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Joe McGill's Slave Dwelling Project Visits Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana

 

One can say that the reason that the 22 slave dwellings at Evergreen are still with us is because they were built of cypress wood. I attribute their existence to the fact that someone in their past made the conscience decision to preserve the dwellings so that the stories of their inhabitants will not be forgotten. --- Joseph McGill, Slave Dwelling Project

Avenue of Oaks at Evergreen Plantation, Edgard, Louisiana
   Slave Cabins at Evergreen Plantation, LA

Fans of the Slave Dwelling Project are beginning to take advantage of its benefits.  Such was the case when I stayed at Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana.  My purpose for travelling to Louisiana was to participate in the Louisiana Statewide Preservation Conference held by the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation in Leesville April 6-8, 2011. I arrived at the New Orleans airport and was picked up by Jane Boddie the Director of Evergreen.  My first night stay at Evergreen would be in one of the houses with modern conveniences.  The avenue of oaks was the most impressive that I had ever seen.  I was even more impressed by the 22 slave dwellings still at the site.  Unfortunately an oak tree had fallen on one of the dwellings but my mind was put at ease when Jane told me that the dwelling will be restored.

While I was anxious to spend the night in one of the dwellings, I could not neglect the purpose for which I came to Louisiana, to participle in the Louisiana Statewide Preservation Conference.  The next day Jane and I traversed the state to get to Leesville.  We would return on Friday, April 8, I would stay in the slave dwelling that night.

Before my stay at Evergreen, the most people to share the experience with me in a slave dwelling was five the week before in Texas. Jane did a spectacular job in ensuring that we would surpass that.  Twenty people were scheduled to spend the night in the dwellings. They came from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and all points in between.

Overnight Stay at Evergreen Plantation

Bonfire at Evergreen Plantation, Louisiana
    The Night at Evergreen Began with a Bonfire

The night started with a bonfire in the front yard of the big house, a spectacular site, and my first time to participate in such an event.  The gathering continued with storytelling and ended with drumming.  We all proceeded to the two dwellings as a group.  A libation ceremony was conducted in front of one of the dwellings followed by listening to recorded excerpts from the Slave Narratives.  On my way back to the cabin where I was going to sleep, I and two other guests encountered a member of the local law enforcement agency.  He was unaware of the activities that were happening that night.  Fortunately, he accepted our explanation.  I made it to my assigned spot and slept through the night with only a few interruptions by mosquitoes.

I requested that two members give an account of their sleepover experience at Evergreen Plantation.  The following is what they wrote:

"On April 11, 2011, I stood with Joe McGill and 20 other people preparing to walk down a white shell road through 100 very old Live Oak trees.  We were walking into an empty village, a village that was home to people for 200 years, ten generations. It was dark, the wind had blown out our candles.  It was silent, so were we.   Later, I sat on the steps of one of the slave cabins, listening to the Litany of the Libation to the Ancestors.  I sat a little apart from the rest, wondering where I fit in all this.  I am white.  Then I began to hear the words of the Libation, over and over again; the Ancestors of all the people of Evergreen Plantation; the Ancestors of ALL the people of Evergreen Plantation, past and present.   In the night, lying on that hard floor, listening to the night sounds, looking up at the ceiling, I was aware of a profound sense of community.  What had happened to the other people who had lain here, looking at this ceiling, are a part of me.  Without that ceiling, without these buildings, if they had all been destroyed, it would be hard to know where any of us fit, to remember who we are.  We are a community of people.  Past.  Present.  Future." --- Jane Boddie, Director. Evergreen Plantation

“I fear cycles of the night and things I don’t understand. Like the snake I startled hunting at dusk, blood-sucking mosquitoes satiated by mid-evening and then returning at first light, and the sounds chirping, howling and rustling through the woods, all here before us. Kathe brought recordings of haunting slave narratives from another century. We brought our voices, but our words were inadequate. We agreed to be quiet. A cacophony of waiflike female voices cackled from the big house.  Breathlessly still, I strained to discover if they were ghosts.  Sweating through one hot night, I was not free until dawn." --- Jonn E. Hankins, Executive Director, New Orleans African American Museum

"Never Forget 

On my journey to Evergreen Plantation on the River Road, I thought about the trauma of slavery, not to mention the shackling of human flesh and the scars of a mental psyche. I thought about the plight of the enslaved people who once occupied the cabin that I was going to occupy for a night. I had been to the slave quarters before and brought groups several times for educational purposes, but this time it was different and more purposeful for me. I was actually coming to sleep in a cabin where enslaved people of African descent had lived, loved, cried, rejoiced, worked, hoped, sang, prayed and most of all survived collectively, knowing there was strength in numbers. 
 
After making the pilgrimage from the big house to the quarters in silence and candle light and after being a part of the prayers and libations ceremony, I bedded down for the night with my African designed blanket between me and the hard floor boards. I had intermittent sleep while listening to a cacophony of animal, insect and bird sounds and while periodically looking up into the cracks of the ceilings and walls that carried vapors of history, stories and song.  However, during this long nocturnal period, I found myself wit h a profound peace as if these ancestral spirits were gently welcoming me into their home and asking me never to forget..." ---Joyce Marie Jackson, Ph.D., Director, African & African American Studies Program, LSU
 
Avenue of Oaks at Evergreen Plantation, Edgard, Louisiana
   Evergreen Plantation, Edgard, Louisiana

Reflections

Louisiana was the fourth state to which the Slave Dwelling Project has been expanded. This stay afforded me the opportunity to explore how the Spanish, French and English influenced slavery in Louisiana. It was also a lesson in how the Mighty Mississippi River factored into the institution of slavery. In the case of Louisiana, sugar cane was a very labor intensive crop. The slaves that contributed to that industry have a story that should be told. One can say that the reason that the 22 slave dwellings at Evergreen are still with us is because they were built of cypress wood. I attribute their existence to the fact that someone in their past made the conscience decision to preserve the dwellings so that the stories of their inhabitants will not be forgotten. I can recall having the privilege to cruise the Mississippi River on the steamboat Delta Queen before it was decommissioned.  We docked at one of the plantations on the famous River Road, unfortunately that presentation lacked any interpretation of the people who labored to make that plantation prosper.  I strongly encourage a visit to Evergreen Plantation if you are interested in hearing the whole story.  Jane Boddie and her staff will be happy to accommodate you.  They may even throw in a bonus and tell you about the night they spent in one of the slave dwellings.

Contact Joseph McGill Jr. 

National Trust for Historic Preservation | William Aiken House, 456 King Street, 3rd Floor, Charleston, SC 29403 | Phone: 843.722.8552 | Fax: 843.722.8652 | Email: joseph_mcgill@nthp.org | www.preservationnation.org
 

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