As the Slave Dwelling Project continues to evolve, my physical presence to sleep in extant slave dwellings is in high demand. Family and job obligations makes accepting every invitation impossible. Despite those obligations, the show must go on.
Pinch hitting for the Slave Dwelling Project were the two most experienced participants to date. On Friday, April 10, 2015, Prinny Anderson and Terry James took the lead and joined Tim Shipley and five students from Lower Richland High School for a sleepover in the slave cabin at Laurelwood Plantation in Eastover, SC.
Matters of liability dictated that the original date proposed for the Laurelwood Plantation slave cabin sleepover be postponed. The rescheduled date conflicted with my trip to Holly Springs, Mississippi to participate in the Behind the Big House Tour.
Because the property owners, Jacqueline and Jeremy Thomas are so dedicated to having the restored cabin used for educational purpose, and despite my absence, the event was still a success. The following are the accounts of those who participated.
Returning to Laurelwood, Becoming a Family
The Slave Dwelling Project was back at Laurelwood, in Lower Richland County, SC, for the fourth year in a row. As we sat in the refurbished slave cabin lit by flashlights and a candle, Terry James, Tim Shipley, Jeremy Thomas and I told the newer and younger overnighters about the earlier years.
Jeremy remembered closing on the house in 2012 – the big house that he’d bought, intending to reconstruct – and finding that Joe McGill had already arranged to sleep over. He and Joe walked down the lane to the slave cabin, and Joe declared it too ruinous for safe sleeping. I remembered Joe talking about a tree growing right in front of the cabin doorway and saying he decided to sleep on the front porch of the big house instead. Jeremy was galvanized to fix up the cabin, with help from his friends at Palmetto Trust, and it was ready for visitors long before the mansion.
Tim remembered bringing two Advanced Placement American History students for his first overnight, in 2013 – the second Slave Dwelling Project overnight at Laurelwood. By then, the cabin was in decent shape and safe to sleep in. Terry and I remembered the one of those students, a young man who was planning to join the Marines six weeks after the sleepover but didn’t want to crawl out of his sleeping bag into the chilly morning air!
How we have grown over time. Joe has deputized his friends, Jeremy, Tim, Terry and me, to hold a Slave Dwelling Project overnight without him being there. Jeremy knows now exactly what he needs his overnight guests to do so the visit isn’t a personal burden. One of the new people in the group, Rose Shiver, jumps right into starting and sustaining personal stories and reflections. Tim’s and Jeremy’s plans for future, self-sustaining Laurelwood overnights has taken its next step into happening.
For this fourth overnight at Laurelwood, one of the themes of our night time conversation is family – family stories, genealogy, history. Jeremy talks about the Seay family, the ones who had Laurelwood built and who brought enslaved people to the property. He tells how the place was then sold to the Campbell family, who lived there into the middle of the 20th century. Campbell descendants continue to contact him and come by to visit. Just recently, a man showed up at Jeremy and Jackie’s front door, asking to see the cabin because he’d been born there.
Rose recounted stories of her ancestors, among them the Taylors, people owned by the European American family that also owned all of the land on which Columbia now sits. She told us exactly where her ancestors’ homes were located – some of the buildings are still there – and remembered coming south from New Jersey to stay with those people for the summer when she was a child. One of her ancestors had worked and saved so he could buy land in the area within 5 years after Emancipation.
Terry described how his ancestor, Ervin, had done the same in the area of Florence, SC, just to the northeast of Laurelwood, and those 290 acres are still in the James family. Terry has gotten his family to focus its reunions on history and culture, and plans eventually to have a non-profit heritage and cultural center there.
The three students who stayed overnight on this occasion had been learning about Lower Richland County history from a local history organization, but they had limited information about their individual family stories. Some of them haven’t spent time learning the stories yet. In other cases, recent immigration and remarriages have created discontinuities in the narratives.
For me, one of the ways in which the Slave Dwelling Project overnights are important is that they evoke these memories and feelings about family and prompt overnighters to start finding out about their family heritage. They make us want to know more about all the enslaved families. Every slave dwelling housed one or many families – what do we know about their stories? What can we imagine about the family lives within the dwelling by looking at the size, shape, and location of the building? Was there privacy? Comfort?
Some of the overnighters are descended from people who lived in such cabins. What new insight and information does the overnight stay give them about people whose names they may know? How do they understand their ancestors better when they wake up in the morning? One student on an earlier overnight at Laurelwood commented that he realized what strength and courage his great-greats had, to live under the conditions he was experiencing.
Other overnighters are descended from people whose families owned the families that lived in the dwelling they’re sleeping in, or in dwellings like it. What does each dwelling say about the way those slaveholding ancestors thought about and treated the people they owned? Did they value family connection enough to allow for family dwellings? Or did they force people into crowded barracks? Were the dwellings sturdy enough to keep out rain, wind and cold? Or were only poor materials provided, without care for the inhabitants’ comfort? Did the housing allow for privacy? Or did the enslaved people sleep in the back of the kitchen or under the stairwell, as a greater convenience for their masters and mistresses?
