Cotton fields were abound on the route that I took to get to the slave dwelling of which I was going to spend the night in Camden, South Carolina. Passing by those fields of cotton made me more aware of the slave labor that was involved historically in its production. It also made me think about how the boll weevil factored into the great migration of African Americans to northern states. As if that was not enough deep thinking, my route took me through Calhoun County, named for none other than John C. Calhoun. Calhoun “The Great Nullifier” was a South Carolina statesman who was twice Vice President of the United States and recommended secession, 20 years before it actually happened.
Located near the Wateree River, Camden is the county seat of Kershaw County and the oldest inland city in South Carolina. While Charleston is considered ground zero for the English settlement of South Carolina, because of its geographic location, the settlement of Camden was more influenced by settlers from North Carolina. To that end, there should be extant slave dwellings galore in this historic city. This visit can be labeled as a reconnaissance mission to find out where they are located and most important, who is willing to allow the Slave Dwelling Project access to them.
My overnight stays in extant slave dwellings are usually accompanied by lectures. These lectures are usually scheduled after the stays are confirmed. The stay at the Mathis House which is now known as Aberdeen did not follow that pattern. Amy Schofield, Director of the Kershaw County Library, planned this one differently.
In 2011, Amy attended an event at Laurelwood Plantation in Eastover, SC. The event was put on by the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation as they were introducing the public to the newly acquired unrestored mansion and its new owners Jeremy and Jackie Thomas. Included in the purchase was an unrestored slave cabin of which I had agreed to spend the night. I ultimately decided not to spend the night there because of its dilapidated condition. I slept on the porch of the unrestored big house instead. The cabin has since been restored and I have slept in it twice with a high school teacher and students from Lower Richland High School.
It was at that gathering at Laurelwood that Amy got the idea for a public program at the Kershaw County Library. Once the date was booked, Amy approached Jack Brantley, owner of the Mathis House, now known as Aberdeen seeking permission for me to spend the night in his former slave cabin. The answer was yes.
According to its website: “The Mathis House was built c.a. 1810 by the first white man born in Camden, Samuel Mathis. Samuel Mathis was a remarkable man and brave soldier who, at the young age of sixteen, joined the Patriot Army and was captured among the defenders of Charleston in 1780. Once paroled, he returned to Camden to protect his sister, Sarah, wife of Joseph Kershaw, who, along with her children, had been forced out of her home after it was seized by Charles Cornwallis for use as British headquarters. Mathis faithfully served in the militia for many years and later joined the daring guerilla forces led by Frances Marion, the “Swamp Fox.” It is written that on several occasions Marion had been hidden from the British by Mathis at a location in Camden known as Burndale.
Samuel Mathis purchased the land on which the home stands in 1805. It was part of an extensive land purchase from his brother-in-law, Joseph Kershaw, the “Father of Camden.” The home was built of pine and each construction beam was labeled with a roman numeral, apparently a coding system in case the home should have to be moved. The wide pine flooring in the house is fastened with pegs and most rooms have 12 foot ceilings.”
Amy was a little nervous about what the turnout for the lecture would be. It turned out that all available seats were taken and the participants were quite diverse. Prinny Anderson, descendant of Thomas Jefferson and who would be joining me in the slave cabin for her twelfth stay, and I gave our usual presentations. It was the question and answer period that was astounding. Most contentious was one audience member questioning Prinny’s use of the term “Who Built America” but we both clearly explained that the antebellum built environment of America owes a lot to the presence of the enslaved. By not only performing as sawyers, carpenters, iron workers, cabinet makers, stone masons, brick makers, and brick masons, it was also their labor that provided the wealth for most of those buildings to be built. Prinny was also praised by an audience member for her loyalty to the project and for not being in denial of her ancestor’s slave holding past.
Prior to dismissal, we all agreed that we would meet at the Mathis House for fellowship. This was not an easy decision to make because we knew that the owner would not be there and inviting others bordered on disrespect and the possibility of us wearing out our welcome.
Just when I thought it was over, I was approached by an African American female who did not attend the presentation. She expressed the various organizations that she represented and questioned my authority and credentials to address such a subject matter. This reminded me of a situation that I faced when I went to Salisbury, North Carolina for a stay. The only difference was that the inquiry came in the form of a phone call a week before the event. I managed to win the Salisbury inquirer over and as a result helped to deliver Historic Salisbury its most diverse audience to date. The Camden inquirer expressed to me the lack of institutions in Camden that interpret African American history along with many other items of concern. I hope that I was successful in convincing her that this is a project that she and her followers should embrace.
