Slave Cabin Overnights Continue to Enlighten

Posted on: June 25th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments

Written by Joseph McGill, Jr.

The slave quarter accommodations at the Heyward House.

The slave quarter accommodations at the Heyward House.

The second installment of my slave cabin project was conducted on Tuesday, May 25, 2010. On this night I stayed in the slave quarters at the Heyward House in Bluffton, SC. This recently-restored slave cabin is believed to have housed the slaves that built the original Heyward House in the 1840s.

My day started with leading a group of 7th graders on a tour to Morris Island, SC to interpret the assault on Battery Wagner. This was the battle portrayed in the award winning movie Glory. Impending bad weather dictated that we spend less time on the island and more time on the boat. After pushing the attention span of 7th graders to the limit, I decided to use them as a test audience for the story of my slave cabin experience. They were quite interested in hearing about my experience at Magnolia Plantation. I was getting a barrage of questions about the experience until dolphins broke the surface of the water. My experience has taught me that no matter how compelling the story no one can compete with dolphins.

Joe McGill poses outside the slave cabin at Heyward House.

Joe McGill poses outside the slave cabin at Heyward House.

Unlike Magnolia Plantation, I did not have any prior knowledge of the Heyward House site, so I intended to get there well before dark. My ride there included a telephone interview with the local newspaper. The reporter informed me that a photographer would meet me at the site.

Occasionally I get hints that maybe this slave cabin project is not a good idea. Once such hint came when I took the exit off of I-95 South and was following a pickup truck with no bed, a sizable confederate flag pasted to the back window on the passenger side and the term "red neck" on the back window of the driver’s side.

Once at the site, I met the photographer and the staff of the Heyward House. Some of the Heyward House board members came by to welcome me to the site. Unlike Magnolia Plantation, the Heyward House - currently used as a museum and welcome center - is in an urban setting. Before leaving, the Heyward House staff informed me of bad storm that occurred on the night before and that I might get a visit from an owl.

Students join Joe McGill at the Heyward House in Bluffton, SC.

Students join Joe McGill at the Heyward House in Bluffton, SC.

Shortly after the staff left, I got a visit from James L. Gilliard, an African American resident of Bluffton. He stated that he heard about the project and wanted to meet me. We talked as if we had known each other for life.

Falling asleep was much less of a challenge than it was at Magnolia Plantation. The only noises were those of vehicles on the highway but those eventually subsided. When I woke up the next morning and lit my candle, however, I noticed some of the creepy crawlies that shared the experience with me (spiders, ants, and other multi-legged creatures).

That morning I got to share the experience with a visiting class of 3rd graders. The rest of the day included visiting sites in and around Bluffton pertinent to African American history.

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

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3 Responses

  1. Larry Cebula

    June 25, 2010

    Joseph, it is great and courageous that you are doing this. What jumps out a me, however, is that those cabins look awfully cozy, too cozy. How representative are they really of slave cabins? Is there a tendency at historic sites in the south to over build or over furnish rebuilt or restored slave quarters to minimize the horrors of slavery? I have no idea, it is not my field by a longshot. I think your project needs to explore these questions.

  2. Elizabeth Ann Brown

    June 30, 2010

    It may be true that slave houses are prettified, but I suspect the whole plantation complex paints a more rosy picture than was the truth. Joseph, this is a cool idea, and I have a location to suggest to you nearby here. Maybe you can spend the night there when you come for the annual meeting in the fall. Elizabeth

  3. Joseph McGill

    July 2, 2010

    Elizabeth, be careful what you ask for. I am going to take you up on that invitation to stay in a slave cabin in Alabama. This would be my first out of state stay so “make it so”.