Sometimes things begin to become routine. That can be good or bad. While sleeping in slave cabins is an effortless act for me, for others, it can mean many things because many people participate in this odd activity for various reasons.
Several moving parts must be activated when offering people the opportunity to sleep in slave cabins. The most important element is that the stewards of the properties must agree to the Slave Dwelling Project applying its methods at their sites. This is a challenge because not every Antebellum historic site is buying what the Slave Dwelling Project is selling. Despite the hesitancy, there are a few sites in the portfolio that have I have called on to create sleepovers based on the desire of organized groups. Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Virginia; Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama; Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, Virginia; Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown County, South Carolina; The Old Charleston Jail in Charleston, South Carolina and the Hugh Craft House in Holly Springs, Mississippi are places that immediately come to mind.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC holds a special distinction in the Slave Dwelling Project’s ability to carry out its mission and evolve as it continues to grow. It was at this site in 2010 that I had my first sleepover for the Slave Dwelling Project. Before this publication, I spent nights in the slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens six times, the first time alone, the other five of those times provided opportunities for others to join me. I must admit that being employed at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens as a history consultant on a part time basis gives me an advantage on continuing to build this partnership and opportunity. That said, it still takes trust and mutual respect for a sleepover in slave dwellings to be successful.
On Friday, June 30, 2017, individuals started to gather at Magnolia Plantations and Gardens for Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. At this stage in the process, I did not know how many people would show up because of the sleepover because I forgot how many people I promised that privilege. I played the odds based on the capacity of the four restored slave cabins and based on my experience that a great percentage of people who verbally commit don’t follow through so I said yes to everyone who expressed interest. My accounting methods for this process is practically non-existent which is an indication that the hiring of an assistant is necessary, a good problem to have.
As promised, the people began to show up at 5:30 pm. It became my desire that if the group size were fifteen or less, we would all sleep in the largest slave cabin of the four which are restored. Despite getting a call on my way to Magnolia that a group of four people had canceled, the people kept coming, and all were participating in the sleepover. The group eventually became twenty-one people strong.
So I met Corey Alston at Penn Center’s Heritage Days Festival in November 2015. Corey is an excellent sweetgrass basket maker. When we met, Corey made a verbal commitment to spend a night in a slave cabin with us. It was one of those routine conversations that I walk away from saying if it happens, it happens, if not so be it. On my lunch break from the Old Slave Mart Museum where I work on Wednesdays, I often walk through the Charleston City Market; there I encounter Corey as he conducts his business of making and selling sweetgrass baskets. Each conversation with Corey involved the next opportunity to participate in a sleepover. For this sleepover, Corey not only delivered himself, but five other Brothers came with him for the conversation and sleepover.
A faction of us proceeded to a local restaurant while others stayed at the plantation.
At the restaurant, we were joined by English Purcell. I met English on the Facebook page: Charleston Before 1945. English and I are celebrating this victory: Beyond the Big House. English would not be joining us for the sleepover.
Back at the plantation, we decided that due to the impending rain, we should conduct the conversation portion of our session under the pavilion. We arranged the benches in a U shape and started our introductory session. Doing this activity in the pavilion proved to be a wise decision because the rain came vigorously and constantly. The rain beating against the tin roof of the pavilion caused us to put a pause on our introductory session that was proceeding swimmingly. When we resumed the process, it was evident that this diverse group of people was bonding well. Everyone was obligated to introduce themselves to the rest of the group and explain why they were there. Everyone spoke except the youngest member of the group. This eclectic group of people gathered at a plantation to sleep yes, but to also discuss slavery and the legacy that it left on this nation. And discuss we did, nothing pertaining to that subject matter was off limits.
My desire to have everyone sleep in one cabin was squashed when the number of participants exceeded fifteen, a good problem to have. Corey’s group occupied a cabin to themselves. They were looking for a cabin that looked and felt more like what the Ancestors inhabited. Although I spread my sleeping gear in the largest cabin, I spent most of my time in the cabin with the Brothers engaged in a conversation that did not end until 4:30 am for me. The conversation continued as I left and some in the cabin did not sleep at all.
