The National Trust for Historic Preservation
Many countries interpret their histories through the buildings that they choose to restore and maintain. The United States, although relatively young, does the same. Many of the architecturally significant historic buildings still on the American landscape are testaments of a nation with a proud history. Some of these buildings at some point through their history may have been threatened with demolition for various reasons. They still exist because someone or some group did what was necessary to save them. By accident or design, in our attempts to save those architecturally significant buildings we have managed to ignore those buildings that represent a scourge on American history. Those are the dwellings that housed many generations of enslaved people in northern and southern states.
Since May 2010, I have been conducting the Slave Dwelling Project. The concept is simple, locate extant former slave dwellings and ask the owners to spend a night in them. Thirty-eight stays in dwellings located in the states of Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have proven successful in bringing much needed attention to these often neglected dwellings. The stewards of these dwellings include private owners, non and for profit organizations and one college to date.
Initially, I would stay in these places alone but now I offer the opportunity for others to share the experience with me. My most recent stay was at Hopsewee Plantation located on the North Santee River in Georgetown County, SC. Although many, from descendants of slaves to descendants of slave owners, had shared this opportunity to spend the night with me in a slave dwelling before, this stay would be different. Seven young African American males ages 14 – 16 were chosen for this stay.
Upon entering the cabin to prepare my spot for sleeping, I was not surprised that all seven young men chose the same side of the cabin. I could not let them just drift off to sleep without first talking advantage of this teachable moment. I wanted to give them more details about what our ancestors endured for us to have the liberties that we enjoy today. I asked fellow Civil War reenactors Terry James who would be sleeping in a slave cabin for the 12th time and Ramona La Roche who would be staying for the first time to join me in communicating with the young men. My role in this teachable moment was minimized when Terry James led the discussion drawing on his experience of currently raising two teen age boys and his experience of sleeping in 11 cabins to date. When prompted by Ramona, I only had to chime in to keep the conversation in an historical context. This involved telling the group about the movement westward of this young nation and how slavery factored into that movement.
As if planned, our teachable moment was pleasantly interrupted by owners Frank and Raejean Beattie, Raejean came to the side where Ramona, Terry and I were with the seven young men. I queried Raejean as if the information that she was about to give me, I would be hearing for the first time. She stated that she tries to avoid giving guided tours of the house because it usually becomes a tour about them and not the property and its past inhabitants. She leaves the job of the house tours to the hired staff. As she explained the history of Hopsewee, I could not help but to latch on to what she said about its connection to the invention of the water and steamed powered rice mill. John Hume Lucas who owned the plantation from 1844 – 1853 was a successful rice grower and engineer and a relative of Jonathan Lucas, Jr. and Jonathan Lucas Sr. Both Lucas’ Jr. and Sr. were responsible for inventing, building and perfecting rice mills. I could not help but to interrupt her presentation to make connection to Eli Whitney and his invention of the cotton gin. Both inventions increased the need for more slaves.
When Raejean and Frank left we became more grateful that the fireplaces in the cabin worked. In anticipation of a cold night, Raejean and Frank provided enough fire wood to last throughout the night. All of the young men were required to write essays about their sleeping experience in a slave cabin. The content of those essays made me wonder what took me so long to figure out that these historic buildings, great stewards and the Slave Dwelling Project can provide great hands on learning opportunities for our youth.
- Today the National Trust and the International National Trusts Organisation are hosting a world wide ‘blogathon’ for World Heritage Day. For more information on World Heritage Day 2013, please go to website: www.icomos.org