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Yes! Wisconsin had slaves and Chris Lese a high school history teacher at Marquette University High School is conducting the research to prove it. If someone would have asked me that question four years ago prior to me starting the Slave Dwelling Project, I would have immediately answered no.
I met Chris last year at a conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We both served on various panels that examined the interpretation of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War with a focus on the African American story. He may have presented the idea of bringing a school group to visit some sites in the Charleston area to me at that time but I do not recall. I often talk to people with similar ideas but somewhere along the approval process it gets nixed……but not this one! I have learned that Chris is quite determined and that might be that ultimate reason why we get along so well.
The plan was ambitious. Meet the group at Kathwood Plantation in Jackson, SC to clean up a freedman’s cottage. Spend the night in the Old Charleston Jail; visit Morris Island; visit Fort Sumter; spend the night at Hopsewee Plantation; visit Hampton Plantation; visit Charles Pinckney National Historic Site; visit Hampton Park and spend the night at Magnolia Plantation.
I knew long before I met Chris and the group at Kathwood Plantation in Jackson, SC that the building on the plantation was not a former slave dwelling. The current owner Rebekah Farber contacted me after seeing a story about the project in a local Charleston, SC magazine. In a visit to the site, Rebekah and I both concluded that the building was a freedman’s cottage. We also agreed that any future stays would be an opportunity to interpret reconstruction history and the fact that after emancipation, many African Americans stayed on the plantations for various reasons.
An interesting twist to Kathwood is that it borders Redcliffe Plantation which is owned by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and the first site to say no to me spending a night on their property. It is my hope that having unlimited access to Kathwood Plantation for educational purposes can help convince Redcliffe Plantation that I mean them no harm and that I come in peace.
Unfortunately, Rebekah could not join us on the property on the day of the cleanup but the grounds keeper was there to give us access. The cleanup of the cottage occurred without incident and finished quicker than we all expected. This allowed us enough time to make a stop for pizza on our drive to Charleston, SC. I only regret that I did not have the forethought to arrange to connect with Rebekah by phone while the group was on the property.
The Old Charleston Jail
The first sleepover with the group would occur at the Old Charleston Jail. This site was chosen because during the Civil War, African Americans members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry were held as prisoners there. This stay would be my third night in the jail.
Before reaching the jail, we had a stopover at the Charleston County Library for a lecture by me on the Slave Dwelling Project and by Chris Lese on Slavery in Wisconsin. We then proceeded to the world famous Gullah Cuisine Restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, SC for dinner.
At the jail, I joined fellow Civil War reenactors for a session of living history and storytelling. We wanted to give the group some real history of the site and how it related to African Americans before the ghost tours started. Members of the Marquette University High School group were allowed to tag along on the ghost tours. It was my hope that none of the students would get so spooked on the tour that they would be afraid to sleep in the jail as I recall, that did happen to a young Civil War reenactor the first night we stayed there.
One of the chaperons with the group was frightened, not of ghosts, but of bugs, so frightened that she decided to sleep on a table. One sudden move one way or the other would have landed her on the floor. Everyone slept in the jail without incident despite the reports of snoring which I did not hear.
The second stay with the group would occur at Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown County, SC. This would set a record for the Slave Dwelling Project because it would be my fourth stay there.
That morning started with a trip to Morris Island. The group was interested in visiting the site of the Civil War battle, Assault on Battery Wagner. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry participated in the battle which was portrayed in the award winning movie Glory.
Also included in this day’s activities was a trip to Fort Sumter, the site where the Civil War started. Visiting Fort Sumter brought back memories for me for I was once a park ranger there.
When we arrived at Hopsewee Plantation both staff and I were in for a rude awakening. I had given them the correct day but wrong date, therefore they were expecting the group the following day. Disaster was averted as Hopsewee’s staff managed to muster a meal for the entire group.
I knew that trying to squeeze twenty three people into the two cabins at Hopsewee was going to be a challenge so it was a no brainer that we pitched a few tents to handle the excess. Inside the cabin, I was quickly reminded of the one thing that I disliked about this site. Although buffered by trees, the noise of the vehicles going across the bridge that spans the North Santee River is very apparent.
Before we retreated to our cabins and tents, Chris had all of the young men reflect on the importance of the trip thus far. A powerful session of reflecting was happening when I had to disengage to participate in a call into blog talk radio show. Chris and one of the students eventually joined me.
We were all fed a hearty breakfast before we broke camp and headed to Hampton Plantation.
My last night with the group would be spent at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC, the place of my current employment.
When we left Hopsewee Plantation, we proceeded directly to Hampton Plantation. Located on the South Santee River in Charleston County, it is a former rice plantation and is located within ten minutes of Hopsewee. The plantation is under the ownership of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Despite them not having any extant slave dwellings we have verbally agreed that I will be spending a night there under the stars in 2015. They are currently conducting extensive archeological work uncovering the evidence of the enslaved population that lived there.
We also visited the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site. It was quite appropriate for the group to visit the home of one of our founding fathers and signer of the constitution. We also had a powerful session as we sat on the back porch of the mansion and examined the hypocrisy of a plantation owning slave holder signing the document that is the supreme law of the United States of America.
We then proceeded to Hampton Park in Charleston. There we visited the site of the first Memorial Day held in the United States by African Americans honoring Union soldiers, the end of the Civil War and slavery. There we also visited a recent statue unveiled to honor Denmark Vessey, a former slave who became a carpenter and organized a slave revolt that almost occurred in Charleston.
Leaving Hampton Park, the group made a run to Walmart while I proceeded to Magnolia Plantation. The rain had me worried that the cooking that was to be done outside over an open fire might be a challenge to make happen. When I got to Magnolia Plantation, I discovered that my coworker Heather Welch had prepared the meal of beef stew, peas and stewed apples inside one of the slave cabins. When the group arrived, they were privileged to be welcomed by Tom Johnson, Executive Director and Mary Ann Johnson, Manager of Operations. Mary Ann would spend the night with us in one of the cabins. The group also got a bonus when they met Isaac Leach who was raised in one of the cabins.
After the meal and a presentation by me, Isaac addressed the group about his experience in being raised in one of the slave cabins. Before viewing the cemetery, I gave the group the opportunity to view the slave cabins and select a place to sleep before darkness descended upon us. All four cabins were occupied.
The Power of Place
A freedman’s cottage, an old jail, and slave cabins are tangible resources that convinced a history teacher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin that he could come with his students to the state of South Carolina to compare and contrast the slavery that went on in both states. The stewards of all of these places should be commended for making the sites available for such an educational opportunity. In this world of virtual reality and limited resources, it is easy to become complacent with doing all of the teaching in class rooms. Experiencing sites the way that Marquette University High School did is rare but possible. It takes creative minds and willing property owners to make it happen. I am certain that this experience has molded some young minds in positive ways and they will become Ambassadors for these structures and when we save the structures, we save the stories of the people who built and lived in them.
Please read the following blogs to get the input from Chris Lese and the students.