The Slave Dwelling Project is an open organization, therefore anyone with the desire to join in on a sleepover in an extant slave dwelling is more than welcome. This openness has yielded a diverse group of people who have included descendants of the enslaved and of slave owners. While the ability to convince the descendants of slave owners to spend a night in an extant slave dwelling is a major feat, every-so-often, I am reminded of why the Slave Dwelling Project is necessary because I get to share this event exclusively with the descendants of those who were enslaved. The most recent opportunity came when Magnolia Plantations and Gardens gave the Slave Dwelling Project and Outdoor Afro – South Carolina the opportunity to spend a night in the restored slave cabins at the site.
According to its website: “Outdoor Afro has become the nation’s leading, cutting edge network that celebrates and inspires African American connections and leadership in nature. We help people take better care of themselves, our communities, and our planet.”
“Started as a modest blog by founder and CEO Rue Rupp in 2009, Outdoor Afro has grown into a national organization with leadership networks around the country. Today with now 30 leaders from around the United States we connect thousands of prople to outdoor experiences, who are changing the face of conservation.”
I often get push back when I invite African Americans to visit plantations. Getting them to spend nights in slave dwellings on plantations is even more of a challenge. What Outdoor Afro leader Adrianne Troy-Frazier was offering when she proposed an exclusive for her group would help overcome that challenge. The propensity, desire and purpose for this group to camp were already there, so what I was offering would fit well if the participants could get over the hang up of applying this concept to a plantation.
This overnight stay would also be coupled with the fact that this would be the first for 2016. The weather cooperated fully. As planned, the group members began to arrive at 5:00 pm and were instructed to choose their space in any of the four restored cabins. The youngest of the group was a six year old female and her brother who could not have been much older. The group’s day started with swimming at an indoor pool. The food that we would consume would be prepared on a gas grill and would be of the healthy variety, turkey burgers, corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, etc.
As is the custom of the group, the activities formally started with all of us arranging our chairs in circles. One element of the introductions was explaining why this group chose to participate in this event. Their knowledge of the Slave Dwelling Project was astounding. Their desire to honor the Ancestors was even more astounding. I discovered that I was among a group of highly intelligent individuals who could engage in meaningful conversation about the institution of chattel slavery and its legacy that we are still dealing with today. After group leader Adrianne gave us the dos and don’ts about camping, I then had the pleasure of giving the group an abbreviated version of the presentation I give to visitors who take the “From Slavery to Freedom Tour” at the site. I also gave them an update on the Slave Dwelling Project.
The highlight of the night was the conversation that we had around the campfire. This moved the group in closer proximity to the slave cabins. The fire seemed to work its magic in helping us to engage in meaningful conversation but we had to be reminded that talking politics was off limits in this setting. It was hard to refrain from talking politics given the current state of affairs. Once the conversation got back on track, I was cajoled into doing my first person presentation of a Civil War soldier of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Midnight and coupled with the fact that we would be losing an hour by setting our clocks forward, the remainder of us called it a night. None of the group chose to sleep in the cabin that I slept in, leaving me there alone. Maybe they were given prior knowledge that I was a snorer. This would be my fourth time sleeping in this cabin, the place where I had my very first stay for the Slave Dwelling Project when it started in May 2010, I was alone then also.
The morning after, group leader Adrianne had us form a circle to give our assessment of the experience. She wanted everyone to talk about something good and something bad about the experience, the terms that she used were “rose” and “thorn.” Additionally, we were required to draw from an envelope a slip of paper that had information on it about abolitionists. Coincidentally, I chose the paper that had the Grimke sisters. Angelina and Sarah Grimke were staunch abolitionists were members of the Drayton family, the same Drayton family that historically and currently own Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
My rose was that I got to share the experience with a group of African Americans, this is important because of the hesitancy that we have of visiting plantations. The opportunity to share with like-minded people the need to preserve, interpret, maintain and sustain the places where our Ancestors dwelled is powerful and empowering. I find it difficult to express the necessity for preserving and interpreting extant slave dwellings when there are still African Americans who would rather have them eliminated from the built environment. Sharing with only African Americans was also my thorn because there were no White people involved, because often when I hear or see the phrases “Get over It”, “Move on”, “All Lives Matter”, it is usually from someone who is not African American and do not fully understand the legacy that slavery has left on this nation. My chance of getting a person who would make such a statement to spend the night in a slave dwelling is slim but the people I do engage may have networks that extend into the naysayers.
A thank you is in order for Tom Johnson, executive director of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and the Drayton family for first believing that I was on to something big when I approached them in 2010 with the idea of spending the night in one of the slave cabins. That support is extended every year by the financial support given to the project. More importantly, the restored cabins are continually allowed to be used as classrooms. I often hear a lot of talk about improving race relations and lots of ideas on how to do same. In my mind, plantations are fertile ground for improving race relations for they were ground zero for the historical integrating of the races. So while the talk about finding ways of improving race relations will continue, just know that the Slave Dwelling Project and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens have already engaged in that quest. I urge you to join us.
On the evening of March 13, Charleston area members of Outdoor Afro-South Carolina gathered at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens to participate in The Slave Dwelling Project with its founder Joseph McGill. I live close enough to the plantation to drive by it daily, but never had the desire to visit, but the opportunity to stay overnight in a slave cabin was not one that I was going to pass up. Before the day arrived, I thought I would have all of these deep, in the moment, negative emotions about the experience, but most of the evening, felt a bit like summer camp. The evening included a campfire and fireside chat. McGill, also a Civil War re-enactor stepped back in time to tell us what type of black man would fight in the war, as Mahalia Jackson sang in the not too distant background.
