I get excited knowing that I can in a very small way ensure that the stories of the enslaved Ancestors are told. Sleeping in slave dwellings with the descendants of the enslaved and enslavers is a very simple act which for the last six years has garnered the much needed attention that these dwellings have so rightly deserved. From that very first night that I slept alone in the slave cabin at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina, I knew that this project was much bigger than Joseph McGill.
A major grant from the South Carolina Humanities Council has allowed the Slave Dwelling Project to take its mission of identifying and assisting property owners, government agencies and organizations to preserve extant slave dwellings to another level. The grant allowed the project to create a program titled Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. Many historic sites that should interpret the history of the enslaved do not have African Americans on their staff, therefore the interpretation of that aspect of history goes lacking. The grant allowed the Slave Dwelling Project to assemble a group of living historians who could travel to four sites in the state of South Carolina and conduct living history programs which would include cooking, and blacksmithing demonstrations interspersed with history lectures and storytelling.
Our last program of the four part series was conducted at Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown County on Saturday, July 30. The permission to conduct the program at this site came about in a roundabout way. Yes, there was drama. Initially, the plan was to have this program at Hopsewee Plantation which is also located in Georgetown County. Unfortunately, the plans for having the program at Hopsewee Plantation had to be cancelled. In steps Lee Brockington, chief interpreter, of Hobcaw Barony. She understood my plight and got the program approved for the same day as the program was to occur at Hopsewee Plantation. This was vital because getting all of the living historians to agree to another day would have been a nightmare.
Friendfield Village which is located deep within the property of Hobcaw Barony provided some challenges. Although people lived in the village until the early 1950s, there was never any running water or plumbing. Prior to arriving at the site, the living historians were made aware that we would not have access to water so we planned accordingly. What we were not aware of was that we would not have access to bathrooms. Because our living historians was comprised of men and women, this would be a problem that would be harder to overcome. A deficit in the amount of wood, chairs and tables were problems that also had to be overcome.
Friendfield Village consists of six buildings which includes a chapel and a doctor’s office. Lee Brockington, our host, gave us a tour of the buildings before we proceeded to Hog Heaven Restaurant for dinner. We decided that the seven of us who would be spending the night would be sleeping in the chapel. That would keep us all in an enclosed open space in case we all wanted to continue our conversation about slavery before we drifted off to sleep.
The heat, humidity and mosquitoes were almost unbearable. Luckily, the windows in the chapel were functional. Around nightfall, we all gathered in front of the chapel and engaged in a conversation which descended into an exchange of jokes. Insect repellent provided some protection from mosquitoes. Our alternative was to do what the Ancestors would have done, we lit a fire in an attempt to smoke the mosquitoes. It seemed to have worked. Eventually, we all found our places in the chapel for sleeping.
Saturday morning and the living historians started to prepare for the visiting public. Those doing the cooking started the fire and went grocery shopping. Those living historians who did not spend the night, began to show up and set up their stations. This included Gilbert Walker who lives in Savannah, Georgia and portrays a blacksmith. We decided that we would follow the same schedule that we had established at Woodburn Plantation in Pendleton, South Carolina.
10:30 – 11:00 The Transatlantic Slave Trade Donald West
11:15 – 11:45 The Buying and Selling of the Enslaved Christine Mitchell
Noon – 12:30 The Gullah Connection Sara Daise
12:45 – 1:15 Storytelling Dontavius Williams and James Brown
1:30 – 2:00 Blacksmithing Gilbert Walker
2:15 – 2:45 Transatlantic Slave Trade Donald West
3:00 – 3:30 The Buying and Selling of the Enslaved Christine Mitchell
3:45 – 4:15 Storytelling Dontavius Williams and James Brown
And just like that, the audience began to show. The diversity was impressive. There was a good percentage of people who were familiar with the Slave Dwelling Project. Prinny Anderson helped the living historians overcome the lack of bathrooms by establishing a shuttle service to and from the visitor’s center, a distance of two miles.