When I got up a few hours later, everyone was already stirring. Some participants who slept in the cabin had already departed. Dontavius Williams was cooking our breakfast of grits, eggs, and sausage on the open fire. Mother Nature had relented, it appeared that we were going to get all of the day’s activities in without rain. We got our visit from Tom Johnson, the site director. The other living historians showed up even our Blacksmith Gilbert Walker from Savannah, GA.
While Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved was successful, I felt that the conversations that we had at the pavilion and in the slave cabin were robust. I applaud Magnolia Plantation and Gardens for the boldness in allowing the Slave Dwelling Project the opportunity to gather people at their historic site for the purpose of sleeping in slave cabins and engaging in a conversation about slavery and the legacy that it left on this nation. Not everyone is bold enough to enter into a discussion about chattel slavery with people who they do not know; there are even fewer people brave enough to engage in that conversation in mixed company on the grounds where those atrocities occurred.
In changing the historical narrative, preserving extant slave dwellings is necessary because when the places are there, it is hard to deny the presence of the people who lived in them. Once these dwellings are preserved, then what? Antebellum historic sites possess the opportunity to allow people to interact with these spaces beyond the regular duty hours. For African Americans and people of other races who desire that experience, that opportunity should be provided when managed correctly. More recently, many antebellum sites have been stepping up their interpretation of African American history, Montpellier and Monticello are great examples. What Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has been doing since 2009 is of no less value than those presidential sites. More recently, allowing the Slave Dwelling Project to invite people to sleep in the cabins and engage in conversations about chattel slavery puts them over the top. So if you are brave enough, you should join us at the next sleepover at Magnolia on Friday, October 6, 2017.
My name is Corey Alston. I’m a Gullah Sweetgrass Basket Weaver of Charleston SC. I work in the City Market. I understanding the history of enslaved Africans and what they went through. I tell the history of enslaved Africans and their contributions to America. With all of that said and done there is no comparison to my new outlook on the time of enslavement.
The Slave Dwelling Project gives an opportunity of sleeping in a slave quarter……Wow….. The realistic humbling experience of that night….Wow….This was such an eye-opener and experience that I would recommend to each and every one of all colors, creeds and ethnicities. The powerful movement that the Slave Dwelling Project is giving to those is something that should not be overlooked or taken lightly.
To have the opportunity of staying in a slave dwelling on the floor like a slave who sometimes had no choice with no bed, no electricity, no water…..SMH. To take yourself out of the mindset of comfort is something that I would highly recommend. I can’t speak for the other cabins that were occupied, but for the cabin that I was in we sat, and sat for hours, on hours talking about different perspectives of what they may have gone through as enslaved people. What their families may have endured is such a moving experience that made everyone humble and realize how blessed we are today. It made us feel how sad it was for them yesterday…..SMH.
That next morning was awesome as well. We had an open fire breakfast prepared for us in cast iron skillets. Once again something else that most of us had never done. I give this overall experience a 5-star rating. I want to thank Joe McGill and the people of The Slave Dwelling Project for creating this opportunity for many people to experience, thanks Joe.
PS. I will be doing this again in October this time I’m bringing my daughters, and more friends that I know would get something out of this experience.
Sleep and Illumination
By Sharon Clemmons Thomas
My first experience with The Slave Dwelling Project was at Hampton Plantation in February 2017. We arrived after dark, and I remember stumbling my way across 20 or so yards of bumpy grass, a flashlight my only source of light on what was a very cold, dark night, then up a flight of stairs and across an expansive front porch to enter “the big house” where my husband and I would sleep on the ballroom floor with the Living Historians.
I discovered The Slave Dwelling Project through the Founding Director, Joseph McGill, who spoke at TEDx Charleston about the slave dwellings he has slept in across the years and his passion for bringing awareness and preservation to these sometimes decaying historical sites so that the stories that began in them can continue to serve as our teachers. I learned that day that I barely knew what I didn’t know regarding my own beloved Charleston’s history, and so I was grateful for the opportunity to learn still more from the Living Historians who soon arrived, emptying their cars and choosing their own spaces in our sleep quarters before joining us around a camp fire kindly built by the Hampton Plantation Park Ranger.
