As the Slave Dwelling Project continues to evolve, sleeping in slave dwellings is becoming less significant for me. It is not because I’m bored after seven years of spending nights in places where the enslaved Ancestors once inhabited. Sleep is now occupying less time for the sleepovers. A large portion of the time at each site is now occupied by opportunities to educate the public. These events are co-planned between the Slave Dwelling Project and the host and add value to the sleepover experience.
Magnolia Plantation and Garden in Charleston, SC, and the Slave Dwelling Project have taken this concept of sleeping in slave cabins to a whole new level. It was at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in May of 2010 that I had my first sleepover in a slave cabin for the Slave Dwelling Project. Now, the number of nights, I’ve spent in one of those cabins is nine. Because I am employed at the site on a part-time basis and know those cabins intimately, that statistic is not currently threatened.
While the sleeping portion of the process is still appealing to most who participate, some like me, are more interested in the conversations about slavery and the legacy that it left on this nation. Following this concept at historic sites usually yields more people engaging in the conversations then will spend the night in the slave dwellings.
When the public was made aware that for the third and final time in 2017, I would be spending the night in the cabins at Magnolia on Friday, October 6th, it did not take long before thirty-five people expressed interest in joining me in the sleepover. Thirty-five is the number of people that I have established can sleep in the four restored slave cabins comfortably, an ironic term when thinking about the lives of the enslaved. The responses were so overwhelming that I, like a rock star, added a second night for the sleepover, a decision that I hope that I would not regret.
This sleepover would be the last of three programs at Magnolia titled: Inalienable Rights: Living History Though the Eyes of the Enslaved. Inalienable Rights allows the Slave Dwelling Project to bring African American living historians to antebellum historic sites to conduct sleepovers, demonstrations, lectures, and storytelling. In 2016, the South Carolina Humanities Council gave the Slave Dwelling Project a major grant to commence this program, and although those funds have been expended, the program is still going strong. We’ve established that as hard as many antebellum sites may try, their staff members do not possess the DNA to give that element of history justice. It is there that we flourish.
This time around, I would not be at the plantation at 5:30 pm to greet the participants when they arrived. I had one more trip to fulfill to narrate a sunset harbor and dinner cruise to Fort Sumter National Monument. Hurricane Irma canceled my September trip to Fort Sumter, and I could not miss this last one for me for the 2017 season. Our cook Jerome Bias and storyteller James Brown were tasked with greeting the visitors when they got there. Easterby’s was their restaurant of choice.
As is common, many of the participants who signed up for the sleepover experience began to bow out for various reasons. Some of the proposed participants notified me that they could not make the event while others just did not show.
Although many of the people who committed were no-shows, on Friday night, more people came to engage in the conversation than would sleepover in the cabins. Of the 15 who would sleep in the cabins, 8 of them had slept in at least one slave cabin before. A family unit was among us which contained youngsters so we had to conduct the discussion around the campfire accordingly and most of us did. The intense conversation about slavery and the legacy that it left on this nation faded and around midnight the last of those not participating in the sleepover departed. I somehow found myself engaged in a game of spades as the others talked among themselves. Spades was a game that I had not played in years, and I was partnered with someone who constantly reneged. It began to rain, and the spades game was forced inside the nearest slave cabin.
The next day we would conduct Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. Our blacksmith, Gilbert Walker from Savannah, Georgia could not join us because he was in Cuba. To fill that void, we brought in chair maker George Hunter from Florence, South Carolina and he was an instant and constant hit.
The crowd seemed more robust than any of the programs done at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in the past. Our storytellers, historians, and demonstrators were on their games. Germaine Jenkins, owner of Future Fresh Farm of North Charleston, SC participated in the sleepover and donned period clothing for the first time to assist with the cooking. This sleepover was Germaine’s second; I think she’s hooked.
The big test for this outing was finding out if extending the sleepover into a second night was worth the effort. Fewer people showed than the previous night. The limited number of people who showed up for the conversation and the sleepover were two of the Hastie brothers. Their family has owned Magnolia Plantation since 1676. It is rare that one gets to engage the descendant of slave owners on the plantation where their Ancestors enslaved others. We got a strong twenty minutes of them before they had to disengage.
Sleeping in slave dwellings will always be an activity that will be conducted by the Slave Dwelling Project at antebellum sites or wherever else slavery applied throughout this nation. The antebellum sites should also have the courage to take on some of the social issues that are problematic for this nation. Conversations involving slavery and the legacy it left on this nation; the fate of Confederate monuments; Black Lives Matter and White supremacy are all issues that these antebellum sites should address. Those subject matters and more are discussed around the campfire at the historic sites before we sleep. So if sleeping in slave dwellings is just not your thing, you can join us for the conversation only.
Deborah Kelly Pressley
On Saturday night, I spent the night at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston. This plantation is one of the most majestic, beautiful and overwhelming plantations in the area. My time spent there Saturday was very different than what typical visitors experience.
