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History by night

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

In the tiny cabin Joseph McGill Jr. passed Saturday night in, there were few comforts.

A candle provided the only light, small, screenless windows did little to alleviate the oppressive heat of a Southern summer, and the floor he spread his sleeping bag on was bare and deteriorating, with gaping holes along perimeter. Spiders and cockroaches were almost a certainty and snakes were a real possibility.

But none of that deterred McGill, 48, a program officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Charleston office.

He’s on a mission, and his overnight stay at Friendfield Village, a former slave community at Hobcaw Barony, was part of it.

Since May, McGill has been traveling the state, sleeping in slave cabins in an effort to generate interest in the historic structures and motivate people to take steps to preserve them as an important part of history.

“There’s an ill intent out there to get rid of these structures because of what they represented,” said McGill, who is black. “I don’t think that’s right. The plantation houses are being saved and that history is being preserved, but the plantation house, that’s not the whole story. Why is the rest of the story not there?”

The people who worked on those planations and lived in those rough cabins deserve to be remembered, he said.

The cabin at Hobcaw was the fifth McGill has stayed in since he started this project. He wants to spend the night in at least 20 cabins and is looking to line up more stays for late summer and the fall.

McGill was the first person in more than half a century to spend the night in Friendfield Village. The cabin he stayed in is one of three on the property that were built around 1840 and occupied until the 1950s, said George Chastain, executive director of the Belle W. Baruch Foundation, which owns and manages Hobcaw, now a wildlife refuge and research reserve.

Chastain said Hobcaw was happy to welcome McGill and fully supports his mission.

“Anything we can do to promote the importance of these structures and to maintain them, I think it’s good,” he said.

Hobcaw has made efforts to maintain and stabilize the cabins on its property.

Over the years, most of the cabins at Friendfield Village were enlarged, but the two-room building McGill stayed in is very nearly as it was 170 years ago. The main room has a fireplace on one wall, and a rough, wooden table set before it. The second room is barely big enough for the bed it holds.

The cabin was similar to others McGill has stayed in, but he said it was set apart by the fact that it is part of a village.

“This tells more of the story” than a place with the sole purpose of housing slaves, he said.

There are remnants of four slave villages at Hobcaw, and Friendfield is the most complete, Chastain said. While only a handful of buildings remain in the village, it once had 14 cabins, plus a small church and doctor’s office.

McGill wandered the village before sunset, examining the contents of each building, from the plain wooden pews in the chapel to a collection of bottles and other items in the doctor’s office.

“This shows that, yeah, these folks were property, but they had to be cared for,” he said from the steps of the doctor’s office.

A Civil War re-enactor, McGill wore a replica of the uniform worn by soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the all-black troop portrayed in the movie “Glory,” as he explored the village. He said he wore the uniform because the slave cabins are a reminder of what those soldiers were fighting for.

McGill’s idea to sleep in slave cabins in hopes of aiding preservation efforts originated about 10 years ago when he took part in a History Channel documentary that focused on the dispute over flying the Confederate flag over the statehouse. He mentioned the idea and ended up scheduling his first overnight stay at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant.

He always intended to pick the project up again and finally did this May.

“I decided I’d been talking about it long enough,” he said.

His first stay was at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston over Mother’s Day weekend. Waking up that Sunday morning, he said he thought a lot about families.

“I thought about those who occupied that cabin and their inability to control their families,” he said. “They went through life knowing their family members could be sold and taken away from them at any time.”

McGill also slept in cabins at Heyward House in Bluffton, McLeod Plantation on James Island and Goodwill Plantation on the Wateree River.

His stay at Goodwill was interesting, he said, because it was his first one at a privately-owned plantation. He was impressed, he said, with the efforts the owner had made to restore the cabins, and the amount of research that went into ensuring the job was done right.

Two fellow re-enactors stayed with him at McLeod Plantation and McGill said they had an interesting night of conversation thanks to the history of the property. It was used as a hospital for soldiers during the Civil War and after the war became that district’s Freedman’s Bureau.

When he’s in the cabins, McGill said he’s always very aware of the past and the lives that were lived there.

But he doesn’t believe in ghosts.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “If I believed in ghosts, I couldn’t do this.”

McGill’s next cabin stay is next month in Anderson, and he’s trying to arrange a stay in a cabin at Mansfield Plantation in Georgetown, where he suspects some of his own ancestors may have lived.

He hopes to expand the program across state lines in October, staying at two plantations near Montgomery, Ala., while in the area on business. Those details are in the works.

Learn more about the project at blogs.nationaltrust.org/preservationnation.

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