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Return to the village: House on a former slave street holds memories as childhood home

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Robert McClary looked as comfortable on the street in front of his former home at Friendfield Village last week as he had been as a 7-year-old boy.

McClary, 85, moved to Hobcaw Barony from Kingstree in 1937 when his father got a job as a plowboy in the fields planted to attract waterfowl for owner Bernard Baruch and his guests. The McClarys moved into a house on the Friendfield slave street. A room had been added to the back of the original cabin, but it was still a tight squeeze. “I slept on the floor behind the stove,” he said.

Lee Brockington, senior interpreter at Hobcaw, told guests who gathered in the village Thursday night that a former resident Joshua Shubrick had died this month at age 82. He left Friendfield Village to serve in Korea with the U.S. Army and settled in Washington, D.C. He and his wife, Alice, moved back to Georgetown County 11 years ago. “His minister said his return to Hobcaw was redemptive,” Brockington said.

McClary expressed no ill feelings about Hobcaw. He said he found his new home at Friendfield Village “a great place to be.” His parents were glad to have regular employment and a place to live during the Depression. They moved in beside the descendants of slaves who had lived at Friendfield for generations. “Mr. Baruch allowed them to remain,” McClary said. “He didn’t charge them rent, but he didn’t do anything to improve the property either because he said he was giving them free lodging. He didn’t see the need to do it. The people were happy to be here. They had no place else to go.”

His house had no electricity, no running water, no refrigerator and no closets, McClary told a group of students from Surfside Beach who came to the village Friday. It had an outhouse in back. In addition to a pot-bellied stove in the back room, a fireplace provided heat. McClary’s job was to chop firewood and get the fires going and carry water from the community pump.

There was plenty to eat, he remembered. The residents could find oysters, clams and crabs near the shore and game and fish were plentiful. They often had a deer or a wild hog to share with all the residents since there was no refrigeration. They rode a truck into Georgetown on Saturdays to shop for cured meat: salt pork, ham, fatback and packages of grits, corn meal and rice. All the families had a garden, protected from deer by tall fences.

He said the village children would play ball in the street. “We used a tennis ball and thought we were playing baseball,” he said. “There were not enough of us to have a whole team. We made do with what we had.” Children at Hobcaw were sent to Strawberry Schoolhouse. Belle Baruch served as a truant officer, rounding up any of them playing hooky. McClary said the teacher, Ethel Bessellieu, moved from desk to desk, teaching children in six grades. He remembered that he couldn’t remember how to divide 64 by 8 at the blackboard.

McClary said he realized there was a difference in the employees Baruch brought from New York, his chauffeur, butlers and cooks. His mother worked as a cook’s helper. “Mr. Baruch would come in the winter and bring his friends,” McClary said. “This place didn’t produce anything, no tobacco, no cotton, no cows. He just had it for his retreat. The people here did menial labor. I don’t think my father earned more than $25 a week.”

McClary had one experience of a lifetime at Hobcaw. He and supervisor Lemuel Boykin were in the back woods in 1944 when a big car rolled up, carrying Baruch, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “Mr. Boykin took me over to meet them,” McClary said. “Roosevelt asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said president of the United States. That’s how I met President Roosevelt in 1944. He was ill and down here recuperating. He spent a whole month.”

Any meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt would have been kept secret from their ally Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, so it was rare indeed for a 14-year-old to see them together though it was common knowledge on the Barony. McClary said his mother told him that the prime minister of England was visiting. “I thought England had a king and a queen,” he said. “I didn’t know about any prime minister. I was 14 years old at the time.”

McClary left Hobcaw in 1949 and moved to Detroit, following other family members. After a term in the U.S. Army, he became the first black firefighter, fire inspector and member of the arson squad in Detroit. He is retired and lives with his wife in Grosse Pointe, Mich.

McClary was part of the ongoing “Voices of the Village” project at Hobcaw that included Joseph McGill Jr., founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill didn’t mind sharing the stage.

It’s very unusual, McGill said, to find a person who lived in a slave village. “We did the ‘selfie’ thing,” McGill said. “To be able to interact with Mr. McClary enables me to interpret the dwelling beyond Emancipation.”

Five year odyssey began on the floor at Friendfield

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Joseph McGill Jr. was happy to have a wooden floor in the cabin where he spent Friday night at Friendfield Village on Hobcaw Barony. Enslaved people often lived in cabins with dirt floors that invited crawling things inside, he said.

