As the Slave Dwelling Project continues to evolve, there are many sites of which I have spent the night in their extant slave dwelling more than once. As other individuals and entities begin to understand that I come in peace and that this is a project with great potential which benefits all involved, they are beginning to come on board and the Ancestors are benefiting immensely from their participation. At those sites where I’m invited back, we always manage to improve on what was done during the previous overnight stay. The second overnight stay at the 16,000 acre Hobcaw Barony, located in Georgetown County, South Carolina did not disappoint.
Lee Brockington, chief interpreter at Hobcaw Barony, and avid supporter of the Slave Dwelling Project which was evident by her attending the first slave dwelling project conference in Savannah, GA in 2014, planned a great three days of programs. The highlight of the three days was Bob McClary who was once an inhabitant of two of the dwellings on the site. I met Mr. McClary in the Discovery Center, the museum of Hobcaw Barony, we bonded immediately. He was accompanied by his family which included his wife, four daughters and other extended members. Life has been great to him because if I did not know he was 85 years old, I would have assumed 70 or less easily.
Another major part of this stay, would be the involvement of South Carolina Educational Television. Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Hobcaw Barony is developing an interactive website that will interpret the complete story of the site, including that part of the story that interprets the enslaved and their descendants.
The activities would officially start at Friendfield Village which was a long drive back into the property. On the van ride, I was fortunate to be able to sit beside Mr. McClary as he relayed to me some of his very exciting life story. Mr. McClary has published a book about his life and he is the epitome of the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north.
In Friendfield Village, under a tent, we ate a catered dinner which included barbeque pork and fixings. The highlight of the evening was a lecture about the Slave Dwelling Project which was given by me. Everything was going swimmingly until after the question and answer period when we were all mingling, one gentleman who heard the entire lecture asked my intent. No answer that I gave would satisfy him. The exchange almost got confrontational until someone else intervened. This exchange reminded me that there will always be those who are opposed to the need to preserve and interpret extant slave dwellings and some of them will even make their way to Slave Dwelling Project presentations.
The next morning stated with fourth graders who were excited about visiting Hobcaw Barony and Friendfield Village. Their teachers had them well prepared because they had watched you tube videos of me prior to coming to the event. Having on my Civil War uniform, I had to start the presentation with the students with disseminating some information about African Americans who served in that war.
The students also had the opportunity to interact with Mr. McClary. I do not know if their young minds could fathom all of what they were experiencing.
We then had an opportunity to move to Farmfield Village, another part of Hobcaw Barony. There we visited the second home of Mr. McClary. He revealed that when he began to acquire more siblings, they had to move to this larger house. When he asked if anyone wanted to see where the outhouse was located, I was the only one who responded yes. There we had one more moment by ourselves when we both walked to the back of the house. That moment alone with Mr. McClary did not last long as the rest of the group began to envelope us, but I was grateful for this very short time I had with this legend.
Off the beaten path, we visited a decaying rice mill which had three of the brick walls still standing. When if functioned, it was run by steam and some of the machinery used for the processing of the rice was still there. For a rice planter to have his own rice mill on his plantation, was an indication that his operation was enormous. I immediately set upon the task of looking for finger imprints in the bricks but found none.
The day continued with a panel discussion which was moderated by Val Littlefield, history professor at the University of South Carolina. The panel included me, Mr. Mclary and Lee Brockington, chief historian at Hobcaw Barony. The discussion was also live streamed via the web. The standing room only crowd was mesmerized as Mr. McClary told short stories of his experience living in Friendfield and Farmfield Villages at Hobcaw Barony. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElXAcSZW7TQ
The overnight stay in the Laura Carr cabin would be my second. This night I would be joined by Ramon Jackson, Patrick Hayes and Alec Tuten, a volunteer at Hobcaw Barony. Mr. Tuten was a late addition to the overnight stay. The time in the cabin included a long interview of me conducted by Ramon and filmed by Patrick.
The final day included interacting with the visitors who came in for the special program.
Through the National Endowment for the Humanities and South Carolina Educational Television, the Slave Dwelling Project is a part of the Hobcaw Barony’s effort to tell a more complete story. Opportunities to interact with any African American who once lived in a house on a former plantation is rare. Hobcaw Barony is taking advantage of that opportunity while it exists. For that, our intent runs parallel. I am looking forward to the final product of what the collaboration of SC ETV and Hobcaw Barony will create.
