Joseph McGill Enjoys the Brattonsville Campfire

Joseph McGill Enjoys the Brattonsville Campfire

All I can say about Joe’s stay and By the Sweat of Our Brows is: if you didn’t make it, I’m sorry you missed it. You had to have been there to experience the power.
— Dontavius Williams

By The Sweat of Our Brows ~ Historic Brattonsville

By Joseph McGill

My second stay at Brattonsville had all of the elements to be a great stay and it did not disappoint, but before I could do the stay, I had to take a detour. In an attempt to maximize my time at Brattonsville, I booked a Slave Dwelling Project lecture at the new Fort Mill Museum in Fort Mill, SC for Thursday, September, 12, 2013. The lecture was given to a standing room only crowd which was diverse in age, race and gender and well received as indicated by the question and answer period and the interaction when the session ended.

I prefer to stay in the dwellings once lived in by enslaved African Americans of this country while on these junkets. My host arranged for me to spend the night in the White Homestead in Fort Mill. This structure is on the National Register of Historic Places. Promotional information I found in the room states the following: “Built around 1831 by William Elliott and Sarah White on land leased from the Catawba Indians, it is one of the earliest brick structures in York County. The Georgian structure was a uniquely sophisticated home for the South Carolina Up-Country in the 1800’s. Of interest to me was the following paragraph: “White’s inheritance included land leased from the Catawba Indians, slaves, and cash totaling more than $43,000. A contractor from Yorkville, Thomas B. Hoover, was paid $5,000 for construction, including the stone and brick work. Bricks were made on the site using rented molds imported from England.”

I could not resist taking the room that President Bill Clinton stayed in when he visited Fort Mill April 5, 1994 but something in my mind did not seem right. I stated to my host that I’ve slept in many slave cabins alone with no problem but knowing that I was about to sleep in this huge mansion alone was somewhat bothersome. As we continued to tour the place, she took me into the catacombs of the basement where I saw evidence of how the enslaved interacted with the building, the huge fireplace once used for cooking and all the bricks that were made by slave labor made it tempting for me to grab my sleeping bag out of the car and sleep in this space.

The next day I visited Springfield, an excerpt from its promotional information states: “John ‘Jack’ Springs III, (1782 – 1853) who occupied the house beginning around 1806, was a successful farmer who owned over 3,200 acres of land. His successful business investments helped to create some of South Carolina’s economic growth in the years before the Civil War. In 1854 he became one of the initial partners in the Graniteville Manufacturing Company, of South Carolina’s first textile operations.

John Springs was also one of the pioneers in the development of the railroads in South Carolina. He was a member of the South Carolina Legislature from 1828 to 1834, favoring a strong state-rights stand within the union, served in the legislature during the Nullification controversy in 1832. In 1839 he served as one of the commissioners who negotiated the treaty with the Catawba Indian Nation at nearby Nation Ford. The material further states: “Andrew Baxter Springs, (1819 – 1886) who inherited Springfield from his father John Springs III, in the 1850’s, was regarded as an agricultural pioneer in upper South Carolina, adopting new and innovative agricultural techniques. He was elected to the South Carolina Legislature in 1852, as a delegate to the South Carolina Secession Convention of 1860, & the state convention which ratified the constitution of the Confederacy in 1861. He became the Commissioner for Subscription for the Confederate government and was charged with the responsibility of raising supplies and rallying recruits. He attained the rank of Colonel in the Confederate Army.”

We toured the structure and again finding evidence of an enslaved population in the bricks that formed its foundation. More evidence of the presence of the enslaved on the property is now being excavated by Winthrop University. One out building believed to be a jail for the enslaved is still on the property.

This side trip to Fort Mill, SC proved to be value added to the Slave Dwelling Project. The Fort Mill Museum gave me the opportunity to introduce the project to their receptive audience. Staying in the White Homestead gave me an opportunity to spend the night in a magnificent building in which the enslaved had a major part in erecting. Touring Springfield was a lesson on how property owners of this state influenced the decision to enter a Civil War.

By the Sweat of Our Brows

I always consider it a compliment to the Slave Dwelling Project when I am invited back to spend a night in a dwelling of which I have spent the night before. This would be the case with Brattonsville in McConnells, SC. My first stay there was November 6, 2010. Terry James joined me that night for his second stay and the first time that he would sleep in slave shackles. It was also the coldest night that I ever spent in a slave dwelling. The most memorable thing for me about that stay was a requirement that I meet some of the descendants of those who were enslaved on the property. Ten stays prior and I had never done anything even close to interacting with the descendants of those who were enslaved on the property. But it all made sense for should not a goal of the project be to nurture those interactions that are already made and help to create those that are not.

