Written by Joseph McGill, Jr.
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.
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.
- Project seeks to save slave cabins (The Post and Courier, Charleston)
- Man Spends Night In Slave Cabin (WCIV, Charleston)
Joseph McGill, Jr. is a program officer at the Southern Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.