In my attempt to bring much needed attention to the necessity to restore and interpret extant former slave dwellings throughout the United States, over the past 2 ½ years I have spent the night in 36 such places in 11 states. Known as the Slave Dwelling Project, past stays have included cabins on plantations to dependency buildings in urban settings or attic space in the main house, these dwellings are built of wood, brick, stone or whatever was available in the area at the time of construction.
Plantations that housed the enslaved that toiled in fields of rice, tobacco, cotton, sugarcane and hemp have all been stops along the way for the Slave Dwelling Project. Urban dependencies that housed the enslaved that serviced the mansions or the businesses that existed within antebellum cities have also been stops for the Project. Fellow Civil War reenactors, school teachers, tour guides, writers and descendants of slaves and slave owners are only a few of the categories of approximately fifty people that have shared the experience with me.
Through this journey there was only one stay that eluded me, the offer that I had to refuse. Stay Number 16, Laurelwood Plantation was placed on the list as a result of collaborating with the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation. Included in the mission of the Palmetto Trust is the preservation of historic buildings located throughout the State of South Carolina.
One method that the Trust uses for preservation is acquiring historic properties through a revolving fund, placing easements on them and selling the property to a preservation friendly buyer. Laurelwood Plantation was such a property. I had all confidence that the stay would occur swimmingly because my seventh stay at Morris Street in Anderson, SC was also arranged by the Palmetto Trust.
This stay was scheduled for Friday, April 15, 2011 to coincide with the day the Trust would celebrate the sale of the site to its new owners Jackie and Jeremy Thomas. When I arrived that day a group of supporters had already gathered there to celebrate with the new owners. On many occasions up until that point, I always made it my business to get to each site no-later-than 5:00 pm because it was necessary that I check each place thoroughly before dark. Unfortunately, sleeping in the slave cabin on the site on that night was not meant to be due to its dilapidated state. Had I known this prior to showing up on the property, it would not have been placed on the calendar for the Slave Dwelling Project. All was not lost because I did the next best thing by sleeping on the porch of the mansion which also needed to be restored.
Priority for preservation for the new owners was of course the mansion but they assured me that restoring the cabin was on their short list of things to do. I praised their intent and enthusiasm knowing that similar promises from other owners had been made but to that date restoration of those places was still pending. Additionally, the new owners were also in the process of relocating from England to Eastover, SC.
Well, I kept in touch with Jeremy. I even went back for a visit to the site when he returned from England to check on the progress of the work that was being done to the mansion. Jeremy had to deal with some very serious contractual matters but despite that, he again assured me that he would restore the cabin and grant me access for educational purposes.
The Good News
The Richland County Conservation Commission has granted the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation a $25,000 grant to restore the cabin. The grantee agrees to provide a 20% match of cash or in-kind services of at least $5,000 for a minimum project cost of $30,000. More specifically the grant will be used to rebuild the rock chimney and fireplace; replace the rock foundation and piers; repair the floor system and exterior siding and replace the roof.
The restoration is currently underway and upon completion, I will conduct that stay in the cabin that eluded me. That stay is scheduled for Saturday, November 3, 2012. More importantly, I will work with the owner and the Palmetto Trust to develop programs to interpret the dwelling.
Thanks to the Richland County Conservation Commission, the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation and the willing property owners, Jackie and Jeremy Thomas, the slave cabin at Laurelwood Plantation has become the best example of why the Slave Dwelling Project has to continue.