Actually, I spent the night in the slave quarters on Magnolia Plantation (as part of The Slave Dwelling Project). The afternoon started with storytelling and living history historians portraying slaves on a plantation.
One highlight was the story told by a blacksmith named Adam. He shared a heartbreaking story of his hardships as a slave and his most painful trial of being separated from his mother at a young age. He said this was more difficult than anything else he endured; the starvation, the overwhelming work and even the beatings. He shared the memory of his mother standing on the dirt road crying while he was taken away.
Adam had two final messages for the audience:
1. Family is most important; take care of one another.
2. Acknowledge people; see them, recognize in them what they are going through, then love one another.
He told the audience that he loved us because we are all really the same; we all go through life’s trials and hardships and we should acknowledge that in one another. Let people know you understand and then give them hope.
What a touching story Adam shared, and an unforgettable message
Another part of my experience was spending the night on the floor in one of the slave cabins. After hours of good conversation around the campfire we all went to the quiet darkness of the slave quarters. As I was lying there, my mind wandered to all that had happened in that shack; maybe this was a family’s place of refuge, or a room filled with sadness or even terror, and then maybe it was a place to find strength to get through another day. I could only imagine. I find comfort in learning about the strength of the human spirit and how people endure and come out stronger than they ever knew they could be, with hope and belief for better days.
This experience was an unusual one; not one that most Charleston tourists seek out I know. It was so enlightening and inspiring for me and a day (and night) I won’t soon forget.
-Ashley Rogerson, aka “Hoot-owl”
Two weeks ago, I spent the night in a slave cabin at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC. I told Joe McGill I would write down my thoughts for the Slave Dwelling Project, but I still feel as if I am processing it all. (This week, Joe and other members of the Slave Dwelling Project are at UVA in Charlottesville, VA, hosting a conference on slavery. This inspiring group is steadfast and courageous in the face of such uncomfortable current events.)
Going into my experience, I was anxious yet curious. My desire to learn more about the enslaved ancestors, their life experiences, and history has been a calling in my life for some time now. However, I was unsure how the ancestors would feel about a white woman sleeping in their quarters overnight. I was definitely stepping out of my comfort zone.
After meeting up at Magnolia, nine of us went out to dinner at a local restaurant. Over hush puppies and red rice, we had our introductions along with some good laughter, and the conversations slowly began to unwind. Once we returned to the cabins, we soon realized our intimate group had practically doubled. The glowing fire pit was a welcome sight as night had fallen and the waning full moon was still on the rise.
As our group encircled the fire and the night progressed, introductions switched to questions, and questions opened up to conversations. And that is why we were all there that night. To listen and learn, to ask and answer.
I stayed awake into the wee hours of the morning. As we kept the fire going, so did the conversations. Some topics kept coming back up- just like some folks who turned in earlier were awakened by the relentless mosquitoes or the unforgiving wooden floors in the cabins. (We were not ‘roughing it’ by any means, but I now have a great appreciation for those souls who did call the cabins “home”.) The rains came around 3 a.m. and finally chased us all into our quarters. As I settled down into my little corner of the cabin, I listened in the darkness to the sound of the raindrops hitting the roof and was thankful for the restoration of this historical structure. But as I drifted off to sleep, I wondered if the gentle rain on the roof shingles had ever lulled any other souls off to Dreamland or were they merely thankful for a few hours of peace.
The morning’s daybreak brought a new light into my eyes, but I feel as if only a window has been opened into my awareness. I hope to attend other sleepovers with the Slave Dwelling Project in the months and years to come. There is much racial turmoil to deal with in our country- both past and present, but out of education and understanding grows respect and reconciliation. We as Americans must face our fears and the darkness of our pasts- black and white- and come together into the light of our future as one people.
I spent last night in the Leach Family cabin at Magnolia Plantation here in Charleston, for a Slave Dwelling Project sleepover. As I write this, I’m struggling to think clearly, because I hardly slept a wink. Hard floor, mosquitos and gnats buzzing at my ears and face all night. Hot and sticky; even with the doors open there was minimal breeze. I knew it would be uncomfortable, but I wanted the experience. I’ve been giving “Slavery to Freedom” tours at Magnolia for the past few years. But as much as I’ve read and learned about the lives of the enslaved, I’ve never experienced even a small fragment of what they endured. Sleeping on a hard floor in a hot, buggy room may have been one of the less torturous things they endured.
I spent the night listening to owls, crickets, frogs, the occasional heron squawking in the distance, one of my cabin mates snoring (he’s done this before and is obviously more used to it than I am). Swatting bugs from my ears, face, arms. I must have drifted off once or twice from sheer exhaustion, as when I finally couldn’t ignore my bladder anymore and had to get up to use the restroom (which the enslaved would not have had), I looked at my cell phone and saw that it was 6:19 a.m. “Thank god,” I thought. The night is almost over. In another 45 minutes the sun will be coming up. So I sat in the yard in front of the cabins and waited for daylight, and my cabin mates to join me.