We also got a bonus. Lee Brockington, our host, made me aware that Michael Glazier a Civil War reenactor read in the local paper that Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved would be appearing at Hobcaw Barony. He contacted Lee about participating and Lee contacted me. In exchange for participating, Michael became our means of overcoming the challenges (insufficient firewood, tables) of which we were faced and he provided drinking water for the general public to boot.
Despite the heat and humidity, the program went along swimmingly. The audience rivaled our largest to date.
Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved has been a learning experience for me. The Lexington County Museum in Lexington, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, Woodburn Plantation in Pendleton and Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown County were all the beneficiaries of the South Carolina Humanities Grant.
It is now imperative that I now assess all of the evaluations from the four presentations so that I may now do the required report for the South Carolina Humanities Council. From the evaluations, I can get a good indication of what worked and what did not. I will then use that information to seek funding from other entities or individuals that might be interested in funding this initiative in the future while in the meantime, any site that is interested in hosting this program in the future can contact the Slave Dwelling Project.
I spent time in the slave quarters of a once very large rice plantation (Hobcaw Barony, SC more than 16, 000 acres) on one of the hottest weekends of the year. The heat, mosquitoes, and flies, it was a brief baptism into the life of the enslaved Africans. However, this was the life of generations who worked years under such harsh conditions and witnessed their children and parents endure the same. Please, let’s not forget this.
My stay at Hobcaw Barony with the Slave Dwelling Project was a realistic experience of how it would have been for the ancestors during slavery times. The scene was set with 19th century structures located two and one-half miles into the woods from the main road. As day turned into night, the group of us sat around a camp fire to smoke-away the attack of the mosquitoes. They were horrible! As I looked up at the sky at the millions of stars, I felt a sense of kinship to how it would have been for the ancestors. There was no relief from the HEAT and MOSQUITOES. They would have had to get water from wherever the nearest lake or stream was. We had NO water supply, except the water we brought with us. Our bathroom facilities became the woods that surrounded us.
While lying on the wooden floor of the old chapel where we all slept, I knew that I was truly experiencing a glimpse of the way it was. The experience emphasized the ancestors had no way out. They worked from sun-up to sun-down and sometimes all through the night. They lived this way from birth to death.
Wow that was a scorcher of weekend! The sites that we have been cooking at to bring attention to the lives of the people who lived there are places of great trauma. Sometimes that trauma is obvious and at other times that trauma is hidden by the beauty of the site.
Our experience at Hobcaw Barony was one in which the trauma was all too obvious. If the isolation of the site was not enough there was the eerie absence of information on the hundreds of people who toiled on the plantation that made up the Barony. As if there was a need to drive home the point any further the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes were absolutely brutal.
Hobcaw Barony: The People, the Land and Rice
During our overnight stay and day of presenting Living History at Hobcaw Barony, on Pawley’s Island, S.C., I drove from the former Friendfield plantation slave quarters to the gate at Route 17 several times, down a sandy track, through the pine woods, and over the cypress swamps. Three words in my head took on the rhythm of the corrugated track: people, land, rice. So I set out to learn more about the stories of the people, the land, and rice at Hobcaw.
As is the case in most places where the Slave Dwelling Project spends the night, there is scant information about the Native Americans from whom the Europeans took the land, snatches of data about the enslaved African people who worked the land, and a good deal of recorded history around the elite European planters.
What I could discover about the enslaved people of Hobcaw Barony and the surrounding Low Country is a patchwork of impressions. Based on slave trading records, Africans from the Senegambia and the Gold Coast were preferred by Low Country slave owners, and traditions says they brought much of the engineering and agricultural knowledge for rice growing to South Carolina with them through the Middle Passage. (“A Brief History of Rice Culture to the 1870s,” University of South Carolina)
Rice is labor intensive, and in some rice-growing areas, the proportion of enslaved people to free was as high as 27:1. This figure would make sense at Hobcaw Barony if we take into account how many of the planters were either absentee owners or part-time residents. Thumbnail histories of the 14 plantations of the Hobcaw Barony, published online by http://south-carolina-plantations.com, give numbers of enslaved workers for five of the properties, at different dates.
