The traditional American historic narrative often relegates the subject of slavery into its own separate, and overlooked, corner of American history. This account typically glosses over the details of the transatlantic slave trade and glorifies the culture and standard of wealth that developed from the rice, tobacco, and cotton trade. This issue is even more prevalent at Southern historic sites, where storylines often romanticize the lifestyles of the wealthy occupants of the “big house” while overlooking the histories of the enslaved Africans, whose labor generated their fortunes.
Joseph McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, has devoted his life to saving and preserving extant slave dwellings across the United States, while working to include the perspectives of the enslaved in the overall historic narrative of these sites. “Living History through the Eyes of the Enslaved: Inalienable Rights”, a four part series sponsored by the South Carolina Humanities Council as part of the Slave Dwelling Project, expands upon this goal.
This historical void may exist simply because these sites do not have the resources to interpret African-American history, or because they focus on telling the stories of the families in the “big house”. The purpose of the Inalienable Rights initiative is to provide the resources to fill this void. Director McGill has assembled a team of living historians who come together to interpret these sites, using real names and stories taken from oral histories recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project and other resources, to make this history personal, experiential, and relevant.
Hobcaw Barony is ahead of many sites when it comes to including African-American history into its overall interpretation. The Belle W. Baruch Foundation has worked to preserve and restore slave cabins in the historic African-American villages across the property, opening one – Friendfield Village – for tours. The Discovery Center offers oral histories from former residents of Friendfield Village, allowing a unique glimpse into the lives and memories of these individuals. A collaboration with the Georgetown County Library has resulted in the digitization of a large collection of photographs of the Baruchs and their guests, Hobcaw Barony and its staff, and its African-American residents. Though the Baruch Foundation has made interpretation of Hobcaw’s African-American history a priority, Joe McGill argues there’s always more that could be done.
Joseph McGill stayed at Hobcaw Barony in 2015, and returned July 30th, 2016 with the Inalienable Rights initiative and a group of eight living historians. The group spent the night in Friendfield Village, packed tightly together on the floor of Friendfield church. The sweltering heat and unrelenting mosquitos made sleep almost impossible. Despite these conditions, the nights spent in extant slave dwellings allow the team a brief glimpse into the experiences and environments of the individuals who once resided within the dwellings.
The small houses that line the Friendfield Village road are similar to the slave dwellings in many plantations across the South. Without plumbing, electricity, and small luxuries like screens, these dwellings offered little respite from the summer heat and biting cold of winter. They were often packed full of individuals, many of whom were unrelated, having been separated from their families in auctions. Ironically, these villages also served as a way for plantation owners to exhibit their wealth.
As the Inalienable Rights team lay awake in Friendfield Church, desperate for a breeze and relief from the nagging mosquitoes, they thought about their temporary conditions and how they were a daily experience for enslaved individuals. They considered the misery of working in a rice field in the middle of July with no escape from the heat, and no hope of ever improving their situation. With these thoughts fresh on their minds, the team prepared to educate the public the following day, and begin to change the traditional American historic narrative.
Over 100 visitors attended “Inalienable Rights: Through the Eyes of the Enslaved” at Hobcaw Barony on Saturday, July 30th. A program schedule guided guests to various events throughout the day, each one detailing different aspects of slavery and African-American History.
Donald West, reenactor and history professor at Trident Technical College, spoke about the origins of the transatlantic slave trade and the globalization of slavery. Christine Mitchell, living historian and interpreter at the Charleston Slave Mart, discussed the economics of slavery and the buying and selling of slaves.
Sara Daise, daughter of Ron and Natalie Daise – producers of Gullah Gullah Island – is a Gullah cultural interpreter at McLeod Plantation. She continues her family’s work by teaching guests about the origins of the Gullah/ Geechee culture and language that developed from the mixing of European and African cultural influences along the Southeastern coast and sea islands. Combining research and personal experiences, Sara illustrated how the Gullah/ Geechee culture is still present and thriving throughout the Lowcountry today.
In between programs, guests engaged with the living historians and interacted with a blacksmithing and cooking exhibit. Gilbert Walker of Savannah, GA, works the smith throughout the entire day, heating the metal until it’s red and shaping it into works of art. Gilbert is an artist blacksmith who mentored under Charleston’s Philip Simmons and Savannah’s John Boyd Smith.
Any individual who identifies as a Southerner can attest to the cultural importance of shared foodways. Southerners have a long, treasured tradition of coming together for feasts of fried chicken, okra, biscuits and gravy, rice and hash, macaroni, shrimp and grits, gumbo, or a Lowcountry boil. Three cooks, Prinny Anderson, Nicole Moore , and Jerome Bias worked the entire day to prepare a historic Southern meal to share among the guests. Laboring beside a smoldering fire (on one of the hottest days of the year!), the three taught curious onlookers about the overwhelming African and Native American influences in traditional Southern dishes. Once the food was ready, everyone gathered under the shade of a pecan tree to enjoy the delicious meal.
The program concluded with storytelling performances by Dontavius Williams and James Brown, who reenacted the lives of two enslaved individuals who lived and suffered on plantations. These stories evoked humor, anguish, and empathy from the onlooking crowd. The storytellers touched on some of the darkest aspects of slavery, such as the separation of families, the punishment dealt out to slaves who misbehaved, and the rape and sexual abuse of African women – often at the hands of their owners. Easily the most moving and humanizing part of the program, these performances left guests in stunned silence, some with tears running down their face, and a lot to think about with regard to their history.
These lectures and reenactments are shocking to some visitors. Occasionally guests grow uncomfortable with what they hear and challenge the team’s narrative and facts. Some are so offended they walk out. However, most of the reactions are positive, as was the case at Hobcaw Barony. Many guests come eager to learn, hoping to fill the gaps missing from their own education. As the Inalienable Rights initiative educates and pushes against these preconceived notions, and the innocent and sometimes willful ignorance of some members of the audience, it is gradually changing the romanticized “moonlight and magnolia” narrative to include the perspectives of those who were enslaved.