Hidden in Plain View ~ Slave Dwelling Project Overnights at Two Urban Slave Quarters
The weekend of August 30 – 31, 2013 was intense for the Slave Dwelling Project for I would find myself spending the night in two different slave dwellings in two nights. Both locations, 16 ½ Glebe Street and 25 Longitude Lane are located in the city limits of Charleston, SC.
Before the first stay, I had to take a detour to Randall Hall on the campus of the College of Charleston to be one of three panelists to speak on the subject titled “Charleston: Holy City and/or Slavery Central?” Also on the panel were Professor Joe Kelly of the College's Department of English whose book America's Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March toward Civil War has just been published, and Mark Berry, of the College Publications team, whose article on College of Charleston alum Colonel John C. Fremont appeared in the College of Charleston Magazine last year. The panel addressed one of the most important paradoxes in American political history—how a nation founded on the universal principle that all men have the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could have remained a slave-holding nation for nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence, until the end of the Civil War.
16 ½ Glebe Street
Three years into the Slave Dwelling Project and until Friday, August 30, 2013 I had only spent the night in a former slave dwelling on the campus of one institution of higher learning. That institution was Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia. 16 ½ Glebe Street located on the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina would be my second on a college or university campus. The dwelling is currently used as a guest house by the college so surprisingly prior to the stay, I talked to at least two people who had stayed in the dwelling before with no knowledge that it was a former slave dwelling and I am willing to wager that 95% of the people who have stayed there did not know that the dwelling once housed slaves.
When I saw the dwelling, it was obvious to me that it indeed once housed slaves. The location alone (behind a “big house”) was enough for me to make that determination. I also concluded that despite the dwelling not presently having a chimney, it served as a kitchen / living quarters for slaves. The dwelling was well adapted to its current use as a guest house, fully equipped kitchen, living room and half bath downstairs and bedroom and full bathroom upstairs. With forty six stays in former slave dwellings prior to this one, I had stayed in some that had been adaptively reused in similar fashion but none could compare to this one. A flat screen TV and wifi made for an environment where I could get caught up on some work and communicate with followers of the project but before any of that happened, I could not help but take a walk through the streets of Charleston.
My destination was Wild Wings restaurant on Market Street which turned out to be farther away than I thought but the walk, meal and adult beverage were well worth it. During the walk, I could not help thinking about the slave labor involved in all of the antebellum buildings along the route that I took, making the bricks and erecting the buildings requiring slave tags in order to carry out those tasks.
When I got back to the dwelling, I finally started to enjoy the amenities. The adornment of the structure made it difficult to imagine the lives of the slaves who once lived there. Were they there to service the house located in front or were they part of the population of enslaved people who serviced the College of Charleston. Paul Garbarini who is an avid researcher who experienced a night stay in the slave dwelling with me at Heyward – Washington House in Charleston is doing that research.
Having wifi provided a unique impromptu opportunity. After broadcasting photographs of the dwelling on my facebook page, the comments started to come in hot and heavy. Wifi and a laptop made it possible to respond to the comments immediately. I had tried this concept before (minus the pictures) with some success and some failure but those experiences were forecasted therefore the audience anticipated the interaction. This spur of the moment experience gave the participants one of the best opportunities yet to interact in real time with the project.
As promised, Terry James showed up for the stay. Like me, he marveled over the amenities in the dwelling. Terry’s last two stays were the Old City Jail which had concrete floors and the cabin in Simpsonville, SC which had a dirt floor. After directing Terry to the bathroom upstairs, he then discovered that there was a half bathroom down stairs neatly tuck under the steps that led upstairs. That night Terry would take the couch downstairs and I would take the bed upstairs. Like clockwork he would again sleep in the slave shackles.
The next morning, when Terry and I stepped outside so that Terry could apply his skill of photography. Terry impressed me because he now has a discerning eye for former slave dwellings. We both noticed that 16 ½ Glebe Street was the only slave dwelling left of the many that were once behind all of the houses that fronted Glebe Street. It was evident that the footprint of a huge commercial building belonging to the College of Charleston would not let the slave dwellings coexist, but my limited knowledge of the situation cannot allow me to say that the building was the demise of the dwellings because they could have been demolished long before the commercial building was placed there.
