Monotony can sometimes get boring even when you do something that you love.
The Slave Dwelling Project has added a new program to its inventory to help carry out its mission of identifying and assisting property owners, government agencies and organizations to preserve extant slave dwellings. Thanks to a grant from Humanities Council South Carolina, the project is now conducting Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. This is a program that has assembled top notch living historians from throughout the southeast to conduct living history programs at four sites with extant slave dwellings throughout the state of South Carolina. The living history includes cooking, brick making, and blacksmithing demonstrations. Additionally, storytelling and lectures pertaining to the enslaved will also be conducted. The Magnolia Plantation Foundation and the Lowcountry Unity Fund of the Coastal Community Foundation have contributed matching funds toward matching the grant. The four sites chosen to conduct these living history programs are the Lexington County Museum, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston; Woodburn Plantation in Pendleton and Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown County.
One provision of the grant is an attempt to assist the sites in taking their interpretation of the enslaved on their property to another level. These sites have already done the right thing by preserving, relocating or recreating slave dwellings. After spending nights in more than ninety extant slave dwellings throughout the United States in seventeen states, It is my experience that most sites with extant slave dwellings do not have the staffing, mainly African Americans, who are capable of interpreting the lives of the enslaved. This program is designed to assist them in doing just that.
The first installment of Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved was held at the Lexington County Museum in Lexington, South Carolina on Sunday, May 1, 2016. The museum is a collection of historic buildings that were moved there from other parts of Lexington County. The museum’s director, J.R. Fennell did not hesitate when I presented the program to him in its conceptual stage. He even submitted a support letter that was included in the proposal to Humanities Council South Carolina. The fact that I had stayed there when the Slave Dwelling Project was in its infancy may have helped to move the decision making process along swimmingly. J.R. knew that I meant the Lexington County Museum no harm and that I was coming in peace.
Part of me wanted to include this museum in the series because Lexington County is the home of Dylann Storm Roof. Dylann snuffed out the lives of nine people in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015. His interpretation of history was distorted and, in part, drove him to that violent act. In a small way, I felt I was doing my part through this program to correct that distorted history that made him think that Black lives don’t matter or that he could begin a race war by committing such a violent act.
The program would be merged with an annual program titled 8th Annual Spring Open House. At this program, visitors would have the opportunity to tour the museum’s 30 historic structures and see historic craft demonstrations such as cooking in an outdoor oven, blacksmithing, and cloth spinning. Five of the six living historians would sleep in the slave dwelling at the museum the prior night. That would be Nicole Moore who is currently employed at the Human Rights Museum in Atlanta; Jerome Bias formerly of Old Salem in North Carolina; James Brown and Donald West are both Civil War reenactors who travelled with me from Charleston, South Carolina. Dontavius Williams, a school teacher, would be coming in from Rock Hill, South Carolina and would join us the next day. I had worked with all of the living historians in the past and knew that a great team was assembled with great potential.
Those seeing the cabin for the first time were all moved by the list of enslaved on an interpretive sign on the wall because they all had names. We were most moved by the person who was labeled as “disabled, almost worthless.” The time in the cabin was fruitful because we got to have some quality conversation about the details of the next day’s activities and the future potential of Inalienable Rights. We all had our ideas of how we can change the world by interpreting the history of our enslaved Ancestors in a raw and uncut manner, the way that it should be interpreted by African Americans who are not afraid to don outfits resembling those of our enslaved Ancestors. From there, the conversation morphed into reparations with no compelling conclusion. What was great about the moment was that I noticed that this was another rare occasion when there were only descendants of enslaved people who were sharing the space with me. The project has evolved so much that moments like these have become rare.
The next day and Jerome and Nicole would shop for the ingredients for the food that would be cooked in the hearth of one of the historic buildings. As promised, Dontavius joined the group. A quick huddle and we had a game plan that included welcoming the audience and explaining our intent; giving the audience the opportunity to engage with the cooks and giving the audience a lecture on slavery. The program would conclude with powerful storytelling with Dontavius Williams and James Brown.
The first session went by smoothly. The second session went well but some walked away probably due to the raw content of the story that was told. The real reason they walked away, I may never know.
We all concluded that we were on to something big. J.R. and board members of the Lexington County Museum are already discussing a return visit. The living historians are discussing ways that we can all improve our content for upcoming events and the Ancestors continue to smile on us for telling their stories.
It is our desire that this project can live on beyond the boundaries of the South Carolina and the provisions of this grant. If you are interested in bringing this program to a site where Africans and Americans were once enslaved, please feel free to contact the Slave Dwelling Project.