In 2016, the Slave Dwelling Project was awarded a grant from the South Carolina Humanities Council to conduct living history programs at four sites throughout the state. More specifically, the grant enabled us to assemble a cast of African American living historians from throughout the southeast to disseminate the history of the enslaved Ancestors while in period dress. The grant was so successful that the program titled “Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved” will be conducted at many sites in 2017. The difference this year is that each site must take on the expenses for conducting the program. Despite this requirement, the program is currently scheduled to be conducted in South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia.
Last year, the staff of Hampton Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina went on a reconnoitering mission when we conducted the program at Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown County, SC. As a result, they ordered the program that we conducted on Saturday, February 18, 2017.
My first encounter with Hampton Plantation was when I pitched a tent at the archaeological site where a known former slave cabin was being investigated. That would be the coldest night that I would have ever spent at the site of a slave dwelling.
The site is owned by the South Carolina States Parks and my interaction with them did not start out well. South Carolina State Parks was the first organization to tell me no when I requested a sleepover at Redcliffe Plantation in Aiken County, South Carolina. I have since had that sleepover at Redcliffe Plantation.
Because there are no extant slave cabins at the site and we anticipated that it would be cold in February, we agreed early in the planning process that the living historians would sleep in the mansion. Our arrival at the site was somewhat precarious because it was dark when we got there. We arrived late because, earlier that day we conducted a living history program at Magnolia Plantation and Garden in Charleston, South Carolina and we did not leave there until 6:00 pm.
We arrived at the site to claim our sleeping spaces in the mansion and our host was there to greet us. It was evident that the house was not insulated but lucky for us there was electricity. Upon inspection, the eight living historians then proceeded to McClellanville for dinner at a local restaurant.
In the sleepover, we would be joined by Sharon Clemmons Thomas and her husband Bill from Jamestown, South Carolina. Sharon was in the audience when I gave a TED Talk titled “And You Thought History Was A Snore.” Sharon and I also attended a session together on how White people can help end racism. When Sharon first expressed her desire to spend the night with us, I gave her the obligatory yes, thinking that eventually, I would get that call or email stating that she could not make the event or she would just not show up. This time my instincts lead me astray because not only did she and her husband Bill show up, they also wanted to join us for dinner in McClellanville, but that was just not possible, so they proceeded directly to Hampton Plantation while we ate.
Back at the Hampton Plantation the campfire was lit by park staff. All of our sleeping gear was transported into the large room in the mansion where everyone would sleep. A space heater was provided for the cavernous room. Some of us gathered around the campfire for some conversation. The stars in the sky seemed to have an extra flair in this part of the world which seemed far, far away from civilization. I was thoroughly impressed by the quality, variety and the amount of wood that had been gathered for the event. The park staff was quite knowledgeable and answered every question that we threw their way however the stories about the snakes were not appealing.
In the mansion, the room that we slept in could easily accommodate the ten of us and more if there were others. The space heater would have to work very hard to heat the space because the forecast was an overnight low of forty degrees. It seemed that all of the noise that was generated was amplified by the acoustics of the room and that all of the snorers were in concert.
When I got up at zero dark thirty and stood up, I had a cramp that would not quit. Jerome Bias, our cook, was already outside preparing for breakfast, so I became his help. Others started to rise and join us in the kitchen around the campfire. Park staff appeared to lay out the game plan of the day’s activities.
10:00 am, and the people started to show. Throughout the day it would be only a trickle of people, but they all got the same presentation that a larger group would have gotten. It also allowed us the opportunity to have some more intimate conversations with some of the visitors.
My highlight came when after my presentation about the Slave Dwelling Project and during the question and answer period one gentleman expressed his disdain of me expressing that President Thomas Jefferson enslaved 600 people and fathered children by Sally Hemings. I have learned that in this journey, I have to pick my fights wisely, in the case of President Thomas Jefferson, the evidence speaks for itself.
The audience was far less than what we all had anticipated. We were aware of some other entities nearby that were also conducting Black History Month programs. That may or may not have contributed to the low turnout at the Hampton Plantation event. This program gave the living historians another opportunity to get to disseminate the proud history of the enslaved Ancestors to a receptive audience. Hampton Plantation should stay the course and use this as an opportunity to build a program that can assist them in including the stories of the enslaved into their interpretation. The Slave Dwelling Project will always be willing to do its part.
