When the Slave Dwelling Project was just an idea, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens had always been there for support. It was this site that inspired me to start the Slave Dwelling Project because of the opportunity to be on a team that inspected the work of the carpenters who were restoring the cabins. The Drayton family, the property owner since 1676 was preparing the cabins to be interpreted on a daily basis. The tour of the four restored cabins have been going on since 2009 in a tour titled: From Slavery to Freedom.”
I recall Mother’s Day 2010 when I woke up in one of the restored slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation and thinking about all of the enslaved mothers who gave birth to children who would be enslaved. From the point of birth, the law of the land allowed the enslaver to own that child. Since that first overnight stay, I have never been denied a request to use the restored slave cabins as class rooms. Oh, and did I mention that I am currently employed on a part time basis at Magnolia? I work there on Mondays and Tuesdays and I give the “From Slavery to Freedom Tour” along with my colleagues Caroline Howell and Rick Bennett.
From sleeping there alone in 2010, the subsequent stays included school groups to individuals who wanted to assemble to discuss slavery and the legacy that it left on this nation. Sleepover number five at Magnolia would occur on Friday, May 20, 2016. It would be the second installment of “Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved,” the Lexington County Museum was the first. This program is enabled by a grant that the Slave Dwelling Project received from the South Carolina Humanities Council. It allows the project to assemble top notch African American living historians from throughout the southeast to conduct living history programs at four sites in South Carolina with extant slave dwellings. After intense vetting, the four sites chosen were the Lexington County Museum, Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown County, the Woodburn House in Pendleton and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
As much as I would like to think that I have everything under control when it comes to the Slave Dwelling Project, I am often reminded that this project is much larger than Joseph McGill. Enters Karen Lucht, special programs coordinator for Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Karen reminded me that the program at Magnolia could be much more than I had conceived. She had all of the necessary departments coalescing around the event. More than just talk, she put her words into action by physically working with the maintenance crew to ensure that the cabins would be ready for prime time. Because I give tours of the cabins on the two days that I work there, it makes it hard to see the flaws that may exist like some leaves that need to be raked, some limbs that need to be trimmed or some steps that need to be painted. Additionally, she did all within her power to market the program and her effort yielded an amazing audience of local and out of town visitors of which the living historians were more than thrilled to interact.
For this second installment of Inalienable Rights, Jerome Bias would be the main cook. One week prior, Jerome and I were at a site in Washington, Arkansas demonstrating cooking and sleeping in a slave cabin. While I flew to Arkansas, Jerome drove and participated in a program in Nashville, Tennessee before coming to Magnolia. Assisting Jerome would be Nicole Moore from Atlanta, GA and Dontavius Williams from Rock Hill, SC. Fellow Civil War reenactor, James Brown from James Island, SC would also participate. Gilbert Walker from Savannah, GA would join the group for the first time and would demonstrate blacksmithing. Also new to the program would be Sara Daise, a historical interpreter at McLeod Plantation in Charleston, SC and Christine Mitchel, a docent at the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, SC.
It is recommended but not required that the living historians sleep in the slave cabin the night before the event. To that end, Nicole, Jerome, Dontavius and James all joined in on the sleepover. Joining us was Tiffany Hesting of Charms of Charleston Tours. Tiffany along with others responded to my request that others could join us for the conversation and sleepover in the slave cabins. A few people responded in the affirmative but only Tiffany showed up which by this stage in this project did not surprise me.
Rain in the forecast had us all on edge. We gathered under the pavilion as the rain continued. Nicole having knowledge of who snored and who didn’t separated us accordingly. Nicole, Tiffany and Jerome slept in one cabin, Dontavius, James and I slept in another. I chose the cabin that I had slept in four times before because it makes for a more powerful delivery when I give the “From Slavery to Freedom Tour” to visitors. It rained throughout the night and Nicole’s assessment of the snorers was spot on. Peacocks were making sounds throughout the night.
