It is always great when I get invited back to a site for a sleepover. Last year we attempted to sleep under the stars among the ruins of the tabby slave cabins on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina. Mother Nature had other ideas, a violent thunderstorm and rain that lasted all night thwarted our attempt. Instead, we slept under a huge tent that was set up in the vicinity of the tabby ruins. It was my hope that this year would be different and we would get that opportunity to spend the night among the ruins and under the stars. The possibility of that happening was not great because on my two hour plus drive to Hilton Head Island, SC where I would catch the boat to go to Daufuskie Island, it rained all the way there.
My host, the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation, planned a weekend filled with activities that far surpassed what we did last year when I visited the island. By the time of the boat ride over to the island, the rain had stopped. Reliable Prinny Anderson would be joining me on this trip, but she was scheduled to come over on a later boat because she was travelling from Durham, North Carolina.
My first night on the island would be spent in the Strachan Mansion which was built in 1910 on St. Simons Island, GA. After being purchased for $1.00, it was barged over to Daufuskie Island in 1986. Sleeping in the mansion, I basked in the amenities thereof for I knew that the following night would be far different.
New to this year’s program was the opportunity to interact with school students. Third graders from the school on the island and a group of seventh graders from Hilton Head Middle School that came over on a boat would compose the first group. An overabundance of pesky gnats would make the presentation to the first group a challenge but we got it done. We made adjustments to the second group by starting and ending the tour in the Strachan Mansion.
Finished with the group and lunch, Prinny and I took advantage of a two hour window of opportunity to explore the island in a golf cart, the most prominent form of transportation. This allowed us to explore the island beyond the gated community of Haig Point where the cabin ruins are located. Once in the recent history of Daufuskie Island, the African American population predominated. We went in search of that population and only to find that remnants remain. Gated communities, a golf course, lack of opportunities and the challenges of heirs property have contributed to that decline. We visited many sites with the most prominent being the First Union African Baptist Church which was founded in 1881. The congregation built the current church in 1884 after the original building was destroyed by fire. The building was restored in the 1990’s.
Like last year, our host assembled a group of islanders for dinner under a tent in the vicinity of the cabin ruins. Like last year, Prinny and I knew that this tent would be our default if the weather would not allow us to sleep among the ruins. The food was prepared by a local chef and the world renown Sallie Ann Robinson who wowed the crowd with her narrated cooking demonstration. Chef Robinson first attained national prominence as a character named Ethel (based on real-life events), one of the students portrayed in famed author Pat Conroy’s novel, The Water Is Wide. Since its publication in 1972, the novel has inspired stage adaptations as well as two major movie productions. In 2003, the University of North Carolina Press published Robinson’s first book, Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way.
The book successfully combined sea island recipes with personal memoir and drew critical praise from diverse reviewers. Publication of her second cookbook, Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon, and Night, followed in 2007. Once again, critics and readers alike praised the author for the storytelling quality of memoir in the book, the authenticity of the recipes, and the tasty results achieved when trying them. Chef Robinson conducts cooking demos locally and nationally (in 2011 she was the featured guest chef at The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.), conducts tours/lectures about the history of Daufuskie Island and caters for private functions.
Prinny and I once again addressed the audience about the Slave Dwelling Project. Since half of the audience had heard the presentation the previous year, I only talked about the sleepovers that had occurred since my last stay on Daufuskie Island. Because my host had given the approval, I again extended the invitation to the audience to join us for the sleepover. Again, I got no takers.
This type of sleepover would be a first. Although the ground was saturated with water from previous rain, our host had provided lawn chairs which made that point irrelevant. Island resident, Leanne Coulter, who had participated in the sleepover the previous year would be joining Prinny and me. Our attempt to build a fire failed because the wood was also wet. The temperature was mild, the moon was almost full and the stars were out which, with the exception of the bugs, made it a perfect night for sleeping outside. I awoke about 3:00 am and observed a herd of deer about 25 feet from where we were sleeping.
The next day was proclaimed Haig Point, Daufuskie Island, History Celebration. The ferries transported people from the mainland who would participate in tours that included the Strachan mansion, Haig Point tabby ruins, Haig Point plantation house, Haig Point lighthouse and cemetery. An offsite tour included the Belle Burn Museum Complex, First Union African Baptist Church, Mary Fields School and the Francis Jones Home.
Because of great marketing by the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation, a great percentage of the visitors were already aware of the Slave Dwelling Project before they got there. They came armed with many questions about the project.
My last night on the island was spent at the Francis Jones home. The core of this traditional Gullah home is believed to have been built by freedmen in the late 1860’s. Francis Jones was the beloved teacher of African-American students from 1930 to 1969. Frances Jones taught as many as 96 children in morning and afternoon sessions. The building was restored in 2014 by the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Daufuskie Island Endangered Places Program” and is available for vacation rental.
