The Slave Dwelling Project seeks extant slave dwellings wherever they exist. Some are more obvious than others. The out buildings of former plantations and antebellum stately mansions can easily qualify as former slave dwellings. One telltale sign of the structures themselves are chimneys. But what if the obvious evidence of a slave dwelling does not exist? That question coupled with a desire to quell that part of American history makes it difficult to find some of these extant structures. Despite that, individuals and institutions are becoming more forthcoming about slave dwellings that may be hidden in plain view as may be the case of Cherrydale at Furman University in Greenville, SC.
Institutions of higher learning are becoming more receptive to what the Slave Dwelling Project has to offer. Stays in slave dwellings have occurred on the campuses of Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia and the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. A stay is planned for an extant slave dwelling on the campus of Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.
While I have given the Slave Dwelling Project lecture at many institutions of higher learning, I was thrilled when I received an invitation to bring the project to the campus of Furman University. My host Dr. Llyod Benson even went the extra mile to find a building on campus where a strong possibility exists that enslaved people once dwelled there.
According to its website:
Cherrydale may have become the Furman Alumni House in 1999, but the columned, Greek-Revival home has an integral place in the university’s history. For almost 150 years, Cherrydale stood at the foot of Piney and Paris mountains in Greenville, surrounded first by acres of thick woods and fertile fields and later by the Stone Manufacturing Company and busy Poinsett Highway. The 4,960-square-foot house was the home of Furman University’s first president, James Clement Furman, and his wife, Mary, for many years.
The origins of the house are somewhat hazy. In 1852, George Washington Green purchased 350 acres of land “on the waters of Richland Creek and Reedy River” at the foot of Piney Mountain for $1,500. There he built “Green Farm,” a modest one-story dwelling that is now the rear wing of Cherrydale. On March 2, 1857, Green, who had moved to Mississippi, sold that land and an additional 100 acres to James Clement Furman for $7,000. This $5,500 price difference suggests that Green constructed the house between 1852 and 1857.
Between 1857 and 1860, Furman and his wife, Mary Glen Davis Furman, remodeled Green Farm, adding four rooms and a new entrance with a front porch, four Greek-Revival-style columns, and a three-bay portico. It is said that Mary had fashioned the new front of the farmhouse after that of her childhood home. By 1860 the Furmans were calling the renovated house “Cherrydale.”
The structure was moved to the Furman campus in 1999 and now serve as the alumni house.
The first scheduled order of business upon entering the campus was an early lunch with faculty and students. This gathering proved to be fruitful with a hearty conversation of how one can obtain gainful employment with a degree in history.
The scheduled lecture had a robust crowd with a good mixture of students and faculty. From my vantage point, most of the students were attentive with great questions coming during the question and answer period.
From the lecture site, we retreated to Cherrydale. Scheduled to stay with me were my host, Llyod Benson and some of his students. By the time we got to the mansion, Llyod had already received word that three of the students were not going to spend the night. At that point, and based on past experiences, I could not help expressing my doubt about any of the students showing up. I was quickly proven wrong because one, then two, then three students showed but only two would spend the night.
The house was all that one would expect in a mansion. Given South Carolina’s history, and when this area of the state began to become populated after the Native Americans were forced out and the railroads began to give us access to more parts of the state, one could easily speculate on how the enslaved could have lived in the same structures with their enslavers. That is until obtained wealth would have allowed the enslavers to separate themselves from the enslaved by building other buildings on their property.
After hours of meaningful conversation, we all retreated to separate rooms for our night sleep. The next morning there were reports of snoring but I did not hear any.
After breakfast at a local establishment, it was back to campus to address Llyod Benson’s class. Two of the students in the class spent the night in Cherydale with us.
This visit was one more successful event that established a new relationship with an institution of higher learning. I left there optimistic that Furman has the potential to be the institution of higher learning that can provide continual collaboration with the Slave Dwelling Project. It is still my hope that all institutions of higher learning that have extant buildings built or lived in by the enslaved can be as receptive to the Slave Dwelling Project as Furman University.
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Although we didn’t exactly have to rough it at the Cherrydale Alumni House on Furman’s campus, there was a lot to be learned about the life of a slave in Greenville, South Carolina. We slept on the floor but instead of staying in the salve quarters separate from the house, we stayed in the actual plantation house, where the white slave owners resided. At first I didn’t think much about it or the fact that at one point there were slave quarters near the grand house, but after discussing the situation it was clear that an important argument to be made: there wasn’t a slave dwelling for us to stay in because people do not value that aspect of history as much because it is a bleak picture. Joe McGill does a fantastic job of explaining that there are certain pretty images of plantation life that we like to consider such as the white houses with fancy shutters, but in reality there is a completely opposite, more disturbing outlook that often goes ignored. The perspective of slaves living in a slave dwelling is overshadowed by white southern grandeur and it is a sad fact that many are more interested in only preserving the massive plantation houses. I was thankful for the air conditioning, furnishings, and kitchen in the building, but I can’t fully grasp the life of a slave. It was such a cool, enlightening experience that I will never forget, and for that I am so thankful!