Slave Cabin Project Unites Living History with Preservation

Posted on: May 18th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 4 Comments

Written by Joseph McGill, Jr.

Joe McGill prepares to spend the night in a slave cabin at Magnolia Plantation.

Joe McGill prepares to spend the night in a slave cabin at Magnolia Plantation.

As a Civil War re-enactor, I am accustomed to immersing myself in the history I interpret, as a program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation I am already committed to preserving the built environment, and I have always been interested in African American history. I realized I could combine all three elements, and – more importantly – assist in bringing attention to an aspect of American history that is often overlooked by spending a night in slave cabins throughout the state of South Carolina.

For various reasons, my idea of spending a night in a slave cabin was not very appealing to most people with whom I came in contact. I was often confronted with reasons why I should not take on such a project. Despite the nay-sayers, I was determined, and the project was initiated at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC on Saturday, May 8. Four original slave cabins and one turn-of-the-century cabin were recently restored at Magnolia.

Upon arrival, I discovered that Magnolia staff had a roaring fire going in the fireplace – very welcoming. The day prior, the local newspaper ran an article about my slave cabin project, which set the stage for two local television stations to come out for interviews at the site.

Once the Magnolia staff and the media were gone, darkness quickly descended upon the plantation. This moment was now the real test of my resolve to spend the night alone in a slave cabin. After bedding down, I got up at least five times to check out unexplained noises. I had to convince myself that the sounds I heard were those of nature: wind, tree limbs brushing against the roof of the cabin, acorns hitting the roof, etc.

Joe McGill outside the slave cabin as darkness begins to fall.

Joe McGill outside the slave cabin as darkness begins to fall.

When I woke up the next morning it was Mother’s Day. I could only think about all the mothers who once occupied those cabins, mothers with children who had the potential to be sold as property. I decided to go on a nature walk, something I did not dare go on the evening prior because Magnolia staff reminded me of the alligators that inhabited the plantation. During my walk, I came upon the plantation cemetery, which provided a great time to reflect and reminded me of why I’ve taken on this project.

The interest in this project has increased dramatically. Prior to my stay at Magnolia, I had already identified and received verbal permission to stay in four additional slave cabins throughout the state. Because of the media attention, additional cabins have been identified in South Carolina. I have also received inquiries from the states of Georgia and Alabama.

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Joseph McGill, Jr. is a program officer at the Southern Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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4 Responses

  1. Daniel G. Clark

    May 18, 2010

    Joseph, your project can serve as inspiration for many more living-history projects during the Civil War sesquicentennial period. I see important roles re-enactors for so much more than encampments and battles!

    Our city commission is helping with the process of nominating as a National Historic Landmark the home of Iowa’s leading black equal-rights activist of the 19th century. We are also involved in rebuilding our 135-year-old county Civil War memorial which includes the names of men who served in the 1st Iowa Volunteers of African Descent (later 60th
    Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops).

    Dan Clark
    Chair, Muscatine Historic Preservation Commission
    Muscatine, Iowa

  2. Naomi Andrade Smith

    May 19, 2010

    What an incredible thing you have done! I think we have all wondered what it would have been like. You are courageous. Thank you.

  3. Marlene Lemon

    May 19, 2010

    Joe,
    I know how much you love what you do. I am also happy to share in a small a part of what you do on a daily basis. The education of the people in South Carolina and throughout the United States is your paramount goal. You are not bias in your discoveries nor in your interpretation of the history.
    I salute you!

  4. Momma Lis

    May 19, 2010

    WOW! What a great project!! I have always wanted to do the same. I grew up in Charleston (just up the road from Magnolia Plantation!) and have recently had the honor of babysitting a private estate with a few structures left. I love going in them and pondering/feeling the souls that made them home. I love seeing and feeling the wear marks on the steps and other marks left by the people who lived in them. There’s nothing quite like being in an old structure by yourself in silence. Some people seem to think small simple structures should be left to nature, but they were homes, too, regardless of history. People are people and history is history – every bit and piece is important and must be preserved. Without a complete picture, where will our American History be in the future?
    I hope you enjoy your living history project!! PS- the biggest gator I have ever seen was in the river at Magnolia- as big as a boat!!! It’s also the only place I’ve ever actually seen wild boars- BIG ones.- good plan on staying inside at night. What amazing soul these old properties have! …and I think the myriad souls of the people that worked on them are most certainly present and have the most interesting stories to tell. What an amazing opportunity to get to try to experience a piece of what it could have been like. Bravo!