McGill has spent the past five years traveling the country to sleep in slave dwellings — not all are cabins, he discovered — and motivate owners to preserve them as part of history. Friendfield Village was one of his first overnight stays in 2010, beginning a project that sprang from a History Channel documentary about the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina Statehouse and his role as a program officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston.

“Properties like this are rare in the sense that we as preservationists tend to preserve buildings that are iconic houses on a hill,” McGill told people at a gathering Thursday night in Friendfield Village. “We put our efforts toward those architecturally significant buildings. When you apply that to the antebellum period, you usually miss a very important element of the built environment, the part that interprets my ancestors.”

Hobcaw Barony and the foundation established by Belle Baruch preserved slave buildings remaining in its four villages but did no restoration. The building where McGill stayed was a cabin lost in time until representatives of the Smithsonian Institution wanted to dismantle it and move it to Washington, D.C. “That’s when we knew we had something,” said George Chastain, executive director of the Belle W. Baruch Foundation. The board allowed the Smithsonian to make a replica of the 1840 Friendfield cabin and authorized work to preserve it and the other buildings in the village: a church, a doctor’s office and three dwellings.

Lee Brockington, senior interpreter at Hobcaw, said the 19th century village represents the idea of large events in small places. “This place matters,” she said. “We all remain students of history.”

McGill, 53, said that becoming a Civil War re-enactor with the 54th Massachusetts allowed him to sleep on battlefields and drew him to preserving the last physical remnants of slavery in America. At first he was annoyed to find former slave cabins being used as pool houses, garages and storage sheds. “You name it,” he said. “I’ve seen all kinds of examples, good and bad.”

Owners of the cabins were skeptical of McGill at first. “What is this guy all about? Reparations, artifacts, ghosts? None of the above,” he said. “It’s all about preserving these spaces. When you preserve, it’s hard to deny that people who lived in these spaces existed. Americans want to tell the good parts of our history and tend to leave out the Indian mounds, interment camps and slave dwellings. Those are not good parts of our history, but they are parts of our history nonetheless. We can’t change what happened, so we should just tell it all.”

McGill has visited 14 states in his effort to sleep in slave dwellings. Highlights of his experiences included:

Alabama: A number of historic buildings have been moved to a single site known as Old Alabama Town near Montgomery. He called the village “an architectural petting zoo.” His experience in Alabama caused him to change the name of his project from slave cabins to dwellings. He found a two-story brick house where slaves had lived. “That allowed me to think of the urban slavery that went on,” McGill said. “All our enslaved ancestors were not on plantations.”

Connecticut: McGill stayed at the Bush-Holley House in Greenwich, Conn. “Northerners act like I’m speaking a foreign language when I talk about slavery in their states,” he said.

Mississippi: This does not have a happy ending, he said. He had made arrangements to stay in a slave cabin near the Rowan Oak House in Oxford, home of writer William Faulkner’s family for 40 years beginning in the 1930s. A new manager took over the property and nixed all talk of slavery. “They wanted to stay in their comfort zone: William Faulkner,” McGill said

Missouri: This state, McGill said, showed him how slavery was used across the nation. They were used to grow hemp, the fabric needed for cotton bales. The owner of a slave cabin expressed interest in preserving it, he said, until historic preservation groups began making demands. “She showed us,” McGill said. “Under cover of darkness, she tore it down. We as preservationists have to check ourselves. Private owners are using buildings as restaurants and guest houses. Initially, I thought they all should be museums. I had to step back from that. We as preservationists should allow owners to let a building evolve. That’s the reason it’s still with us.”

Massachusetts: McGill slept in slave quarters at the Medford Royall House. Isaac Royall was the largest slave owner in Massachusetts. Part of his 500-acre plantation is part of Tufts University.

Texas: After some big initial promises of preserved slave quarters, Texans found just two. But one stop produced McGill’s most moving moment of the project. The owner of Seward Plantation in Brenham, Texas, wanted to show him one last thing during his visit: a slave auction block. “I stood on the block,” McGill said, “and thought about the enslaved who stood there and bared their backs to show there were no marks. If a slave had marks on his back it was a sign of a defiant slave. Why buy a defiant slave to insert into the already docile and broken slaves you already have? Nothing has come close to that moment in Brenham, Texas.”

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