Youngville 128 enslaved people 1790
Michau 27 enslaved people 1812
Rose Hill 134 enslaved people 1824
Forlorn Hope 60 – 70 enslaved people 1835
Bellefield and Fairfield 290 enslaved people 1860
Extrapolating from these numbers, we could guess there were 2,000 or more enslaved people working the rice fields of the Barony plantations and looking after the owner families. Today there are a few cabins left to show where those African Americans lived. Archaeological work has turned up artifacts from their daily lives. The WPA Writers Project has captured the stories of the last generation formerly enslaved people from the Low Country rice plantations, and through their narratives, people like those who were at Hobcaw Barony have some “voice.” (“Empowerment from the Margins,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, December 2011) The historians of Hobcaw Barony know the names of some of the descendants of the Barony’s enslaved families because many of them stayed on Pawley’s Island after emancipation and became employees of the Baruch family and the Foundation. (Interview with Lee Brockington, May 2003)
To me, the most intriguing piece of the long history of rice plantations and enslaved people has to do with the post-emancipation experience. Many rice plantations were seized by Union soldiers, co-opted by the Freedman’s Bureau, or abandoned by their owners during or after the Civil War. The planter elites fled inland, but many of the field workers stayed put. At the end of the war, there was confusion as people moved around – enslaved people who went looking for departed family members, planters who returned from upland sanctuary, and soldiers who searched for home. In that confusion, the rice workers who stayed on the land continued with subsistence farming and, as reported by the WPA narratives, took the position that the land was theirs by dint of blood, sweat and tears. When the planters and overseers eventually returned, they often had to negotiate directly with their formerly enslaved workforce to come up with terms that were relatively fairer and more humane than the working conditions under slavery. Sharecropping was more limited than in other parts of the South; at Hobcaw Barony, agricultural workers were more often paid employees.
One of the most important conditions these new employees claimed was part-time work for women. Enslaved women had often gotten the hardest, most dangerous work in the rice fields, causing them to lose their pregnancies, be absent from their nursing infants, and become debilitated to the point of death at an early age. As free women, they gained the right to work fewer hours, take care of their families, and retain their health.
The European American side of the story of people in Hobcaw Barony is a story of the elite, privileged and wealthy, which ends with an altruistic twist. The first of elite and wealthy Europeans was John, Lord Carteret, to whom the Barony was granted by the English king in 1718. Subsequent European Americans divided the Barony into 14 plantations, and set about rice cultivation. In the early days, from 1718 – 1767, they were mostly absentee land owners. Then a number of men purchased parcels of the Barony, tried cultivating them or subdivided them for sale or as gifts to other members of their families. Some of the early purchasers lost their property through foreclosure or legal action. During the course of the nineteenth century, however, the powerful Alston clan became the foremost owners of Hobcaw Barony plantations.
Although the Alstons managed to reclaim their property from the Freedman’s Bureau at the end of the Civil War, the prosperity of the Barony declined. Restoring a rice plantation was an enormous investment, and the devastated economy of the South discouraged many from trying. Storms during the late 1800’s did their part all along the Low Country coast to ruin the land for rice. By 1875, several Barony plantations had been sold to Eliza Donaldson, who consolidated her property into a single plantation she called Friendfield. The Ward family had held onto three plantations since the Civil War, but sold them in 1905 to Edmund Kaminski, who sold them on to South Carolina native and New York financier, Bernard Baruch in 1906. Also in 1906, Eliza Donaldson sold Friendfield to Baruch. In 1909, Dr. Isaac Emerson had bought three properties in the Barony, then left them to his grandson George Vanderbilt, and in 2006, they were recorded as being in the possession of and occupied by Lucille Pate, Vanderbilt’s daughter. From John, Lord Carteret, to the Vanderbilt and Baruch families – a history of wealth finally converted into a center for historic preservation and scientific research under the auspices of the Belle W. Baruch Foundation.