This year the invitation came from Dontavius Williams, a new employee of Brattonsville, to participate in an annual event titled “By the Sweat of Our Brows”, how appropriate. The project would be given high billing as a draw for the event. High billing or not, I would have been there. Joining me for this stay would be Terry James, fellow Civil War reenactor, who sleeps in the authentic slave shackles and for her forth stay in a slave cabin, Prinny Anderson, a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson.

Arriving at my appointed time of 5:00 pm, like clockwork, Prinny Anderson pulled in right behind me. We had fun in stating the obvious that Terry James would arrive on his own appointed time. We both proceeded into the visitor’s center to meet the staff, who were expecting us. We would eventually meet Dontavius who was busy making sure that things would be in order for the next day’s big event and adding the finishing touches to the meal that he promised we would have on site.

Planned for that evening was a meeting with some of the descendants of the enslaved of the plantation. I then learned that joining Prinny, Terry and me in the cabin that night would be Dr. Lisa Bratton, a descendant of one of the enslaved at Brattonsville and a history professor at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. I had to test her resolve by stating that many had made that promise before but for various reasons had not followed through. She made it emphatically clear that she was staying the night but she also made it clear that she was afraid of cats which had the potential to be problematic because there were at least two cats roaming free on the site. The gathering turned out nicely with more than ample time for Prinny, Dr. Bratton and me to present and interact with the audience members.

Prinny, Dr. Bratton and I gathered around a camp fire that was burning close to the replicated slave cabin on the site. There we would engage in conversation until the beef stew that Dontavius promised was ready for consumption. Dontavius had also arranged for a photographer to document the event. His documentation included a recording of me giving my first person presentation of a Civil War soldier, a presentation I’ve done many times but never at night by a camp fire. Shortly after the presentation, Terry James who sleeps in the slave shackles showed up and began to bond with the group. Terry made the two plus hour trip just for the sleeping experience for he was committed to going back to Florence, SC to photograph a wedding the next morning.

When we all went over to the authentic cabin where we would sleep that night, we discovered that as much as Dontavius wanted to stay in the cabin with us he had to stay in a house across the street because another invited guest was uncomfortable sleeping there alone. None-the-less, we still got to spend about one hour of quality time in the cabin with him before he had to leave. In the dark, the cabin seemed smaller than I remembered the first time Terry and I slept there. Maybe it was because this time Terry and I would be joined by Prinny Anderson, descendant of President Thomas Jefferson and Dr. Lisa Bratton, a descendant of one of the enslaved at Brattonsville. This would be Prinny’s fourth stay and Dr. Bratton’s first.

The discussion included door (open or closed) shutters (open or closed), the compromise was door closed and shutters open. Throughout the night I would occasionally wake up to hear the sound of the shackles as Terry repositioned himself in his sleep or the sound of the door opening as someone would leave or come back into the cabin. I woke the next morning to the sound of a rooster crowing in the distance a sound that reminded me of my childhood. Dr. Bratton told me that she was the one occasionally leaving the cabin throughout the night. Her ancestors were having their way with her.

Dontavius prepared for us a breakfast of grits, bacon and sausage. It would all prove necessary because of all that was planned for the “By the Sweat of Our Brows Program”. The activities started promptly at 10:00 am with a surprisingly diverse crowd. Although not required, I stationed myself at the cabin where we stayed the night before and was eventually joined there by Prinny Anderson as we both would address the groups about our experience sleeping in the cabin and talking about the Slave Dwelling Project. To my surprise, many of the visitors knew who I was due to the superb marketing job that Dontavius did before the event. Late in the day, I heard Prinny inside the cabin pointing out to a group, some finger prints that had been imprinted in the bricks. I reminded Prinny that I had a conversation with Lisa earlier in the morning when we were all in the cabin about the possibility of finding fingerprints in the bricks which could possibility be those of her ancestors. Certainly no one knows for sure whose fingerprints they are in that cabin but I made that statement not knowing they were there.

My official presentation for that day started with a standing room only crowd, like the presentation that I gave the night before to the more intimate audience, I yielded time to Prinny Anderson so that she could talk about the group Coming to the Table and talk about two of her four stays in slave cabins. To my discouragement, half the crowd left before the presentation was over. Prinny put my mind at ease by explaining to me that they left to get on the last bus tour of the day that was going to a local church. Throughout the day, it was exciting to see all of the reenactors all dressed out in their period dress which reminded me of my visits to Colonial Williamsburg. Moreover, the African American reenactors were comfortable in the various roles they were portraying including field hands, house servants and freedmen of the period. Taking in all that was going on in this historical adaptation of an antebellum built environment coupled with all of the African American living historians in period dress made it very clear to me why the event was appropriately titled “By the Sweat of Out Brows.”