Between the Waters/Slave Dwelling Project
Visit to Hobcaw Barony, March 17-21
Patrick Hayes: Brief but inspiring, our overnight stay in the dwelling sometimes called the “Carr Cabin” or “Laura’s House” began somewhat late in the evening with arrival and setup for a videotaped interview. The plan for our interview set with Mr. McGill was to keep shadows and dark corners of the interior intact to approximate the light, most likely that of a candle or hearth, that Ms. Carr and others who lived there might have experienced. The irony of how easily this dwelling could be lit, if not overly lit, by a battery powered LED light kit purchased on the internet was not lost on us.
Ramon Jackson’s extended interview with Joseph McGill covered a range of topics, some familiar to those who have spent time with Mr. McGill, others unique to our visit and this particular dwelling. We discussed Ms. Laura Carr’s role as Friendfield’s root doctor and midwife and how that layer added to his experience and interpretation of the space. We also discussed Robert McClary, a former resident of Friendfield Village, and how his ongoing visit provided a rare opportunity for Mr. McGill and the public to interact with someone who had lived in a dwelling relatively unchanged since the antebellum era. This videotaped discussion with Mr. McGill will be part of the Between the Waters web documentary and virtual tour in 2016.
We took to our bedrolls almost immediately after the interview. Though the spring weather was particularly kind that night, I imagined how extremes easily changed the situation during Ms. Carr’s time. Rest, while not fitful, was full of strange, vivid dreams certainly influenced or suggested by the history of the space. One dream in particular, that of a hand placing a smooth river stone on my head as I slept, continues to be a topic of discussion between me and my colleagues.
I awoke to Ramon sitting on his bedroll using his phone to take a photo of a shuttered, barndoor-style window through which a thin square seam of sunlight leaked into the room. Perhaps it was this same seam of light that Ms. Carr, or those who lived here before her, woke to every morning as well. Later I learned that this was unlikely because, as Ramon commented in the soon tweeted photo, “her day would have already begun.”
Ramon Jackson: During the first three weeks of March, the Between the Waters team had the pleasure of working alongside Joseph McGill, founding director of The Slave Dwelling Project, during his visit to the Waccamaw Neck in Georgetown County, South Carolina. McGill visited Hopsewee and Hampton Plantations, located along the Santee River, and Hobcaw Barony, the sprawling 16,000 acre property located along Winyah Bay once owned by Bernard M. Baruch. Dressed in the uniform of a Union infantryman with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, McGill cut a striking (and, to some, controversial) figure. A jovial man, and lover of the occasional “selfie,” he could often be seen enlightening visitors puzzled by his affinity for these dwellings or teaching local schoolchildren about the lives of the enslaved.
While at Hobcaw Barony, McGill gave a lecture in Friendfield Village, assisted with public tours, and served as a panelist during our “Voices of the Village” panel discussion (A recorded version can be viewed at: http://makinghistorybtw.com/the-slave-dwelling-project-2/). Throughout the weekend, he graciously shared the stage with Robert McClary, an 85 year old retired firefighter and former resident of Friendfield and Barnyard Villages, who was accompanied by an entourage of family and close friends. McGill and McClary bonded instantly, sharing stories and laughter as they journeyed along Hobcaw Road. For McGill, it was a rare and precious opportunity to spend time with someone so intimately familiar with these extant spaces. It was a powerful experience for everyone involved. The image of Robert McClary standing near his childhood home surrounded by his adult children and grandchildren will be seared into my memory forever.
Later that evening, I joined McGill, Patrick Hayes and Hobcaw volunteer Alec Tuten in the home of Laura Carr, a two-room dwelling located on the north end of Friendfield Village. Born into slavery in 1858, Laura Carr worked as a field hand and also served as midwife for the four villages once inhabited by enslaved Africans and their descendants at Hobcaw Barony (Friendfield, Barnyard, Strawberry, and Alderly). She adhered to traditional African religious practices, as evidenced by the shards of glass and other talismans located on the mantle within her home. According to Census records, Carr was married and had a daughter, Hannah, who was born in 1877.
The physical state of the dwelling offers us some clues about race relations at Hobcaw and about Carr’s temperament. Built around 1840, Carr’s home is the oldest remaining structure in Friendfield Village. During the 1920s, Baruch “improved” the homes of descendants of formerly enslaved persons living in Friendfield, Barnyard, and Strawberry Villages, adding rooms to existing structures and building new ones. Carr’s home was never touched. Rumor has it that she threatened to “put a root” on Baruch if he tried to renovate her home. Laura Carr, whose life connected the antebellum past to the twentieth century, died in 1935, the same year that a bridge was built to connect Hobcaw Barony to the slightly more modern city of Georgetown, South Carolina.