I WONDER WHAT THEY WERE THINKING
Interview with James Brown by Prinny Anderson
Background: James Brown is a living historian and a story teller. He has participated in Massachusetts 54th USCT events for years. In 2016 and 2017, he began working with the Slave Dwelling Project in the Inalienable Rights program. JB tells the story of a character he invented, Jack Cunningham, who ran away from his master at the opening of the Civil War and became a soldier.
Question: James Brown, what got you started spending overnights with Joe McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project? What does the experience mean to you?
I’ve been re-enacting with Joe and the 54th for a long time. So when Joe asked me to come along for a Slave Dwelling Project sleepover and tell stories, I said sure. I started doing it because Joe is my friend.
But the more times I do it, sleeping in the cabins and telling the story of Jack Cunningham, the more the same question keeps coming to me. What were they thinking about?
When our ancestors finished a long, hard day of working, working till they were dead tired, what did they think about? Did they think about their work? About their women and children? Did they worry how they’d hunt a little game or get water for the vegetable garden? Did they think about their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters being raped by the master or the overseer? Did they think about the punishments that were given – the whipping, branding or executions?
Or did they fall into bed – into their pallet on the floor, really – without thinking at all?
And when morning comes and I have a few minutes in my blankets before I get up, I wonder what our ancestors thought about then, too. What did the start of a day mean to them? Did they have new energy, or did they feel pulled down by knowing today was going to be just like yesterday? Did they think about freedom? Did they hope to earn a little money today, maybe money for something nice or maybe money to buy themselves free?
Or did they just get up and start the day without thinking about anything at all?
WHO OWNS THIS PLACE? Overnight stay and Inalienable Rights program at Hampton Plantation
Interview with Jerome Bias by Prinny Anderson
Although Hampton Plantation’s big house is currently empty and under restoration, my experience with so many other antebellum sites helped me envision how the building would have looked inside and out, back in the day. I could equally well imagine the furnishings, the large pieces in each room, the lamps and rugs, the draperies and hearth screens, and all the personal belongings placed around the rooms. All the fine pieces, elegant décor, and personal comforts would have been the indications of the wealth, power and status of the owners.
But I was sleeping in the house on a Slave Dwelling Project overnight, as a living historian of the lives of the plantation’s enslaved people. I was thinking about Hampton from the point of view of someone enslaved and working in that house.
None of the refinement, elegance and comfort would have been mine, intended for my pleasure or use. But I would have had a close connection to each piece – in a way you could say I owned them too. As my imagination continued working on this thought, I also wondered how I, had I lived there then, would have felt about this irony.
As an enslaved person working in or around the big house, I would have had my hands on the house and its contents constantly. I might have helped to build the house itself, framing it out, installing floors, plastering walls, putting in doors and windows. I might have painted the interior and helped to finish the floors.
Some of the furniture would have come from England or France by way of Georgetown or Charleston, but I might have made some of it, too. Curtains and cushions might have been purchased, but I might have woven and sewn some of the fabrics.
Every single day, I could have been sweeping floors, dusting the ledges and sills, polishing furniture, rubbing the brass ornaments, cleaning the silver pieces. My hands would have been on every item in a room, all those items that did not belong to me.
Everything in the wardrobes and cupboards of my master and mistress would have received my care. I would have cleaned and mended, folded and put away. I would have laid out clothing and accessories for my master or mistress to wear, for the morning, for visitors, for work, for grand entertainments, for outdoors. When they traveled, I would have packed everything they needed, then unpacked it and put it away when they came home.
Everything in the house belonged to them, but I owned it all too.