We eventually all retired to our chosen cabins for the night, but it wasn’t until the morning that I began to process what the life of a slave must have felt like in real life. This feeling that I would never get from any slave narrative, no matter how telling. I awoke sore from sleeping on a hard, holey, wooden floor. I was more tired waking up than when I laid down to sleep. Because it was the end of winter, the creepy crawlers had yet to emerge, but the floorboards had gaps big enough for snakes to emerge. The bed had no mattress, but I imagine the mattresses were probably made of hay or moss. The cabins themselves were essentially duplexes, one room per place. The stoves shared a chimney.
Imagine what it was like to have up to 13 children and two parents living in a room and just on the other side of a thin wall, the same thing. There was only space enough for one bed. Now imagine being forced into these conditions at the end of a day that started with you being forced to wade in the stagnant waters of a rice plantation, sun up to sun down. This was the life of a slave. This is the purpose of the The Slave Dwelling Project. We must know, we must remember, we must never forget. We cannot allow any slave cabins in the United States to be destroyed. We cannot allow people to tell us to “get over it.” Not as long as we remember and commemorate 9-11, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Manzanar. We remember so that we never return, and to honor our ancestors, the survivors.
Adrianne Troy Frasier
The check list. Camping gear, food, waiver forms, text messages and phone calls. Keeping tabs with these last-minute details made for a busy day as I rushed downtown to pick up two Outdoor Afro members. They and others would join me for Joe McGill’s Slave Dwelling Tour at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens near Charleston, South Carolina.
In many ways I felt a sense of security as we drove toward Magnolia. I am no stranger to Magnolia. I’ve walked the garden paths. I am familiar with the beauty contained in the Audubon Swamp Garden and the Summer Garden. I have felt the warmth from the administrators and knew of their generosity to my early childhood agency.
I had overcome a degree of my earlier angst and anger of plantations since my first visit to one of them six years ago, but it had taken some work and dialogue to settle my concerns about a space where enslaved Africans once toiled.
This may have also have been the reason why I had avoided Magnolia’s cabins that were once the homes of the enslaved workforce. I had purposely not taken Magnolia’s Slavery to Freedom tour because I wanted no part of revisiting the pain and suffering of enslaved people at Magnolia.
But when Joe, a history consultant at Magnolia, extended a special invitation to Outdoor Afro Charleston to join him on his tour I pondered it then wondered how much of my own ego and emotions needed to be checked.
Several months passed and I realized that more members had RSVP’d for this outing than others. The response and interest made me wonder why I struggled and others did not.
When the day of the over-night cabin stay at Magnolia had arrived I had decided that my role was to hold space for our OA members. I set a welcoming table with ample food and beverages. I brought extra blankets and chairs. I struggled with small details such as where should we have our opening circle, what time do I serve dinner, what time do we turn in to sleep? But more importantly I wanted everyone to feel safe and free to experience this place. I wanted to hold the space for others.
As people arrived, Joe welcomed and encouraged everyone to stake out a cabin. As he provided an education on the era and history of each, I tended to the food and other details. By the time we gathered for our opening circle, all had claimed a sleeping space except me. I encouraged my husband Herb to find our cabin, but I still avoided entering it.
Unlike other outings in which I felt like I had to establish a clear schedule and timeline, I felt myself releasing a level of control. I stepped just a few feet from our intimate circle under a canopy of trees to roast corn and sweet potatoes. I listened to voices in our circle share their feelings about being at Magnolia. I took a deep breathe.
I looked across the road at the cabin as the daylight faded into night. I tried to be in the moment, but I still struggled. Why? I had camped in tents and cabins before. Why was this different? I told myself that I’d be so tired by the time I reached my sleeping bag it wouldn’t matter where I slept.
After sharing an amazing evening of storytelling by the fireside by Joe and others, the time came for us to sleep. As I reached the cabin door and which was dimly lit from our headlamps, I felt a sense of dread. I stepped inside along with three others. Each of us settled in sleeping bags. When the door was pulled shut to ensure small animals would not invade our quarters I felt sealed away into a time machine. With my headlamp still on I laid my head on the floor. I turned and noticed holes in the wooden planks. Again I reminded myself that I had slept in more rustic conditions. Although I was cautious and aware of animals outside, I wasn’t really fearful.
I started to wonder about the possibility of snakes crawling through those holes looking for a warm place and even spiders finding me. Next to me, my sister-in law shined her flashlight on the ceiling as the sounds of nocturnal creatures pierced the night. None of that bothered me. The holes in the floor did. I covered them all with shoes and other objects.
But there was no easy way to snuff my anger when I thought of what it must have been like for a mother a century ago trying to put her children to sleep in those cabins. How does one sleep soundly with the fear of invasion by animals, insects or even a slave owner. Anger filled me. Reality of the space filled me. History enraged me.
But then I looked around the cabin and remembered that we were all together. Five of us. Most of us strangers to one another, who had chosen to dwell in this space together. We had elders and grandmothers in the adjacent room. We were together.
Joe had prepared us for this night with the stories of enslaved people whose legacy contained more examples of triumph and survival than being beaten by their circumstance. I recalled one of those stories and held on to his voice.
I wasn’t the only one holding space. We were all doing this for one another. That’s how we survived then and how we will survive now supporting each other to help us all overcome our fears. That’s how I survived the night of the Slave Dwelling Tour. Holding space for the people around me, they doing the same for me.