Dreams.
Awake, Time to Work.
When Joe asked me to write about my experience I thought “Sure, no problem.” Once I actually stayed in the slave cabin at Magnolia Plantation overnight and reflected on the impact of slavery in the United States I realized that conveying my experience and feelings would be much harder than I thought. As I lay on my cot trying to sleep (sleep didn’t happen!) the first thoughts that came to mind were about escape. Magnolia Plantation is a fairly large complex complete with its own cotton gin, large overseer’s house, cook’s house, and the typical “Gone with the Wind” Big House that comes to mind when one thinks of plantations. “How would I get off of a place this large without being noticed or snitched on,” I thought. As I went over several different strategies for escape in my mind (including suicide) the thought occurred to me “Would people living as slaves here have even wanted to escape, or would most of them have conditioned to the point that they would believe that subhuman status and treatment is their inherent lot in this world because they are African/black”? For me that is what is so damaging about slavery in the America’s, it wasn’t just the physical enslavement, but the psychological conditioning and social engineering that occurred to make it successful that makes it so terrible and its impact far reaching. For slavery to work Europeans were indoctrinated to believe theories of white supremacy, then given laws and permission to exercise or live out their lives accordingly. Simultaneously, African people had to be conditioned into viewing themselves and the world through a Eurocentric lens and white supremacist perspective. It is one thing to be physically restricted but to have your psyche conditioned is taking it to another level! During the night I kept thinking, “We may have been physically freed 150 years ago, but how many of us are still the effects of the social conditioning that occurred during (and after) slavery?”
Bob Marley summarized it best in Redemption Song.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”
Every time I hear this song I think about the power people have when they determine in their spirit and minds to change their condition and it makes me think of Haiti. This year marks the 210 anniversary of the Haitian Revolution. 210 years ago, African slaves suffering brutality at the hands of the French in the colony of St. Dominique came together and decided collectively that they would take the freedom that belonged to them rightly as human beings. When they made up their minds to reject the system imposed upon them they defeated the most powerful army in the world! The emancipation occurred first in the spirits and minds of the people after they united. There’s a strong lesson in that for us today!
Well, I still don’t know how whether I would have been able to escape or even survive if I lived during that period, but I’m thankful that someone did so I could be here today. The morning after my sleepless night in the cabin I got up, packed my bags and drove away from the plantation in my car with renewed commitment to not only remain grateful for the life I have, but to live in a free “mind” loving who I am, the people that I represent, and strongly encouraging others to do the same.