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Former Slave Cabins as a Niche Market
9/4/2013 12:44:14 PM

Lisa Randle

By Lisa B. Randle

Hollywood has a way of stirring us to examine history. Despite criticisms of Blaxploitation, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, set in 1858 Deep South Antebellum Texas, renewed interest in the institution of slavery. Putting aside the violence of the movie, Django has increased visitation to historic plantations and aroused interest in authentic plantation architecture.

Just this year, The New York Times featured two articles on slave cabin restoration. The owner of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana is moving cabins to his property to "startled visitors with unexpected sights and sequences." Recently, the Smithsonian dismantled a cabin at the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island for its new African-American history museum.

I commend these two institutions for recognizing the importance of slave cabins in African-American and American history. However, many historic sites in Charleston, as well as other cities, have extant cabins that visitors can experience in their original locations.

The slave cabin is replacing the plantation house as a focus of attention. This seems to be the next niche market for historic sites, whether the cabins are authentic or not.

However, slave cabins are not static but rather dynamic. People were born, lived, and died in them. They provide opportunities for reading the American landscape - the landscape of a particular people, in a particular place, at a particular time.

For three years, Joe McGill's Slave Dwelling Project has been drawing attention to the need to preserve these structures. McGill spends the night in extant cabins - restored and not restored - with descendants, both black and white, in order to raise the awareness of the importance of these structures for American history.

Earlier this year, in anticipation of the Smithsonian's acquisition of the Edisto Island cabin, Tony Horwitz, a writer for the Smithsonian, spent the night with McGill in a cabin in Georgia and visited Magnolia Plantation and Garden's "From Slavery to Freedom" Cabin Project. By the way, the Smithsonian's exhibit is called "Slavery and Freedom."

The day Tony and I met was a typical Charleston summer day. It was hot and humid. The mosquitoes were flying around our ears. Tony was on his way back to Washington to write about his stay with McGill. He was unprepared for what I had to show him. We have what the Smithsonian wants to recreate. It's right here!

Not only do we have a slave cabin but we have four cabins, each representing a different period in occupation: 1850 - slavery, 1870 - Reconstruction, 1930 - Depression, and 1960s - Civil Rights era.

Before restoration began, all five building were in danger of collapse due to rot, exposure and termite infestation. Each cabin was, therefore, carefully evaluated in order to determine an appropriate conservation strategy. Two years of research and archaeology preceded the actual construction work on the structures, which began in January 2008. Renovation work and landscaping was completed in February 2009.

We not only want to recognize and preserve the structures, but also the people who lived in these structures.

The last African-American person to live in the 1850 cabin was gardener Eddie Washington. He lived here, first with his wife, then later as widower, until he moved out in the late 1960s.

The last known inhabitant of the 1930-era cabin was African-American gardener John Frederick, who moved out sometime in the 1960s.

African-American groundskeeper and gardener Leroy Haynes was the last person to live in the 1870s Reconstruction-era cabin. This was his home when Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston in 1989, and he weathered the storm there at Magnolia. Mr. Haynes moved out in the early 1990s. The last person to inhabit in this cabin was African-American groundskeeper Allen Haynes before the cabin was finally abandoned in 1999. I am currently working with the Haynes family to reconstruct their family history and incorporate them into the interpretation.

After the Leach family moved out of the 1960-era cabin in late 1969, Catherine and Daniel Smith moved in with their four children. Various members of the Smith family lived in the structure until the early 1990s, when the cabin was finally abandoned. Three generations of the Leach family still work at Magnolia.

I want to expand the African-American history at Magnolia beyond the confines of a structure. This project was borne from a desire to tell more fully the story of African Americans at Magnolia and to honor their lives through continued dedication to research and interpretation. I am interested in locating former African-American residents and workers to include in our documentation.

Lisa Randle is the director of education and research at Magnolia Plantation and Garden.

Visitor Comments

Submitted By: Lakencia Greene Submitted: 9/5/2013
Great article Lisa! The Haynes family thanks you. We think your research efforts and interpretation are wonderful! We are extremely grateful!

Submitted By: John El-Amin Submitted: 9/8/2013
Ms. Randle- thank you for the information ! I have only visited Magnolia once but will definitely visit again and again. Your objective to honor the lives of many of our ancestors is truly noteworthy. I wish you the best and hope to meet you someday soon. Thank you.

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