After interviewing McGill, I tried to get some sleep. The chilly night air blowing through the cracks in the wall, the audible courting of peeper frogs and the snoring of my bunkmates (Tuten affectionately referred to them as “buzz saws”) made it hard to doze off. The small pad beneath me offered little comfort and even less protection from the cold, hard floor. Moths fluttered above and spiders skittered about. One can only imagine the discomfort and frustration experienced by Carr and her family, exhausted from a grueling day’s labor, with little but Spanish moss and sheets made from fertilizer sacks for bedding. Needless to say, Joseph McGill is right: Sleeping in these dwellings is not for the faint of heart.
I awoke surrounded by intense darkness. A precious sliver of light leaked through a window across the room. After taking a picture of it, I shed tears. Laura Carr would not have seen this light, except on the Sabbath, or unless she fell ill and was unable to work. Throughout much of her life, she likely rose before the sun to perform her daily tasks, bound by contact, necessity and self-preservation. She and her husband toiled for pennies and the meager rations provided by the landowner after stumbling through the darkness. Opportunities for advancement were slim. It was risky to try to re-negotiate these arrangements. Whispers about distant massacres on the Combahee, on King Street in Charleston, or maybe even in Hamburg may have warned against such action. Murderous acts committed closer to home surely made the price of freedom clear. According to historian Terence Finnegan, from 1901 through 1910 the seven counties in the outer coastal plain (Beaufort, Colleton, Charleston, Dorchester, Berkeley, Williamsburg, and Georgetown) accounted for 60 percent of the total number of lynchings in South Carolina during the post-Reconstruction era. The grisly murder of Lake City’s first Black postmaster, Frazier Baker, in 1898 was part of this violent trend. Jim Powell, the longtime superintendent of Hobcaw Barony, thwarted an attempted lynching on the steps of the Old Relick shortly after the family purchased the property. Rather than offend the sensibilities of the ladies of the house, the mob hauled the unidentified man to Georgetown where he was given a kangaroo trial and murdered. When such violence is paired with terrible hurricanes, floods, and the slow decline of the rice industry, one realizes that Carr’s survival was a testament to the strength of her community and, perhaps, evidence of her protection by unseen forces.
Although the number of lynchings declined in the decades following Carr’s death, Blacks in Georgetown and across the Palmetto State suffered from the effects of racial capitalism—employment discrimination, disfranchisement, educational inequality, and housing discrimination. Despite his immense wealth and paternalistic tendencies, Bernard Baruch never provided electricity or indoor plumbing for African American residents, several of whom remained on the property until 1952. When they migrated to Georgetown, Kingstree or further north in search of prosperity, Baruch and his daughter, Belle, forbade them to return and even refused to allow loved ones to be buried on the property, thereby suspending many blacks’ ancestral connection to Hobcaw.
For some, this is a difficult history to digest. Public historians, particularly those beholden to local constituencies, often censor themselves and offer historical narratives that sacrifice multiple truths for a consensus that affirms national ideals and allows some audience members to see their forebears as having acted for the best of reasons. By avoiding the discussion of controversial topics such as slavery, Reconstruction, and the nadir of African American life in the early twentieth century we create a picture of a unified community that did not always exist, and, as evidenced by recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore, still does not. As a descendant of Alabama slaves who migrated north rather than stay in similar conditions, I have a better understanding of why they sought the warmth of other suns. I also understand why many men in my family grew disillusioned by what they encountered. They still worked for powerful, white elites and endured de facto segregation. Cracked, freezing cement floors replaced splintered, cold wooden ones. In Laura Carr’s home, I cried for my mother, who often seemed to be running from a difficult past in search of warmer suns. The cold floor felt all too familiar to me. The discomfort that comes with generational poverty in America is, sadly, commonplace.
McGill’s project is a vital and necessary corrective to what Gerda Lerner calls our “Great Forgetting,” or the public’s collective amnesia about the contributions of enslaved Africans to American economic, political, social, and cultural development during the centuries prior to the Civil War. My experience at Hobcaw was a reminder that most public institutions that teach about slavery have not gone far enough. Interpreters at these sites should use extant dwellings to add an experiential component to the curriculum they develop and utilize these spaces as sites where healing and true racial reconciliation can begin. Whenever possible, they should connect with descendants of the formerly enslaved and give them an opportunity to tell their side of the story. Through collaboration with these families, genealogists, archaeologists, and other scholars we can move the narrative beyond Appomattox and provide audiences with greater understanding of the “splendid failure” of Reconstruction; the motivating factors and outcomes of the Great Migration; and a more robust and intimate discussion of how black lives continue to be shaped by the legacy of slavery. If our mission as public historians is to work for the good of the community, then we must help the public understand how the present came about and teach them that we, ourselves, are living in historical times. Anything less only contributes to the uneasy truce that has characterized American life over the past decades and leaves us open to the possibility that racial tensions will explode.