Connect to the Place, Connect the Past to the Present

By Prinny Anderson

This September, Historic Brattonsville (McConnells, SC) held a day-long event, “The Sweat of Our Brows,” to bring its plantation to life, to celebrate and honor the work and skills of the enslaved people. The experience included an overnight stay with the Slave Dwelling Project. Five people planned to sleep over – our host and the organizer of the weekend’s activities, Dontavius Williams; Joe McGill; Terry James, Joe’s faithful supporter; Lisa Bratton, a professor at Tuskeegee and a descendant of one of Brattonsville’s enslaved families; and myself.

On the afternoon of the overnight stay, an informal group gathered for a presentation from Joe McGill about the Slave Dwelling Project. Dontavius Williams cooked a three-helping stew accompanied by his mother’s home-made lemonade. Sitting by an open fire, full of delicious food and well refreshed, we fell easily into a rich and thoughtful conversation, exchanges about racial issues such as the distortions in what’s taught as “world history” which leaves out all indigenous people, all Africans, and many Asians, and does its best to make all the heroes out to be white.

When Terry arrived, the time had come to move into the slave cabin itself. There are two slave cabins at Brattonsville. One is reconstructed, with white washed walls and some simple furniture. The other has been preserved but is unpainted, unfurnished, still with holes in the floor and the roof. We slept in the rougher cabin.

The night was cool and fresh, but sleep took its time coming. I felt restless, not worried or distracted by anything in particular, just feeling as if I were still in a swirl of energy. I sleep in slave dwellings to honor the ancestors of my African American kin, and sometimes I wonder if they jostle me at bedtime, to make sure I remember that they are the reason for my stay.

Another reason for sleeping in slave cabins is to raise people’s awareness of these structures, and with that awareness, help them learn about the lives and contributions of the enslaved. On Saturday morning, when the “The Sweat of Our Brows” festivities began, Joe and I stationed ourselves at the slave cabin door. The cabin was the first building visitors came to on the plantation premises, and we called out to all of them. “Come over and see the slave cabin. It’s open. You can come in. Come see where we slept last night.” That last line got the most responses. “You slept here last night? Here? How was it?” and so on. Then they stepped inside, read the information panel, studied the floor, asked if anything had crawled in through the holes, and ran their hands over the brick walls.

Back outside the cabin, we answered questions and engaged in conversation. An older man, a former county official, talked about his campaign to raise money to restore Brattonsville. A teenager shared his extensive knowledge of the Massachusetts 54th, the military unit with which Joe is a re-enactor, a skinny kid with dreams of “Glory.” All the women shook their heads and exclaimed over the challenges of keeping a whole family, parents, children and who knows who else, in a space that is smaller than most modern bedrooms.

Late in the morning, Dontavius brought two visitors over specially to see the cabin, and pointed out to them a brick that retains the imprint of three fingers of the hand that had picked up that brick before it was completely dry. A little while afterward, a family group arrived, full of noisy energy, almost bouncing around in the small cabin. Following them in, I went over to that brick, pointed it out to them, and told them the same story Dontavius had told the earlier visitors. Immediately, they hushed and focused on the brick. One by one, they came over to put their fingers in the finger marks of an enslaved worker from over 180 years ago. The youngest boy wiggled and bumped into people until I picked him up. “Here. Put your fingers right here. Feel the hand of the man who made that brick 183 years ago. A man who was a slave here, an African American man.” His eyes widened and he quieted. He rested his hand in the handprint until I couldn’t hold him up any longer, and he continued to look at the place with big, serious eyes.

All day, there were games, music, cooking, and dramatizations. Visitors came and went. But the descendants of the enslaved people of Brattonsville came in increasing numbers by the end of the afternoon. A crowd of them gathered to hear Dr. Lisa Bratton discuss her family history research, her investigations that were bringing to life the matriarch and patriarch of the enslaved Bratton family, Green and Malinda. The night before, Lisa and I had brainstormed about a Bratton family reunion, a reunion that would bring together both African and European American descendants of Brattonsville, to meet, share family history, feast, make music, worship, and perhaps strengthen connections and open the way to talking about the truth of the “old days,” and bridge the spaces between people.

I believe that the Brattonsville community could become a model of building strong connections among plantation descendants. Its descendants are clearly part of the present-day community, still strongly connected to the land, keenly interested in knowing their history, and warmly welcoming to those who come to visit. I believe they embody the consciousness of the Slave Dwelling Project – to preserve the places that connect the past to the present, that remind us of the courage, endurance and strength of the ancestors, and that build bridges among people.

Dontavius Williams

Campfire, starlit skies, good food, great conversation and 65 degree temperatures all add up to an awesome experience. On Friday September 13, 2013, I hosted Joseph McGill, Prinny Anderson, Terry James, and Dr. Lisa Bratton as they committed to yet another stay in a slave dwelling. This was Dr. Lisa’s first stay on the plantation where her great-great grandfather was a slave. The stay was in conjunction with another program that would be held the next day at Historic Brattonsville.

