As I lay in the cabin I couldn’t help but think of the people who had lived within the wooden walls of our tiny room. Oh if the walls could talk; the stories they could tell. The joys of new birth, the sorrow at loss; the immense pain and burden of working so hard every day with no end in sight…even for your children. —–Melissa Fleck Aller
Developing and nurturing relationships with stewards of slave dwellings is an ongoing process. There are times when the circumstances dictate the need to create a sleepover. The Emanuel Nine tragedy that occurred in Charleston, South Carolina was just that need. On facebook, someone floated the idea of doing something with substance to honor the victims of that church shooting. While the suggestions were many, my suggestion was business as usual and simple…….invite the descendants of slaves and slave owners for a sleepover in a slave cabin. Many in the thread of communication signed on to participate. My task now was to find the venue. Who should step up but Tom Johnson, director of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
Magnolia Plantation hosted my first stay 5 years ago and is where I am currently employed on a part time basis. With four restored slave cabins to choose from, I set the capacity for the sleepover at 40. Reservations for those spots were exceeded within a week of their availability with the states of Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina and of course South Carolina in the mix. Period cooking and storytelling were also elements that would be offered to the participants.
The stage was now set. I showed up early in the morning of Saturday, September 19 to assist Heather Welch with the cooking that would take place in the slave cabin. Heather had gone all out and was cooking in period dress. I brought my Civil War uniform but had no intentions of putting it on until those who were participating in the sleepover arrived. The menu was barbequed pork; onion salad; mashed potatoes; green peas; bread pudding; bread and lemonade. Up until that point, my lack of knowledge had me questioning why Heather insisted on getting there at 7:30 am. Assisting her gave me an appreciation of the responsibilities an enslaved cook would have had because if they were cooking for the big house their tasks would have been continuous throughout the day. If you were to throw in a slave owner’s penchant for entertaining guests, who sometimes would stay for weeks or months, that would be added cooking responsibilities. Throughout the day, people participating in the “From Slavery to Freedom Tour”, which is offered daily by Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, would interact with us in the slave cabin. Their presence gave us an opportunity to interpret matters of period cooking and aspects of the Slave Dwelling Project.
5:00 pm and the participants began to show up because they were forewarned that the sooner they got there the better choices they would have for where they would sleep in the four available slave cabins. A great mixture of admitted descendants of slave owners and descendants of those who were enslaved began to mingle in this quest to honor the Ancestors. Some were there just for the conversation but most would be spending the night. Some were just visiting the site for the first time, some had been there many times before. For most, this would be their first overnight stay in a slave dwelling, however five of us had previous experience. What was interesting was that no one showed who was included in the conversation thread that was started on facebook to initiate this sleepover. Despite that, the racial and geographical diversity of participants showed the potential for a powerful stay.
Our cook Heather Welch had the occasion timed just right because we were ready to eat at 6:00 pm. Appropriately, grace was given and then Heather interpreted the food that we were about to eat. With our hunger satisfied, Tom Johnson, director of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens addressed the audience. An unexpected bonus for the audience was hearing from Isaac Leach who is currently employed at Magnolia and who lived in one of the cabins until 1969.
With darkness quickly approaching, it was necessary for us to break so that all participants could secure and prepare their sleeping space because these were cabins that did not have an electric light source. Back under the tent, and we all got the opportunity to introduce ourselves and tell why we were there. This is where the conversation began to get real. As projected, Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina were all represented. The group was quite diverse in age, gender and race and everyone expressed themselves eloquently.
The scene shifted to a camp fire where we engaged in a session of storytelling. In a setting reminiscence of the movie Glory, Civil War reenactors portraying the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry told stories about how they became soldiers. Again the conversation became real. No one seemed to hold back. The conversation was indicative of the environment and the diversity of the participants. We covered things from “Black Lives Matter” to the ways we interpret history today. The conversation could have continued, but the majority of the audience was beginning to fade and by midnight we were all in our chosen cabins.
The next morning we all gathered and began to sanitize the cabins in anticipation of the first tour that was scheduled to begin at 9:30 am. Most began to go their separate ways but a small contingency of us went to the North Charleston City Hall to view the Slave Dwelling Project’s art exhibit.
While the idea for this impromptu sleepover was not mine, no one from that conversation that began on facebook participated in the event. I guess that the concept sounded good and looked good on paper but maybe they were not quite ready to get out of their comfort zones. Because some who initially signed up for the event had legitimate reasons for not attending and had alerted me of same, there was not a need for me to pitch the tent that I brought to cover an excess of people. The result was quality not quantity. The participants went away with a better understanding of why it is necessary to preserve, interpret, maintain and sustain extant slave dwellings. As for me, this experience has given me the confidence that as the Slave Dwelling Project continues to evolve, these structures can and should be used as classrooms. So to you potential funders out there, take notice of how you can get involved.
