“I thought of children who might have been afraid of benign things like the sounds of animals scuffling through the night when there were much larger, darker things that stirred fear in their parents. I thought of mothers, tired from the day’s work, still tending to the very basic needs of their young ones, while much larger worries of life and death loomed over them. I thought of babies with no cares at all except for eating. I thought of fathers powerless to provide for their families, struggling to maintain a sense of pride and a level of protection for their families. I thought of all of those who may never have known their families and had cobbled together a “family” of strangers. I thought of all of those stories, individual, personal…of love, pain, beauty, kindness, struggle, sweetness, bitterness…that I will never know.” Joy Raintree, park manager, Redcliffe Plantation
Five years ago when I started this project, I acquired a list of extant slave dwellings in the state of South Carolina from the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office which is also known as the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. I explained to them my intent of using that list to embark on this quest to spend a night in as many of those extant slave dwellings that the stewards would allow. They understood when I explained to them that I would leverage the publicity brought to these sleepovers to encourage stewards to preserve, interpret and maintain these structures. I knew that communicating this unusual request to the stewards of these properties would be a challenge. To my surprise, most property owners understood and granted my request which made it easy to embark on the first year of the Slave Dwelling Project. To my dismay, there were a few property owners that said no and they were all entities controlled by the state of South Carolina. My very first no came from Redcliffe Plantation in Aiken County, South Carolina. This was my first indication that government controlled dwellings would be my biggest challenge.
Moving on from the no responses was not a problem because the properties owners that said yes to my request to allowing me access would keep me busy far beyond my available time would allow. After a few sleepovers, requests for lectures about the project started to become more prevalent. In early lectures, I was not kind to Redcliffe Plantation nor Francis Marion University because they also told me no. The University of South Carolina is on my bad list because they have not responded to my request to conduct the simple act of allowing structural engineers to assess the slave dwelling on that campus. The case for Redcliffe Plantation was not helped because I started to do the research on the property and the history of Governor, James Henry Hammond and it was not pretty. His staunch proslavery stance was a great lesson in why the American Civil War was necessary. His treatment of women was also atrocious.
Fast forward to 2014 and I got a call from Al Hester, historic sites coordinator, of the South Carolina Park Service. They are the stewards of Redcliffe Plantation and they were ready to talk, and talk we did. The conversation took place at Redcliffe Plantation. I totally understood and agreed with their explanation and reason for telling me no. It went a little something like this: Just as I proclaim what I do as research, so do ghost hunters, therefore they must tell everyone no to such a request to spend a night at the site. There are three groups of which I do not associate this project, they are ghost hunters, treasures hunters and those seeking reparations. It was after that explanation and the setting of a date for the sleepover that I started to give Redcliffe Plantation much respect in my lectures.
Before my stay at Redcliffe Plantation, I would spend a night at Hampton Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina, another site owned by the South Carolina Park Service. Initially, that site was nowhere on my radar because it did not have an extant slave dwelling. Using this site as my portal into the bureaucracy of the state was an offer that I could not refuse. Having no slave dwellings at the site dictated that we pitch tents at the archaeological site where the uncovered brick foundation indicated a slave dwelling once stood. That stay was also accompanied by a public program of which I participated by giving a lecture about the Slave Dwelling Project.
The Redcliffe stay would be different because I would sleep in one of the two extant slave dwellings on the site. None of the regulars would be joining me in this stay. Terry James with over 30 stays was celebrating the birthday of his wife and Prinny Anderson with nearly 20 stays was participating in a sleepover at a slave cabin at Brattonsville Plantation in McConnells, South Carolina. I would be joined in the sleepover by Al Hester who travelled from Columbia, SC and the park manger, Joy Raintree, and her family that would include a five month old infant, the youngest participant to date.
Getting to the site around 5:00 pm on a beautiful day and already being familiar with it gave me time to leisurely take photographs. I also had time to take out my computer and get some writing done.
The evening would include interacting with some of the park’s invited guests. It was a potluck affair with a gathering of about 15 people and the food was great. The conversation included some history of the site with nothing being held back about James Henry Hammond. I got to insert some information about the Slave Dwelling Project.
The cabin has no lights and doubles as museum space and has exhibits that interpret slavery and the share cropping that occurred on the site after slavery. It is designed for two families with the chimney in the middle but each compartment is much larger than most of which I am accustomed. Joy Raintree, the park manger, and her family would occupy one side of the cabin. Initially we all gathered there and listened to the children as they asked pertinent questions pertaining to slavery.
The next morning with rain threatening I found another opportunity to do more writing. I decided to stay over for a scheduled program on slavery. Despite the threatening rain, the turnout was impressive and racially diverse. The information disseminated about the enslaved on the plantation was comprehensive. The content for the interpretation is derived from the meticulous records that James Henry Hammond kept. Like President Thomas Jefferson, James Henry Hammond kept great records which is reflective in the exhibits that can be found in the visitor’s center and the slave cabin.