We left 16 ½ Glebe Street, but little did Terry know that the slave dwelling that we would stay in that night would be just as luxurious.
25 Longitude Lane
I gave a Slave Dwelling Project lecture before my stay at the Heyward – Washington House in Charleston, SC,. In the audience was Susan Heape, the owner of the former slave dwelling at 25 Longitude Lane. The next week when I was in Jacksonville, Florida Susan called me with a major concern. It appeared that in my presentation, I did not address the category of owners of former slave dwellings of which she is a part. Susan bought the dwelling for the purpose of using it as her primary residence. She insisted that I come over for a visit.
The visit proved to be quite worthy. I awed at the meticulous work that she personally put into making the dwelling what it was. She excitingly expressed all that she did to ensure that she maintained as much of the historical integrity of the dwelling as she possibly could. Knowing that this was her personal space, I still had to ask that question, “When can I spend the night.” To my surprise, the answer was anytime. As time passed, we collectively decided that doing the stay on the same weekend as the College of Charleston stay was highly appropriate because it would be my opportunity to highlight those dwellings that are hidden in plain view.
Hours before the stay, Terry James and I gathered on the Battery in Charleston in our Civil War uniform. As you would guess, the conversations and interactions there were quite interesting. It got more interesting when we would explain to the inquirers that we would be spending the night in a former slave dwelling in walking distance from the Battery. We further explained that there were several extant slave dwellings within the vicinity of where we were.
On the walk from the Battery to 25 Longitude Lane, Terry again used his discerning eye to spot all of the former slave dwellings that were visible from the side walk. A tour guide in a horse drawn carriage slowed his tour enough to inquire of our purpose, when we responded that we would be sleeping in a former slave dwelling on Longitude Lane, he seemed a bit surprised. When we got to the dwelling, Susan greeted us both with big hugs, she had forewarned me that she had assembled an outfit specifically for the occasion. Her special stew was on the stove in the last stages of preparation. As she gave Terry a tour of the dwelling, I went outside to start taking my pictures for I have learned in this project to start taking pictures immediately so that I would not have to be rushed the next morning or take the chance that it might rain.
The three of us headed back to the Battery. Susan had salvaged some flyers from the lecture that was given the previous day at Randolph Hall on the campus of the College of Charleston. On the walk to the Battery, Susan enthusiastically engaged all of whom she came into contact by giving them a flyer and starting the conversation about the Slave Dwelling Project. Terry and I took it from there. Unfortunately we had to break up the team because Susan had to head back home to meet a guest that she was expecting.
When Terry and I got back to Susan’s place her guest Mary Ellen Millhouse had arrived. She attended the lecture the previous day and had asked the interesting question about how many slaves stayed around after they were freed. Mary, armed with her camera, expressed that she regretted not being able to go to the Battery with us and hoped that we would go back but Susan had already changed into more comfortable clothing and was now concentrating on serving the meal. It turned out that Mary owns a house in Beaufort, SC that once housed slaves. This was interesting, because since I started the project, I had been trying to identify extant slave dwellings in Beaufort, to no avail. It was as if Beaufort was in denial of its slave holding past. The result of the conversation with Mary was that a stay at the property will occur but we have to determine the right date in order to maximize its effectiveness.
The conversation would continue over Susan’s specially prepared tasty stew. When Susan was convinced that she might lose sleep because of Terry, me or both snoring and that our interest was waning from the subject of extant slave dwellings to that of a football game, she made a firm decision to relinquish the space to Terry and me. She went to her second home on Edisto Island to spend the night. Terry and I were both satisfied with the outcome of the football game although Terry only saw portions between bouts of sleep.
For sleeping, I took the couch while Terry spread his sleeping bag on the kitchen floor. Terry again donning the slave shackles before going to sleep. The next morning, Terry mentioned that his sleeping experience was not comfortable. I jokingly speculated that it was because he slept over the cellar but neither of us believed that for a moment. Terry was still in awe of the intricate work that Susan put into the dwelling. He was also impressed that she would trustingly leave the space in our possession. I told Terry that what Susan did was not a first and it was the power of the Slave Dwelling Project that warrants such acts.