Later, as I lay with my companions on cold, hard floors, our bodies crisscrossed like a patchwork quilt across our sleeping space, I marveled how time often uncovers hurt and heals simultaneously. There in that room, where the enslaved once served as their owners danced and feasted on the fruits of their labor, we slept alongside their children’s grandchildren, equal and without service to one another beyond basic human kindness. I wondered what our ancestors thought. Where they astonished? Grateful? Angry? Happy?
This week, I rejoined my colleagues at Magnolia Gardens Plantation and slept in one of three slave cabins with a much larger, more diverse group, and I could see that the stories of Joseph McGill’s work are catching on. Some came in search of healing, acknowledging the emotional toll it takes to lie down where their ancestors lay, often wounded and certainly exhausted from their labors. Others like me came in search of understanding and with a spirit of acknowledgement. I won’t say I was always comfortable, neither physically nor emotionally, but as I allowed myself to slow down, to sleep on cold, hard floors, to help the Living Historians carve vegetables for stew, to watch a fire continually tended for warmth and cooking, and to listen to the stories of the enslaved from generations behind me and still other stories of injustices that persist even to this day, my heart and my understanding expanded.
In the South, racism is always just beneath the surface like a slow boil and one never knows when it might bubble over in a conversation that accidentally wanders into differences or through an insensitive remark thrown into a conversation in which one thinks their thoughts are safe among other like-minded family or friends or even acquaintances. Once, I was at the recycle station in our small community, and the white attendant made an offensive comment to me. I remember being astonished at the level of hate in his words and being caught off guard, not knowing how to respond. Even now, I feel a little ashamed that I wasn’t more of an advocate for truth and compassion in that moment.
But I am learning, and I believe in the work of The Slave Dwelling Project to bring forth the whole story of a period in our history when owning another human being was considered not only appropriate but even a luxury. I believe in the work of The Slave Dwelling Project to teach by example, to invite questions, and to respectfully dialogue over sometimes challenging differences in our historical perspectives. Each time I join The Living Historians, I gain more knowledge, and as I gain more knowledge, I become braver and more willing to gently confront misconceptions or even challenge outright offenses.
Nicole A. Moore, MA, CIG
Historic Consultant – Public Historian – Blogger – Historic Interpreter
Interpreting Slave Life
“I’ve been a part of Inalienable Rights for a while now, as a cook. I enjoy interpreting the lives of those who crafted meals not just for the enslaved but for the one doing the enslaving. This time around at Magnolia was no different. I arrived about an hour before the event started and immediately got to work asking Jerome what needed to be prepped. Cooking is a passion of mine and no matter if I am in 2017 or 1827, I’m going to want to be surrounded by food, and making something that will be enjoyed for many.
So this time when a visitor asked me how I felt about doing the work and interpreting this moment in history, I gave my standard answer. I really do love it, and I love connecting visitors to food through the lives of the enslaved. Then he asked how I thought the enslaved would feel about us interpreting their life, and I had to pause for a minute. He went on to say that there are probably some of the enslaved who wouldn’t appreciate the work that we’re doing, telling their life story in this way. It struck a nerve in me, and not in a negative way. We only think of the work in terms of it honoring those who lived through the atrocities of slavery, but I never thought about those who might not want us to explore it, who wouldn’t want us to relive some of the moments that they were forced to live through. We hear those same sentiments today from those who’d rather we NOT dress the way we do and talk about slavery. And I get it, I do. You can’t and won’t please everybody. But what I found is that, this work requires an open mind, an objective attitude, and the willingness to be uncomfortable. It requires thinking long and hard about the answers you give to the public. It makes you question, if the ancestors appreciate what we’ve been doing and what we will continue to do.
And you know what? It’s alright. It’s alright to have those moments and think about the reactions that our ancestors might have to our work. It shouldn’t stop what we’re doing, as we bring awareness to not only the struggles in their lives, but in those few moments they found joy. It won’t stop me from bringing people of today closer to understanding and finding a richer value in the experiences of the enslaved. These experiences shaped our country–for better or worse–and they continue to shape how we talk about history, how we treat others and how we look at the voices who have long been silenced. So…do I believe that the ancestors are pleased with our work? Do I think they would appreciate the way we navigate our outdoor kitchens, showing the skills that they had to master in order to survive and insuring that the public understands various aspects of their lives? I think so. And I’ll keep thinking that each time until I can no longer carry on this work.”