Thank you Tom Johnson and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens for the allowing the Slave Dwelling Project to honor the Ancestors in this meaningful way.
Overnight at Magnolia Plantation: Contradictions
By: Prinny Anderson
A large group of people gathered under the white tent beside the roadway in front of the line of slave dwellings at Magnolia Plantation. They had decided to come together in response to the shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church, for conversation about issues related to race, racism and violence. The evening’s program started with a hearth-cooked dinner, included introductions of everyone present, story-telling by re-enactors from the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, political debate beside the bonfire, and an overnight stay in the slave dwellings. For me, it became an evening of thought-provoking contradictions.
During the welcomes after dinner, a gentleman named Mr. Isaac told us stories from his childhood on Magnolia Plantation in the 1950’s, when he was raised in one of the former slave dwellings across the way. He described an idyllic life, exploring and playing in the surrounding marshes, waterways, forest, and gardens. There was boyhood mischief – fishing in the rice fields by full moonlight and swiping the kitchen skillets and pots to catch and cook crayfish after dark. Even participating in the integration of the local school was an untroubled experience. Mr. Isaac was initially the only African American child in his new school, and he was nicknamed “Midnight” by his white classmates. He reveled in his nickname.
As he told his stories, Mr. Isaac commented about how safe and peaceful his young life on the remote plantation had been. He and his playmates were far from unrest and violence taking place even in nearby Charleston or other towns. How contradictory it seemed, that a plantation, a place of oppression and bondage for Mr. Isaac’s ancestors, had become a free and safe space for a young African American boy in the mid-twentieth century.
The other contradiction that emerged for me has to do with who needs to be talking to whom about what America can and should do in response to the killing of nine innocent citizens and terrorizing of three others in their house of worship during Bible study. There is an instinctive reaching out to have conversation among European Americans and African Americans. In part, this instinct is profoundly appropriate. As human beings, we must talk together about the sadness and the wrongness, we must share comfort, we must collectively make sure the memories of the Emmanuel Twelve continue to be honored, their stories told, the issues raised continue to be examined.
But in the main, much of the conversation resulting from the Mother Emmanuel Church shooting needs to be primarily among white people. Many European Americans are the people with greater power and influence in the white dominant culture of the U.S. We are the people who must examine our personal prejudices, the obvious ones and the unconscious ones, and work to work past them. Regardless of our socio-economic status, it is white people who must take the lead in speaking out, taking action and calling for action to dismantle the systemic racism that pervades our society, our politics and courts, our schools and healthcare systems, our businesses and workplaces. It is white people who must insist that all children have enough to eat, safe places to sleep, decent educations, and medical care when they’re sick. It is white people who must demand there be job training and retraining, adequate pay for a day’s work, access to nutritious food and adequate housing for all our fellow Americans. It is white people who must call for accountability from the police, courts, and prisons, from schools, clinics and hospitals. From those to whom social and political privilege is given, a greater investment in justice for all needs to be expected.
I think we mean well when we seek to have dialogue between blacks and whites about violence against African Americans committed by European Americans, but African Americans cannot make European Americans take action against their privilege and supremacy. Only European Americans can take that action. Asking African Americans to help us get out of our own way is a contradiction in terms. We need to talk among ourselves, take action among ourselves, and dismantle the systems that benefit white people and harm people of color.
~September 29, 2015
As I lay in the cabin I couldn’t help but think of the people who had lived within the wooden walls of our tiny room. Oh if the walls could talk; the stories they could tell. The joys of new birth, the sorrow at loss; the immense pain and burden of working so hard every day with no end in sight…even for your children. Someone asked me if I saw any ghosts. I didn’t see any, and honestly all I could feel was peace. Slavery sadly robbed the physical freedoms of the enslaved people, but the spirit of these people soared to great heights in resilience, talent, and faith and I mused on all those things that long warm night filled with songs of crickets and cicadas. So, I have been enriched by this experience in ways that I’m not sure I have entirely processed. I know I’m going to do it again…and I know that something within me stirred; not just anger, or guilt, or even sadness, though all those feelings were present. The feeling I felt was awe mixed with pride—pride for these incredible people who came before us and gifted this country with a rich cultural heritage from which we still reap. Yes, they came in shackles and despite this, they proved to us the enormous gift that is the spirit and the mind; that our physical realities can be transcended through courage and faith. It was humbling and magical and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be able to have just for a moment, reached across time and space through such a simple act of sleeping in a humble cabin and connected with a courageous determined people whose story must be told. Slavery is a long bold thread in the tapestry that makes this country, and it must be talked about because every enslaved person’s voice, though silenced through hate and subjugation, is resurrected when we have discussions about racism and reconciliation in this country; it is a way to honor them and we should take time to do that. Go spend the night in a slave cabin!