Honoring the Ancestors
On Friday and Saturday, February 17 and 18, I was allowed the unique opportunity of sleeping in one of the slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston and inside the 10,000-square foot Big House at Hampton Plantation in Georgetown County, South Carolina. The plantation experiences at both locations were cold nights lying on the floor wandering what the ancestors would have been thinking about. Their feelings would have been like my own. Exhausted from a long day’s work, still hungry from not having enough to eat, and cold like me, with not enough cover to keep warm. However, I realized every night was worse for them. My temporary discomfort was just for a night; their experience was for a lifetime. I appreciated both opportunities to sleep in the structures they built. Today, the voices of the enslaved are the tangible buildings made of wood, brick, and mortar they left behind.
As a member of Inalienable Rights, Slave Dwelling Project, I am honored to speak as a voice of the Ancestors.
THE INALIENABLE RIGHT OF CONVERSATION: Living History program at Hampton Plantation
The Slave Dwelling Project is in the second year of providing living history programs for historic sites where it stays for an overnight. They are called the “Inalienable Rights” programs, and include presentations about slavery and cotton growing and demonstrations of blacksmithing and hearth cooking. Our experience at Hampton Plantation has brought into focus for me another inalienable right, what I’ve decided to call “the inalienable right of conversation.” It naturally emerges in our programs, and the sharing and learning it allows us to take part in are among the reasons we sleep in slave dwellings and talk about the lives of enslaved people.
Here’s how the inalienable right of conversation works. There are some topics that everyone wants to talk about, even feels comfortable to talk about. If we give our visitors the chance to practice the inalienable right of conversation, it’s interesting and almost predictable how easy it can be to slip into conversation about other, sometimes less comfortable inalienable rights.
One thing people all talk about is food. They want to know what did people eat in the antebellum period and how did they prepare it? How were the diets of the groups on the plantation similar and different? What happens when you’re doing outdoor hearth cooking and visitors can smell the food and the cook fire, is that you can’t prevent them from talking about food. It is one way we exercise the inalienable right of conversation: to talk about what we ate yesterday, are preparing to eat now, and look forward to eating tomorrow. So in our living history program – Inalienable Rights Through the Eyes of the Enslaved – we start talking about what’s cooking and ease into other, perhaps less familiar or comfortable topics, such as skilled work and brutal working conditions. At Hampton, we started with beef stew and peach charlotte, more likely the food of the plantation owner, and folded in descriptions of the greens and ham hocks and the cornbread kush routinely prepared by enslaved people. We exercised our inalienable right of conversation to connect cooking to the imagination and skill of enslaved cooks, and to connect the presence of a nearby, overgrown rice paddy with the intense, sometimes man-killing work of growing rice.
Another topic everyone everywhere talks about is families. At Hampton, you can learn about the owner families from the website, from items at the gift shop, and from interpretive panels. Unlike many plantation sites, Hampton also displays at least some of the information it has about the enslaved community. Little is recorded there about enslaved families, but the existence of foundation traces for smaller slave dwellings would encourage us to believe they were here. When visitors practice their inalienable right of conversation to talk about families, we can join them in exploring what’s known and put on display panels, and then ease on into conversation about the existence and likely experiences of enslaved families as well.
In addition, on the grounds of Hampton, you can see indicators of what family life and family ties were probably like. The river and dock for water transport and the long driveway for travel by road get us to talk about how remote Hampton is, how far away the owner family’s relatives and friends were, and how important it was to them to be able to receive visitors from afar and make journeys to visit others. The woods and the hint of little pathways through them and across the marshes expand our conversations to include the stamina and resourcefulness of enslaved people to walk to visit their loved ones on neighboring (but not nearby!) plantations, and the grief of being totally separated from parents, spouses and children. Everyone will talk about how families kept in touch, found suitable partners for their children to marry, or moved elsewhere to further their prospects. We interpreters can guide that conversation to contrast the options for the owner family members and the restrictions and sorrow imposed on the enslaved families.
I’ve always known that experiences help people open up and talk and help them learn new things. So living history programs have always made sense to me. What I’ve slowly been realizing, what was brought into clear focus at Hampton, was how we make use of the “inalienable right of conversation” instinctive to all people, to talk about the Inalienable Rights of family, food, shelter and meaningful work, as seen Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. We use human nature to open doors, share knowledge and encourage new lines of thinking. We use everyone’s inalienable human right to conversation to bring up the other inalienable, too often violated, human rights to life, liberty, and equity.