After the library presentation and before going out to dinner, Amy, Prinny and I went to the Mathis House to take photographs and become acquainted with the slave cabin, there we were met by Terry James who would be joining us for his twenty seventh stay. Jack Brantley the owner and a caterer would not be there but he gave us total access to the slave cabin and his beautiful home. The cabin is used partially for storage and is adorned with many of Mr. Brantley’s collectables. Beyond Prinny, Terry and myself, we probably could have fitted one more person in there comfortably. The cabin is a raised wooden structure painted red with an unusually very high ceiling.
As promised and after we ate, about five women did meet us back in the cabin. We lit a fire in the functional fireplace which made the space quite welcoming. Since he did not get the opportunity to address the larger audience at the library, Terry James took advantage of the time to let the guests know why he is involved in the Slave Dwelling Project.
The next morning we got to meet Mr. Brantley. He could not be there to welcome us on the prior day because he was on one of the three catering jobs that his company had secured for that weekend. We had time to sit and have coffee with him and learn about his travels, catering business and his extensive collection of memorabilia. He confirmed that the slave cabin can be a part of the upcoming assessment of extant slave dwellings in South Carolina which will be conducted by the Slave Dwelling Project.
Amy Schofield is already making plans for the Slave Dwelling Project to visit Camden again. Her mind was racing with possible programs and pondering how she can get other sites with extant slave dwellings involved. It is interesting that it took a librarian to provide an entrée for the Slave Dwelling Project to begin to interact with the oldest inland city in the state of South Carolina. Now that the door is open, spending a night in all of the slave dwellings in and around Camden would be nice, but at this juncture in the project, assessing those dwellings is becoming more of a priority.
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Legacies Alive in Camden, SC
By Prinny Anderson
The legacies of the past live on in various ways, some explicit, even stark, and some in blurred, ambiguous or incomplete forms. This contrast stood out during my overnight stay in a slave dwelling in Camden, SC.
Saturday afternoon, the Slave Dwelling Project gave a public presentation at the Camden, SC, public library. In the question and answer time following the presentation, an audience member introduced herself: “I’m from Mulberry Plantation.” “From the plantation?” was the first thought through my mind. “How can that be? Slavery is over.” Then she went on to explain how her father had been a sharecropper on the plantation, and she grew up in the small cabin her family occupied. They were never “free.” At settling up time each year, the overseer’s books listed all the credit the family had used for seed, fertilizer, food and supplies from the plantation store, and the use of draft animals and equipment. The plantation ledger total was always more than the value of her father’s crop sales for the year; they could never get ahead, and they could never leave unless they fled north during the night, with what little they could carry.
The lady also described how all her other family members had been able to escape the sharecropping system and get away from Camden. But when her grandfather died, her grandmother would not have been allowed to “hold” the family plot and would have lost her home. An adult male member of the family had to come back from his life of freedom and his better paid work in the North, to take up sharecropping again so that his mother could remain where she had always lived. How close slavery really is in time and in the lived experience of this and many other African American farming families. How close the legacy.
The founding of the city of Camden partially results from another legacy not often discussed. Camden was a frontier town in 1758 when Joseph Kershaw set up a general store on land that had been occupied by the Cofitachequi tribe of Native Americans. But in 1758, the site of the store and the crossroads was unoccupied, free for Kershaw’s taking. The Cofitachequi chiefdom had disappeared, victims, at least in part, of the diseases carried by Hernan de Soto and other Spanish explorers in the 16th century. A legacy of European contact.
The former Mathis House, where we spent the night in a slave dwelling, is a legacy of Kershaw’s settlement. Samuel Mathis had the house built when he returned to Camden to protect his sister, Kershaw’s wife, during the American Revolution. The structural legacies of slavery from the time of Mathis until after the Civil War are the full basement area beneath the house and the small cabin in the back. Enslaved house staff might have had living space in the basement, and definitely would have inhabited the cabin.
Although the big house has had several owners, the slave dwelling has been preserved through the years. The current owner of the house and the slave dwelling has created a venue for entertainment, and he incorporates the slave dwelling into the wedding receptions, benefit events, and family gatherings that are hosted on the property. He is already planning to leave the site as a legacy to the city of Camden, a place where townspeople can enjoy themselves.
This legacy is complicated. The buildings have been adapted through the years for whatever purposes their owners chose. Today, the slave dwelling is cute and comfortable, with pleasant furnishings and a metal roof. Its appearance does not, on its surface, speak directly to the legacy of slavery. It most likely does not resemble the slave cabins that stood on Mulberry Plantation, nor the sharecropper cabin our new friend knew as a younger person.
But it is still standing, and its owner welcomed the Slave Dwelling Project, literally opened his house to strangers to spend the night, and wants the cabin to be included in the Project’s inventory of slave dwellings throughout South Carolina. While it does not represent the type of structural or interpretive accuracy that some would prefer, the former Mathis House slave dwelling is returning to its place among the living legacies of the intertwined African and European American lives of Camden.