This was certainly a great opportunity to spend the night in an extant slave dwelling that is under the stewardship of the state of South Carolina. Appropriate because 40% of all who would be enslaved in this nation were shipped through the port of Charleston, South Carolina. In 1860, the population of South Carolina was approximately 703,000 people, of that, approximately 402,000 of them were enslaved.
I have pledged to Redcliffe Plantation that there is great potential to build on what we have started. The reach of the Slave Dwelling Project in to this region of the state is limited and Redcliffe can be that portal. I hope that this relationship that I am building with the state through Redcliffe Plantation will help convince Francis Marion University and the University of South Carolina that I come in peace.
Perspectives by Joy Raintree, Park Manager 18 September 2015
Redcliffe is rich. Rich in documentation, both photographic and written. Rich in structures, both of the Master and the Enslaved. Rich in artifacts that defined 19th century living for the elite. I discuss these daily with visitors. But is it rich in perspectives? On the surface the only perspective is that of the Master, James Henry Hammond, a man who enslaved more than 700 people during his lifetime. But look closer…can we use Hammond’s writings about the people he enslaved (what they ate, their daily work, their living quarters, punishments handed down by the overseer, etc.), to gain the human perspective of the men, women, and children that he held in bondage?
My decision to sleep in the slave quarters with my husband and four children (ranging in age from 5 months old to 9 years old) was based on this idea of perspective. In my interactions with visitors I try to get them to question instead of relying on answers. As with most histories, I am afraid that the history of 19th century America gets “watered down” and compressed to a generic history that homogenizes “groups” of people. So that we come away with a generic sense of what defined slavery as opposed to the varied experiences and trajectories of the enslaved individual.
My family and I entered the slave quarters on Friday night as a unit, as a family. But each one of us had a different perspective, based on our age, gender, and life experiences. I thought of children who might have been afraid of benign things like the sounds of animals scuffling through the night when there were much larger, darker things that stirred fear in their parents. I thought of mothers, tired from the day’s work, still tending to the very basic needs of their young ones, while much larger worries of life and death loomed over them. I thought of babies with no cares at all except for eating. I thought of fathers powerless to provide for their families, struggling to maintain a sense of pride and a level of protection for their families. I thought of all of those who may never have known their families and had cobbled together a “family” of strangers. I thought of all of those stories, individual, personal…of love, pain, beauty, kindness, struggle, sweetness, bitterness…that I will never know.
At one point in the wee hours of the morning, I sat quietly nursing my baby. My husband woke up to make sure everything was alright. Our only view in the dusk was the back of the big house. Perspective. The slave quarters that remain at Redcliffe are those of house slaves. We often have visitors make the observation that house slaves had a better life than field slaves because of their seemingly “nice” living quarters, “possible” access to more food, “possible” access to better clothing. I do not have answers, I have questions. These, I offer: What would it feel like to work in an outdoor kitchen on a summer day from before the sun rose until after it set? Could you feel a breeze? A rain drop? A brief respite from the heat? How would you feel when most of your relatives lived miles away on another plantation and you were isolated on this beautiful prison of a hilltop? If you were a woman chosen to work in the house because of your beauty or your pleasing skin tone, what would it be like to fall, not under the whip of a lash, but under the weight of the Master’s body? What would it be like to live in the constant shadow of that big house? Perspective.
My overnight stay confirmed what I already knew about Redcliffe. Yes, it is rich in perspectives, if only you take the time to listen. We will never reach the Truth because there is not one Truth. There are only people, as diverse in their experiences and perspectives as they are in skin color. That does not mean that they are forgotten because they did not record their memoirs on a piece of paper. It only means that we need to question, to experience, to listen, to be human to more closely understand their perspective.
Lily Raintree (age 9)
In the slave quarters I felt like that if I didn’t have parents that I would feel very lonely right there. And it really did feel hard on my back when I slept on it, so I’m kind of wondering how the slaves would sleep on there without any clothing except one little sheet that was very thin. But I also can’t imagine how it would be if it would be so hot in the summer and they had to close up all the doors and lock all the windows how it would be so hot. That’s what I think it would be like in the slave quarters.
Reid Raintree (age 8)
I think sleeping in the slave quarters would be an awful experience because I would have no electricity, no, like, running water, nothing like we have now…and it would be very sad to think of sleeping in there because, like I said, we would have no electricity and no running water and lots of other things.
Wade Raintree (age 5)
When I was in the slave quarters, I think the wood was hard like a brick. And I, like with my family, I was just scared in there. And I just thinked [sic] of in my brain, like if I wasn’t with my family or my brother and sister and I wouldn’t get to sleep with them, I’d have to sleep by myself.