The Slave Dwelling Project is beginning to develop a trend on Daufuskie Island. While the potential is great for continuing to use the ruins as classrooms, the desire for the inhabitants of the gated communities to participate in the sleepover is just not there. This action or lack thereof is reminiscence of what I experienced on St. Simons Island, GA. I have to do a better job in convincing those who are not African American that they too can benefit from sleepovers in extant slave dwellings. While preserving, interpreting and maintaining these structures are important aspects of the Slave Dwelling Project, the conversations conducted in sleepovers are powerful. I will continue to work with the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation because we have achieved many successes in working with the youth and on that success we will build. The biggest challenge now is getting the inhabitants of the gated communities out of their comfort zones by convincing them to participate in the sleepovers because it is there that the conversations about the legacy of slavery occurs.
DAUFUSKIE ISLAND 2015 – PUTTING “THESE PLACES MATTER” INTO ACTION
By Prinny Anderson
Eileen and Jo are the first to tell you they’re “failing” retirement. Good thing, too. These two women, their neighbors and spouses are the power behind the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation (DIHF), which puts on an annual “History Celebration” and has hosted two Slave Dwelling Project overnights.
Many members of the DIHF lead lives of comfort in the Haig Point community, at the north end of Daufuskie or elsewhere on the island. They could have leisurely retirements centered on tennis, golf, socializing and travel. But DIHF members put their retirement time and energy into living out Joe McGill’s motto, “These Places Matter.” Through direct action, joint ventures, sponsorship and encouragement to others, they have ensured that the island’s built environment from all periods – antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction and 20th century – are preserved, interpreted, and opened up to islanders and visitors alike. What is even more remarkable is that the sites and buildings DIHF cares for do not represent the family heritage of most of the Foundation members; in fact, they are the buildings and sacred spaces of earlier times and other groups, be they plantation owners, enslaved workers, Gullah communities, past congregations, long ago school children or oyster workers of days past.
Over the years, DIHF has restored, found new uses for, and opened to the public, a number of structures and important sites on the island.
- The Mt Carmel Baptist Church #2, now the Billie Burns Museum – closed when the church population declined; restored and converted to a museum in 2001.
- The Jane Hamilton School, now the Gullah Learning Center – closed as a school when the children were able to go to the Mary Fields School; restored and converted to a learning center in 2008.
- Tabby slave dwellings – currently under restoration, offering the opportunity to learn how tabby buildings were constructed.
- Haig Point Cemetery – dating to plantation days, with recent burials; included on visitors’ tour itineraries.
- Oyster Union Society Hall – home of the oyster workers’ benevolent and burial society, dissolved in the 1950’s when pollution killed off the oyster beds; building restored in 2012.
- White School House – Closed in 1962; converted to house the Foundation’s archives.
Other structures have been saved and restored by other organizations and individuals. For example, the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation has rebuilt the Hinson White Home and the Frances Jones Home. The First Union African Baptist Church was restored in a joint venture between private philanthropy and church members in the 1990’s, and the tiny replica Praise House was placed on its grounds. The Mary Fields School, the setting for Pat Conroy’s book The Water is Wide, was recently renovated.
DIHF and its friends have also preserved and restored artifacts large and small. Some of my favorite small pieces are a clay pipe bowl found in the tabby, and the footprint of a raccoon that stepped on a still-damp brick used in the housing that covered the Blodgett-Mongin house water cistern. Right now, the one-horse shay used by the island’s last midwife, Sarah Grant, is being restored by an Amish carriage-maker.
September 2015, the Slave Dwelling Project returned to Daufuskie Island for two days encompassing a school program, a wine and cheese reception for volunteers, a fundraising dinner with a cooking demonstration by a chef from the island, an overnight stay, and a History Celebration day of historic interpretation for visitors to Daufuskie. All these activities bring people together to hear about history, the lives of the enslaved people, and to raise funds to continue all the work.
This year, the Foundation extended its outreach to the nearby island of Hilton Head. DIHF invited the Hilton Head Middle School to send its seventh grade class for a field trip, to explore the remains of a plantation, learn about tabby construction, and get a firsthand look at how the enslaved people lived. In DIHF style, Jo and Eileen planned the visit well in advance, visiting the school last spring and hosting the principal during the summer. No sooner was this year’s field trip finished than the two women began to consider how to make next year’s visit even more fruitful and how to bring at least a few high school students over for a Slave Dwelling Project sleepover.
All of the sites and their stewards who include the Slave Dwelling Project in their programming and hold an overnight stay are proponents of “These Places Matter,” and I appreciate all of them. The Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation has been at this work for a substantial period of time and has put in a significant investment of care, planning, time, energy and financial resources. In their hands, “These Places Will Matter” for a long time to come.