I was more tired than when we had turned in after midnight. And I thought, the enslaved likely endured many nights of little or no sleep, not just from the bugs or the heat, but from the fear that at any moment, someone could come through the door and do them harm, sometimes viciously. But they still had to get up early the next morning, dead tired, and get out to the fields, or the stables, or the mill, or the laundry, and work. On little sleep and often empty stomachs, they had to be able to move quickly, think clearly, so as not to be seen by the overseer or driver as slacking off, and risk punishment.
Joe McGill asked me if I slept well. “No.” He said most people don’t. But my experience should not dissuade anyone reading this from spending a night in the cabins on one of Joe’s sleepovers. As a presenter of African-American history at Magnolia, this experience has given me an invaluable, if small, window into the hardships endured by the enslaved. Your experience may be different than mine, depending on where Joe’s sleepover is occurring, the time of year, the provisions you bring for your comfort. Do it. It will give you a much greater appreciation for the comforts we often take for granted…a soft bed, air conditioning, a shower. Breakfast. It will also give you a greater appreciation for the people who truly helped to build this country, against their will, mostly unacknowledged. Their history has been shamefully glossed over in our schools (if not ignored completely in some regions). I thank them for much of what I have today.
And thank you, Joe, for the opportunity. I truly enjoyed the fireside conversation about history, slavery, race relations, the difference between cats and dogs (yes folks, we had a few laughs), and how far we still have to go in this country. I learned much from Joe, Jerome Bias, Dontavius Williams, and the other participants. But nothing was as enlightening as the time I spent in the dark, alone with my thoughts.
My name is Raja-Léon Hamann, I am 25 years old, male, and identify as Afro German. From the 7th to the 8th of October I spent a night on Magnolia Plantation, and I absolutely recommend the experience to everyone!
I had already spent a very interesting day at Magnolia and attended different presentations on the slave trades, Gullah Geechee culture, and two great performances. In the early evening I then accompanied a friend to a play in Charleston. Because of that we came late to the conversation around the fireplace that always takes place before the sleeping. We both actually had looked forward to that discussion and had had great expectations on what kind of insights it might provide for us. I expected a deep and meaningful collective discussion of what the overnight stay might mean for us personally, and about the continuing consequences of slavery on society, as an institution and as an inter-generational traumatic experience. However, when we arrived the serious part of the discussion seemed to have been over already. So a little later, when we were about to get ready for the night I was kind of disappointed to just have to go to bed now. I had noticed earlier how beautiful it was outside in the moonlight – the moon had been full only a few days earlier, and was still shining very brightly then – and I remarked to Dontavius, with whom I was sharing a space in the cabin, how I would love to take a walk now, not really expecting him to say that we could actually do that. I am still enormously grateful to him that he was so open for it.
Dontavius and me walked around for, I don’t know how long, maybe an hour or more, and we had a very meaningful, and personal conversation about all sorts of things in our lives. Magnolia was magical then. From the white of the moon to the black of the shadows everything was imbued with a soft and delicate blue. The trees and plants seemed to glow, and all the hardness, and sharpness of things was gone. It was a dreamy and very comforting atmosphere, something that I would have never expected to feel on a former plantation, a place that, not so long ago, I had regarded as a reminder of horrible and dark pasts only. We would stop and be quiet sometimes, and listen in awe to the sounds of nature, the owls, and all the insects, and the purling, and gurgling of the water. I was very calm when we went to bed, and didn’t worry so much anymore about roaches or about any other diffuse anxieties I had had earlier.
The next morning I slowly realized that something unexpected had happened over night. I looked at the place where I had slept, the cabin and Magnolia differently. I felt that it all meant something to me on a much more personal level now. But how so? Of course the experiences Dontavius and I shared when we took that walk the night before had a profound meaning to me, but there was something else as well. I thought about the act of sleeping for a while, and eventually it struck me as absolutely logical what had happened. Sleeping is naturally a highly intimate practice. We become very vulnerable when we sleep, and thus only relax and let go in an environment that feels safe to us. By sleeping in a place where we feel certain anxieties – in my case about former plantations which means slave labor camps, and about so minuscule things as roaches, and other insects possibly crawling around me at night – we can face these fears. And if we are able to overcome them through communication, reflection, and the subconscious processes that take place when we are asleep, a certain reassurance and peace, and an emotional connection with the respective place will be created. It is one thing to understand history intellectually, to know dates, and events, and what people did. However, for a holistic understanding you also need an emotional connection which allows you to actually fathom the relevance and meaning of the lives and experiences of people in the past for people in the present.
I cannot imagine how life on Magnolia Plantation might have been for the ancestors, the enslaved Africans and African Americans who suffered unimaginable torments, still persevered, and lived, and loved. The Slave Dwelling Project is not about trying to recreate that, neither would this be possible, nor would the effort be respectful to the ancestors. It is about relating oneself, one’s own, and one’s family history, the collective history and experiences of a people, and of a nation, the particular place one has slept in, and the people with whom one has shared that experience, more than only intellectually, that is emotionally, and spiritually, so that one can see, and feel the connection between it all.