After a session of Terry taking intricate pictures, we both went our separate ways. Terry going home to Florence, SC and me, to toil at my place of employment, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens on Labor Day, the irony.
Before I Met Joe McGill: A Slave Dwelling Project of My Own
By Susan E. Heape
"So, you might ask, 'How can you love a slave house? How can you live there, knowing that enslaved people once were forced to live and work there?' The answer is that I see myself as a steward of this property, with the duty and honor of preserving and maintaining that which someone else might destroy or deny."
In 2004, a terrible thing was about to happen: my seven cousins and siblings all agreed that it was time to sell Grand Daddy’s farm. I was the only one of this small group of heirs with any real connection, love, familiarity, use, or desire to preserve a tract of land that had been in my family for many generations. All of them, even though raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry, had turned into city slickers or plain old mercenaries or folks with a disdain for all things Southern! The thought of a pile of money was far more attractive to them than grand oaks, sandy trails through palmetto swamps, and gently rolling acres of sweet-smelling pines. Even the McKewn Branch, a flowing creek which once helped supply Charleston with drinking water, was not enough to warrant preservation.
Meanwhile, I had turned into a regular woods-child, with a 4x4 pickup and a 27 speed off-road bicycle, both designed to take me anywhere I wanted to go on this property. If you get the idea that this place was close to heaven for me, you are correct. I found a peaceful sense of being home, knowing that many generations of my family had lived here, grown their own food, cut this timber to build homes, and hunted these woods for deer and other wild game. I held out for over a year, trying to convince family members that it was a sacrilege to sell this land. They thought I was silly. Then they thought I was crazy. Finally, they thought I was just plain annoying, and decided to sue me so that the developers could have their way with our property! Having heard horror stories regarding the way courts dispose of heirs property (typically devaluing the land and depriving the resistant family member of equal restitution), I had to capitulate to the sale. The developers were ruthless in requiring all of the property, or not buying any at all. After months of negotiating, the deal was concluded in early 2006. I was literally, physically sick from this experience! Not only was the property gone, but also family relationships. I had become “the outcast who almost prevented the sale; the troublemaker; the tree-hugger.”
I resolved to use my proceeds to buy another treasure in the Lowcountry. I decided that having a special place here would be an ideal way to stay connected to my origins, and give me a sense of using my resources for a good purpose. I began shopping online as well as with a local realtor, with the goal of finding a historic property that was in need of love and restoration. From the first moment that I saw pictures of my house, I knew it was the one for me. Even though it was evident that a lot of work was needed, I could see the potential in these stout brick walls. I have known of this house my entire life, and can even recall what it looked like when I was a young girl---rather dreary with dark shutters, overgrown vines, and messy mulberry trees in the rear entry way!
After submitting numerous offers to the seller, and being turned down, we finally were able to come to acceptable terms in April 2006. I was absolutely determined to buy this house, because it needed me and I needed it! When I say “it needed me,” I mean that there had been ongoing attempts by previous owners to transform this house into something modern, slick, and inauthentic to its slave dwelling origins. My mission, right from the start, was to acknowledge the truth about this structure and to honor that truth by restoring and preserving it, not hiding it. Over the years, I have removed modern plastic light fixtures, revealed interior brick walls once covered by gloss paint, installed heart pine floors identical to the few remaining original ones, and utilized historically accurate colors and fabrics throughout. I have also researched, designed, and installed a traditional African-American folk art garden. There are heirloom plants, natural elements such as seashells, and antique farming tools such as would have been used in bygone times. It has been strictly a labor of love, and I have personally done most of the work myself--- except for that beyond my abilities, such as plumbing and electrical. I love this place, and feel very protective of it.
So, you might ask, “How can you love a slave house? How can you live there, knowing that enslaved people once were forced to live and work there?” The answer is that I see myself as a steward of this property, with the duty and honor of preserving and maintaining that which someone else might destroy or deny. While it has not been easy or inexpensive to own and restore this structure, I am so glad that I have been able to do so. These walls speak to me, and I hope to others, about a time in our shared history. While many lessons about the Civil War have been recognized and learned, there are so many other facts about this era that are yet to be acknowledged and explored. Hopefully, the identification and recognition of all historic structures, not just large or ornate ones, will serve as inspiration for ongoing discussions, discoveries, and understanding.