by Julie Gyselinck
A slave cabin was constructed down a long dirt road on Edisto Island, one of twenty, from accounts, lined up in a row. Simple in design and created from rough materials, it sat perched upon its wooden-and-brick foundation for almost 200 years. Its little porch was just large enough to sit on with one’s feet dangling toward the earth, and windows with only shutters kept out the elements, providing shelter from rain and wind, but little else. This little home that held such agony and harbored the torment of its enslaved inhabitants stood steadfast as the other cabins rotted and crumbled around it. Some of its neighbors were dismantled, to be used elsewhere; others fell during storms. It was the only one left, as if it has absorbed its strength and ability to endure from within. Alone it stood, in a stretch of pine trees that had taken over what would have once been the yards and gardens of the occupants. Here it transformed from slave cabin to an actual home and stayed occupied until the 1980s; some of its past residents still live on Edisto Island today. Eventually the family grew up and moved away or passed on, and it stood empty. The plantation, no longer a profitable farm, became a vacation home and hunting grounds. The owner and caretaker were the only ones to pass by on a regular basis.
In 2010 the owner of the Point of Pines Plantation gifted the cabin to the Edisto Island Historical Preservation Society. The goal was to move the cabin to the Edisto Island Museum and restore it as a permanent exhibition. It quickly became apparent that the cost to restore and move the cabin was too expensive for the little museum. The Smithsonian curators for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which was under construction and scheduled to open September 2016, quickly came to the rescue. On May 13, 2013, historians, curators and skilled carpenters arrived on Edisto to begin dismantling and documenting each piece of the cabin. Every single beam and board was carefully taken apart, numbered and packed away. The restoration process would be an immense and lengthy undertaking. The cabin would be rebuilt at a workshop in Washington D.C., plans for its restoration would be drawn, and then it would be wrapped and fumigated for bugs. Once the little house was deemed free and clear of wood-destroying insects and organisms, it would be dismantled again. The next time it would be reassembled would be in its new home, as the crowning feature of the NHAAMC.
Now that I have the attention of the public by sleeping in extant slave dwellings, it is time to wake up and deliver the message that the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history.
– Joseph McGill, Founder of the Slave Dwelling Project
Opened on September 24, 2016, The NMAAHC encompasses 400,000 square feet and showcases almost 37,000 artifacts and documents. The grand opening was widely celebrated with tens of thousands of people in attendance. News media covered the opening for those unable to get tickets or travel the distance. One of those people was historian Joseph McGill with The Slave Dwelling Project, based in Ladson, South Carolina. Joseph McGill has been a key figure in helping owners and government agencies identify and preserve extant slave dwellings and their history. Once a property is identified as a former-slave dwelling or location, Joseph organizes an educational evening, inviting the public in to stay the night and see that there is far more to the history of the enslaved than is taught in schoolbooks.
On the eve of the grand opening for the NMAAHC, the owner of the Point of Pines Planation gave Explore Edisto and Joseph McGill permission to spend the night and explore the site of the slave cabin. Camp was set up in a clearing on a low bluff overlooking the wide expanse of the North Edisto River. Here we saw the faint remains of what was once a bustling part of the plantation. At low tide, peeking out of the reeds and pluff mud were the wooden remains of what we were told was a large deep-set wooden box used to hold live fish and seafood. It was the job of two slaves to work the waterways, continuously fishing and harvesting from the river to feed the plantation’s inhabitants. Their catch would be brought back and placed in the holding tank, which was filtered by the rising tides, then easily retrieved at meal times. This type of ingenuity and skill among the enslaved was not uncommon, despite their status as personal property. Millions of untold stories offer a broad and enlightening look at the people who carried the weight of a country’s success but reaped no reward. These are the stories that the NMAAHC and historians like Joseph McGill are bringing to the public and slave descendants.
Around the campfire dug into the sandy beach, with the black sky revealing a cosmic glitter above us, Joseph McGill spoke about his Slave Dwelling Project and the difficulties he first encountered from the public and even many fellow African Americans. Why would he want to explore such a horrible and shameful past? While the actions of slave owners were atrocious, we cannot forget the resilience and strength of the enslaved and their descendants who overcame. These were not just field hands, though most agree that the majority were, but a population of millions with highly sought after skills and abilities. Historic details, though rarely taught, show that most of the large plantations were fully self-sufficient. Anything needed would be created on the property by a highly trained and skilled slave. Their knowledge in artisan works would have been broad and varied from region to region, and would have included jobs as blacksmiths, chefs, engineers, seamstresses, weavers, master carpenters, huntsmen and harness makers. These people’s hands built our past and their memory deserves our respect and acknowledgment.
Tickets to the spectacular new NMAAHC museum are sold out months in advance, and hundreds of thousands of visitors have passed through its doors already. Along with the perseverance of historians like Joseph Mc Gill, a new light has been shone on an emotional part of our history and culture. History that affected and molded the future of this land for everyone, no matter their skin tone, or the year they immigrated or arrived in America. Each of us must understand the impact our past has had on those around us. Without the full story of all of our people in our history books, we live a half truth and can never be whole.