Morning came and the rain had stopped but there was still an overcast. Nicole, Dontavius and Jerome went to the grocery store to buy the food that they were going to cook that day. Their menu would include a rabbit that I had in my van on ice. Karen showed up early to set up tents and see to it that all other aspects of logistics were in place. A meeting with the volunteers occurred and then it happened, as if the Ancestors were in control, the sun began to shine. It was as if they were saying they wanted their stories to be told to the masses.
All of the living historians who did not spend the night in the cabins began to show. The day started slow with very few people visiting the slave cabins. I took a trip to the ticket booth and I got a chance to hang out with James Brown as both of us in our Civil War uniform got to interact with the visitors as they were about to buy their tickets. Around noon everything started to pick up considerably. We even began to get people in who came there specifically for experiencing the living historians. As if they were in their element, the living historians started to perform. The cooking team of Jerome, Nicole and Dontavius all worked in sync with no visible drama. They seemed to have mastered getting the cooking done and interacting with the audience. The blacksmith, Gilbert Walker, was superb in interacting with the audience. Dontavius and James brought the house down again with their masterful storytelling.
As expected, the grant from the South Carolina Humanities Council has allowed the Slave Dwelling Project to bring the interpretation of the stories of the enslaved to places and at a level that would not have otherwise been possible. While restoring the places where the enslaved once lived is certainly a great thing, interpreting the lives of the people who inhabited those places takes those restorations to the next level. It is our hope that this program can exist beyond the provisions of the grant. To that end, we have gotten a few inquiries but we need more. If your sites fits the category of where this program should be applied, let’s talk soon.
Nicole A. Moore, MA, CIG
Historic Consultant – Public Historian – Blogger – Historic Interpreter
Interpreting Slave Life
Mosquitoes. That’s the one thing that really stuck with me about the stay at Magnolia Plantation. The hateful, vengeful buzzing in my ears, the massive bites all over my skin. 18 in all. The long restless night of fighting off bugs and trying to get some rest all while hearing the wind and the rain from the outside. The oppressive heat, the stagnant humidity. The big ol’ palmetto bug that ran across my face.
While all of these things for me were cured with a lot of benadryl and obsessive scrubbing of my face in my air conditioned apartment later the next day, I couldn’t help but think of the ancestors who lived that every night. I think about those who were brought to the Lowcountry and to work on the rice plantations where mosquitoes would have been PLENTIFUL because they could “better handle” those conditions. Charleston humidity is unmerciful. Those bugs are almost other worldly, yet the cabin I inhabited that night was at one point the home of a family, of men, women, children who faced these seemingly small discomforts–seemingly small compared to the conditions of slavery itself. And it was in the middle of the night that I thought of them the most. When the buzzing became unbearable and I wrestled with exhaustion–all I could think of was–how could they live like this?
My family hails from Charleston and while I don’t think my ancestors were enslaved at Magnolia, they could have been enslaved at any one of the neighboring plantations and they would have experienced those seemingly small discomforts regularly. I wondered what herb they might have used to ease the itchiness and swelling from the bites. I wonder if they found a small piece of cloth to stuff in their ears to silence the buzzing. I wonder if they even cared about these minute discomforts that I found completely unbearable and instead looked over at their loved one sleeping close by and found a small bit of peace and solace knowing they were together.
This is my third overnight with the Slave Dwelling Project. I have a lot of fun (yes, FUN) interpreting the life of those whose shoulders I proudly stand on. I have a ball cooking alongside Jerome and Dontavius and making sure that visitors understand the fundamentals of food and diet during this period. But I also know why we’re here sharing the stories of the enslaved and sharing their life with generations who still can’t see the complete importance of showing all aspects of slavery. Those moments come to me in the night when I feel closest to the individuals we are representing as we inhabit their space. And in those moments I know that while they struggled with bugs and mosquitoes and various reactions to their bites, those were issues that would have been so so small. Compared to what they endured in their lifetime–the ancestors probably chuckled at me as I tossed and turned and smiled. They know I will never fully know their life and they’re glad. I know I am.