In either case, the questions matter and the search for the answers can begin when we wake up to the morning after, lying on the floor planks, watching light peek in through chinks in the walls. This time, we ended our stay promising to meet again for an overnight next year. After all, as the students said, “people who snore together, stay together”! We are building the Laurelwood family.
It is often quite different when working with students outside of the classroom. For the third straight year, Laurelwood welcomed the students and teachers of Lower Richland to the stay the night. As in the previous years, it was interesting to see the student’s first reaction to what they had agreed to. Throughout the evening, connections were being made: locally, across state lines, and across generations. To sit around the cabin and listen to the stories and peoples experiences was a great experience. The rain was an added bonus!
As always, my students were left with an opportunity to take a peek into the past. It helped to make the stories of the past come alive for them. This was a great culmination of a yearlong effort to connect with the community and understand local history.
Thanks again to Jeremy, Jackie, Prinny, Terry, and Rose for connecting with the students of Lower Richland High School. This is an excellent example of how the school and community can collaborate to teach the next generation.
My name is Amanda Langley. My daughter and I recently visited Laurelwood Plantation with a few students from Lower Richland High School. I currently am a graduate student from the University of South Carolina. I am pursuing my Master’s in Teaching Secondary Education. I have had the pleasure to work alongside Mr. Shipley for the last year. When he presented the idea of taking his students to the Slave Cabin, I was immediately intrigued. As an aspiring Social Studies teacher, I am always looking for ways to add authentic experiences to my teaching. My daughter and I were very pleased with the experience. My daughter enjoyed asking questions and taking the whole scene in. I enjoyed learning about the history of the area from the guest speakers. I enjoyed watching the students be engaged and brave enough to ask questions. The dialogue between the students and the guests was a teacher’s dream. Overall, the experience was true authentic learning for myself and everyone involved. I could not wait to share the experience with my fellow peers and encourage them to share this experience with their students.
Learning how to interpret historical information is important, but does not come close to experiencing history. By staying the night at the Laurelwood Plantation’s slave cabin one is able to understand to a certain degree the hardship of being a slave. The living arrangement is unpleasantly tight by today’s standards with seven people or more sleeping near one another. Today most people seek out their own private area within their house so that they can have me time. It becomes clear very quickly that no one is able to develop their own private area especially when twelve people are living so close to each other. To enhance the experience of staying the night in a slave cabin, next time it should be done in shackles.
On the night of April 10th, 2015, I had a once in a life time opportunity to spend the night in a slave cabin at the Laurel wood Plantation in Eastover, South Carolina. By sleeping in the slave cabin, I was able to travel back in history and see just how African slaves from the era of slavery lived. The cabin was very small and sleeping was rough on the hard floors. By being able to stay the in the cabin, it allowed me to have this first hand experience, which I am really grateful for. This will allow me to have a connection when writing historical papers in the future about slaves and the era of slavery. Also it was fun spending time with my classmates. As the night went on, we told old family stories, which I found extremely interesting, as well as stories from our own past. This was truly a once in a live time experience and I hope that I can do it again one day soon.
Never in my life did I imagine that I would sleep on the floor of a slave cabin. It doesn’t seem like an exciting event at first. Most people will think that it’s crazy to do something like that. Now I can say I’m not a part of the majority.
I was interested in going because learning history first hand is the best way of learning history. When I heard of the opportunity I knew that most people would not experience this and I wouldn’t get a chance like this many more times, so I jumped to the idea. At first I was a little nervous because I didn’t really know too much about the whole experience. I thought that it would be worse than it actually was. I imagined some old, tore up, raggedy shack in the middle of nowhere.
When I first arrived it was so fascinating. There’s only so much you can get out of a picture in a history book and being able to see things myself was better than any history book. I was shocked to see how restored the cabin was. I thought that it would really be a great experience and it turned out to be so. I learned so much that I felt that many of my classmates were missing out. The knowledge I gained from being there and listening to the stories told was amazing and I was able to get some extra knowledge on what we were going to learn in class.
To my surprise, sleeping on the floor of a slave cabin wasn’t as bad as expected. It may have not been as comfortable as my bed at home, but one night is nothing compared to every night the slaves had to sleep there. Waking up the next morning I was kind of disappointed. It was a really fun experience and I didn’t want to go so soon.
All in all my experience sleeping in a slave cabin was great. I learned so much and it was worth any soreness. Realizing that past relatives had to go through that everyday really blows your mind. Overall I would recommend it to anybody and whenever that opportunity comes again I will definitely do it again. Besides, how often can someone you know say that they slept in a slave cabin?
I’d like to thank Jaqueline and Jeremy Thomas along with the Slave Dwelling Project for allowing the Lower Richland Heritage Genealogy Society to participate in this piece of living history. Only living in Columbia for 8 years, I am still amazed that right down the road are former plantations. Being a descendant of the slave families that lived in Lower Richland County proved to be humbling. The cabin is an excellent visible teacher of how my ancestors lived. I hope in the future the Thomas’s allow others to visit the cabin and learn more about the slave past. Knowing it is part of our history, it is important not to forget or be ashamed of our forefathers. It was not Our sin. There is so much more to learn. I hope the students absorbed Lower Richland heritage from the discussions, I’m looking forward to my invitation.