A simplistic idea of sleeping in slave dwellings has evolved into something that can help heal this great nation of its historical trauma. That historical trauma is the legacy that slavery has left on this nation. The Slave Dwelling Project is now doing far more than just spending nights in slave dwellings. It is now working with antebellum historic sites to include the stories of the enslaved in their interpretation. These stories have been neglected, told from the perspective of the enslavers or interpreted in ways that are untrue or disrespectful to the enslaved Ancestors. Just as it is important to preserve, interpret, maintain and sustain mansions and “big houses,” the same thought process and resources should be applied to extant slave dwellings. That said, the lack of these dwellings on the landscape is no excuse for not interpreting the existence of the enslaved at these sites.
One site that has helped nurture the mission and intent of the Slave Dwelling Project is Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina. Since 2009, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has offered the general public the opportunity to explore the four restored slave cabins on its site. It was there that I had my inaugural sleepover for the project in May 2010. I am now employed there on a part-time basis as a history consultant and have the pleasure of interpreting the slave cabins to the general public on a tour titled “From Slavery to Freedom.” Additionally, the site is allowing the Slave Dwelling Project to use these restored cabins as classrooms meaning I have the opportunity to invite organized groups to join me for sleepovers in the slave cabins.
My opportunity to spend my sixth night in one of the cabins was on Thursday, February 16, 2017. This opportunity came with a lot of fanfare. This would be the first sleepover for the year of 2017; it would happen in Black history month; it would include living history on the day after the sleepover; it would be an open invitation for anyone to join us in the sleepover and the living history would appeal to school groups.
The people who committed to joining us in the sleepover signed up quick, fast and in a hurry. My excitement level rose because matching people’s desire for a sleepover and finding a historic site with the willingness to allow it to happen is somewhat rare. Not all of the ninety-one sites of which I have spent nights in their slave dwellings have the capacity to allow others to join me so squandering this opportunity would be a big letdown. Needless to say, as the event grew closer, the reasons given not to participate in the sleepover by those who had previously committed to doing so, came in as fast and furiously. Mother Nature did not help the situation because the overnight low was predicted to be thirty-eight degrees. The saving grace for me was that I’d been there before so folks not showing up was no surprise.
Now that I have vented, the event was a huge success. Six of the living historian who committed to the event showed up at the time that they said they would with one traveling from as far away as Chicago, Illinois. Additionally, three people who would be joining us for their first sleepover showed up on time. Lastly, we were joined by two people who would not be spending the night with us but did show up for the conversation. It is always my intent when feasible to have the participants arrive before dark so that we can inspect and claim the spaces where we intend to sleep. Arriving on time is important when there is no permanent light source in the dwellings, and this was the case at Magnolia. One guest made a persuasive argument for all eight of us to sleep in the same building, so we all claimed our space in the largest cabin. Sleeping in the cabin we chose meant that my streak of spending five nights in the same cabin was interrupted. Maintaining that streak was important because when I interpret the cabins to the general public, it would be a very powerful statement to let them know that I have spent six nights in the same slave cabin but my ego will allow me to overcome that setback.
Now the stage was set for us to make a collective decision on where we would eat. My preference was that the restaurant is an African American owned business, but the logistics just did not work. We ended up eating at Easterby’s Family Grille which was relatively close to the plantation. My ultimate goal was to keep the subject matter pertinent to slavery and the legacy that it left on this nation, but the current political climate and race relations would test our ability to stay on subject. Luckily, the subject matter did not stray too far into politics and the food was great to boot. Eating at the restaurant was a great opportunity for everyone to break the ice and get to know each other better, after all, most of us would be sleeping together.
When we returned to the plantation, we lit the camp fire, and the conversations continued. We stayed on track discussing everything from how African American history is interpreted at historic sites to what we would be eating for breakfast the next morning. We had the convenience of modern day bathrooms within fifty yards of where we would sleep. In my vast experience, having modern bathrooms make these sleepovers much easier especially when there are women involved.
Around midnight, we all retreated to the cabin, bedded down and the conversations faded into a cacophony of snores.
The next morning the kitchen crew cooked us breakfast on an open fire which consisted of grits, eggs, and sausage patties. Having access to a hot shower on site was exactly what the living historians needed. Mother Nature rewarded us with a beautiful day.