I really enjoyed hosting Joe at this stay. It was such a pleasure to just sit and talk about the history of this country. Just listening to his stories of his various stays made for an enjoyable time while making me envy him all at the same time. He has stayed at some really interesting places. I absolutely love what he is doing by bringing awareness to these dwellings. Another high point of the stay was meeting Prinny Anderson. She is a wealth of knowledge and is so down to earth that you can’t help but become instant friends. We chatted up about the “Coming to the Table” program, shared stories, and bounced ideas off one another and it was such an enlightening time.

It is a vision of mine to see a large number of Bratton descendants both white and black come together and have a family style dinner to allow the opportunity for both sides to discuss their histories. I believe that this could very well become a huge event. Before I excused myself from the slave cabin to keep another volunteer company in another location I donned the slave shackles that Terry James owns and was overwhelmed with emotion. I pictured myself as one of the slaves on a ship in the 17th Century being bound and chained to my neighbor for months on the journey across the Atlantic. The feeling I experienced is inexplicable. All I could do was ponder how thankful I am for the sacrifices the slaves made so that I could today experience the freedom that some of them could only dream of.

By the Sweat of Our Brows has become a longstanding tradition at Brattonsville for the past 18 years. After many years of low attendance, 2013 proved to be a great year for Sweat. The mission for the program is to honor the lives of those who came before us and worked on this 247 year old plantation. Over the years, this program brought all walks of life together, from the very young to the well-aged, people of all races, and religions joined together to learn of life in the Antebellum South. As a part of this year’s program I decided to take the interpretation to the next level and delve into the world of reconstruction history. We focused four theatrical presentations around the life of a former Bratton slave who after emancipation purchased 10 acres of land from his former owner.

The interesting part of this event is that the descendants of the slave were in attendance and participated in the event. Dr. Lisa Bratton gave a talk in the morning and afternoon about her great-great grandfather Green Bratton. Visitors had the opportunity to visit a local church that had Brattonsville roots and even got the opportunity to see the land which Green had purchased in the 1870’s that his family still has ownership of.

All I can say about Joe’s stay and By the Sweat of Our Brows is: “if you didn’t make it, I’m sorry you missed it. You had to have been there to experience the power.


Dr. Lisa Bratton

During a telephone conference call with the planning committee for the annual event, “By the Sweat of our Brows,” the topic of a historic preservationist and others who might be interested spending the night at Historic Brattonsville was mentioned. I knew right away that I wanted to stay!

On Friday, September 13, the night before “By the Sweat of our Brows,” I had the privilege of spending the night at one of the cabins. Joining me were Joseph McGill, the historic preservationist who spends nights at slave dwellings to bring awareness to the importance of preserving these historic sites. Prinny Anderson, a white descendant of Thomas Jefferson spent the night as well. She works with an organization called “Coming to the Table” that integrates African American and European American families who share a common lineage as a result of enslavement. Terry James who sleeps in slave dwellings while shackled, was the fourth person in the cabin.

The whole experience was amazing. As we prepared to bed down for the night, I had an experience that gave me an ever greater appreciation for the enslaved who escaped to freedom. We parked our cars on the opposite side of the street from the cabin. It was dark and we had only the light of a few mini-flashlights and my (scented) candle. We carried our sleeping bags, pads, blankets and, in my case, a reclining chair in relative darkness. On the other side of the street, there was a fenced area over which we had to cross. When we arrived at the fence, we discussed whether it was easier to cross the higher fence and only have to step over once or to cross the lower fence and have to step over twice. Then we noticed that either way, we might have to step over yet another fence.

I told the group that we had all of this discussion … and we are only crossing the street! Consider the experience of a group of the enslaved as compared to our group. We had basics such as flashlights (such as they were), warm clothes, sleeping bags, shoes, and a chair. We had alternatives including three cars and a truck, several of my family members who lived nearby who would even pick us up if needed, and what I called “1-800-MARRIOTT.” We even had a white woman with us—an asset of the time which our ancestors did not have. We did not have rewards for our capture or slave patrollers chasing us and we were not breaking the law. Even so, the complications that arose while we crossed that street were miniscule compared to those of our ancestors and they made me appreciate the courage that it took for them to escape bondage in search of a free existence.

The night was another part of this experience that helped me to connect with Green and Malinda and their contemporaries. I took the opportunity to walk a little around the plantation alone to try to commune with them and feel some of what they felt as they breathed that very air. I sat on the steps and thought about them and their legacy. I hoped that they liked my work. I hope I am making them proud.

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