We had been forewarned that we would be educating hundreds of school children and the general public. The living historians who did not spend the night with us in the cabin showed up just as they said they would. We were ready. And then it happened. As if someone opened a floodgate, the kids started to show up by the masses. It was controlled chaos, but we got it done. We put our experience of presenting, and our knowledge and respect of our Enslaved Ancestors on display and the kids loved it. All of the planning that Magnolia Plantation and Gardens put into this event paid off big time. The cooking demonstration, the blacksmithing demonstration, the lectures and the storytelling were all popular with the school children and adults. Tears were shed, and ovations were given. It was as if the Ancestors were in control and we were just their mouthpiece.
THE BRIGHT EYES OF CHILDREN LEARNING: The Inalienable Rights program at Magnolia Plantation – Interview with Jerome Bias by Prinny Anderson
Ten busloads of school children and all of them coming to the hearth cooking site next to the slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation. Ten busloads of excited, energetic youngsters attending our Inalienable Rights living history program.
What stays with me about our experience at Magnolia that day was the opportunity to see children learning in a different way, to see children’s eyes brighten. Yes, it was a little scary to have them crowding around an open fire, and it was a little confusing to our usual cooking routine. After all, it’s hard to ask questions, listen to answers, respond to the kids’ comments and keep track of whether the onions were browned and the greens had simmered long enough.
But one reason I sleep overnight in slave dwellings and cook at the living history programs is so children and youth will see their ancestors, will see enslaved people, as human beings with fully rounded lives, not just suffering stereotypes. I want them to step outside the words and illustrations of their history books, and step into the woodsy scent of outdoors, the smoke of the fire, and the fragrance of delicious foods that are not described in the books but were the reality of enslaved people. I want them to look at enslaved people as talented, life-living individuals who made quilts to sleep under, sewed clothes for their children, built cabins, grew vegetables and invented recipes for tasty meals using whatever was at hand.
I know these new visions are beginning to grow in their minds when I see them lean forward, when I hear the questions and comments, and when I see their eyes brighten.
THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD. IT’S NOT EVEN PAST. From Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner
Overnight and Inalienable Rights program at Magnolia Plantation, SC
Sleeping overnight in a slave dwelling and cooking over a fire on the plantation grounds can be like stepping into a time warp. The experience takes me back in time, making me think and feel deeply about the past. The physicality of sleeping on the floor or the ground and cooking through smoke and coals pushes my imagination into connection with enslaved people who lived on this very plantation in the 18th and 19th centuries having those experiences every day. I reach out to get a whiff of a sense of what their lives were like then, even though I can never escape my present and my white privilege. The overnights and the hearth fires also advance time, bringing the past into the present, when I am in the company of African Americans generous enough to speak from their hearts about the legacies of slavery they continue to experience today.
At Magnolia, we all slept in one of the former slave dwellings that was “updated” and had been inhabited at least into the 1950’s. It has electric wiring, glass in the windows and linoleum over the floorboards. The neighboring cabin, which is furnished for interpretive purposes, has plain floorboards, with holes and cracks through which you can see the ground. And there’s no glass in the windows, just shutters to keep out the cold but also make the space dark. This side by side contrast is part of the time warp. On the one hand, life in these dwellings as represented by our sleepover space, had improved. The interior of the house would have been lighter and warmer. And unlike the other, small, multi-family dwellings, this space was enlarged to four rooms to house a single family. The families who inhabited the more modern cabin were employed on the grounds and paid a wage. But they lived at Magnolia while Jim Crow laws and customs gripped African Americans in oppression and terror. Formally speaking, things had changed, but in daily, local life, little had changed. Indeed, the past was not, and is not, dead, nor even past.
Around the fire outside the cabins, before we went to sleep, we had a wide-ranging conversation. What stuck with me in the morning was a deeply sorrowful sense of how the past is still alive and rampant in the present. My companions wondered aloud why white people still murder black people and nothing is done about it. Why black children continue to attend second- and third-rate schools, and white children can attend private schools and charter schools. How health and insurance programs that would ensure good healthcare for poorer people, many of them people of color, and wealthier people, many of them white, don’t have to worry so much about affording doctors and medicines. They wondered why white people seem to hate black people, why white people can’t give black people respect and opportunities to live the lives they’d choose.
Twenty-four hours at Magnolia reminded me that, in spite of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, in spite of Civil Rights acts, in spite of lip service to equal rights and equal opportunities, in daily life, local and national, things haven’t yet changed enough. The past is still inhabiting the present – as Faulkner said, “…the past is never dead. It it’s not even past.”