“The door is open! The door is open! Who are you? Who are you?” According to “Old Reliable” Terry James, those are the words I uttered as I slept in a slave dwelling at Friendfield Plantation on the night of March 23, 2012.
While my wife will easily explain that I often talk in my sleep, it is the words that I used on this particular occasion that are somewhat disturbing. Let me try to explain.
Point # 1.
The week prior to spending the night at Friendfield, I spent March 15 – 18 with the group Coming to the Table. The Coming to the Table story is about connecting people and the past to the present and future in a way that is relevant for our nation.
Housed at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peace building, CTTT was launched when people whose ancestors were connected through an enslaved/enslaver relationship realized they had a shared story that remained untold. Today, they and many others believe that the legacies and aftermath of slavery impact our nation in seen and unseen ways and they are committed to writing and telling a new story about our nation’s past and the promise of our collective future.
At this gathering, I was told that the ancestors are always with me whether I want their presence or not. At this gathering we engaged in a healing ritual where each individual called on their ancestors to forgive or be forgiven.
Point # 2.
While I was comfortable with leaving the door open as we slept, Terry James insisted that we not only close the door but lock it also. The two of us spent about three minutes trying to lock that door.
Point # 3.
The publishers of my blog came up with the idea of communicating live via Facebook with anyone who wanted to know about the experience at Friendfield. Before, I drifted off to sleep, I engaged in a real time chat using my Blackberry. One person asked the question about what the ancestors were saying, a question I totally avoided.
Sleeping in 29 former slave dwellings prior to Friendfield is my personal indication that I avoid attempts to channel or communicate with any of my ancestors or those who enslaved them. While some may think that connecting with the ancestors might be a good thing I strongly disagree. There was no doubt that they were all strong people individually and collectively for any resistance to the institution of slavery could be life ending.
I choose not to connect because I know that what the enslaved endured beyond the walls of the slave dwellings was a life of which no one should be subjected. To tap in to that life in any way would only provoke anger in me and I cannot continue the Slave Dwelling Project as an angry Black man. To that end, I still welcome anyone who wants to commemorate their ancestors in their own way to share the slave dwelling experience with me.
Now to the matter at hand. Since 2010 it was my desire to spend the night in a cabin at Friendfield Plantation, the obvious reason being its ancestral connection to First Lady Michelle Obama. First Lady Obama’s great-great grandfather Jim Robinson was enslaved there and lived there after emancipation until the 1940s. The anticipation of staying there was so great that I put it on the 2010 schedule only having to remove it because I did not go through the proper channels. As fate would have it, I met the owner, that and the assistance from an influential colleague got me in.
I always offer others the opportunity to share the experience of spending the night in a slave dwelling with me. With the exception of Terry James who has eight stays, I will get an occasional acceptance to my invitation. This was not the case with Friendfeild. Because of the historical significance of Friendfield, people were clamoring to share the experience. Unfortunately, I only could get permission for a total of four people to stay, however due to some unforeseen circumstances, it again came down to only Terry and me staying at Friendfield.
Through various means, I tried to make contact with First Lady Michelle Obama, to no avail. I imagined the Slave Dwelling Project being endorsed by the First Lady. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Ed Carter the property manager. Ed gave me a great tour of the cabins and the grounds and made some good suggestions of places to eat. He also made the restroom available in the nearby office building.
There are six extant slave cabins at Friendfield Plantation of various size and condition. I had the choice of two to spend the night. I fell in love with the first one that I saw but we took an obligatory look at two more. It was interesting that the year the cabin was built was inscribed on a brick very near the top of the chimney on the cabins that we explored. The date on the cabin I chose was 1849, it measured approximately 30 by 20 feet which is larger than most I’ve stayed in to date.
The cabins that I did not choose were more modern as people continued to live in them after emancipation. Seeing how the cabins were modernized with electricity made me think about the possibility of Jim Robinson, First Lady Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather who continued to live at Friendfield long after Emancipation.
One cabin had a tin roof which made me think a lot about the house of wish I was raised in Kingstree, SC. Ed told me that some of the slave cabins were lost to an out of control grass fire, a situation that was similar to what happened at Goodwill Plantation near Columbia, SC. Ed showed me the spot in the slave village where the chapel used to be located, similar to Hobcaw Barony and Mansfield Plantations both in Georgetown County, SC.
Friendfield is currently privately owned and for sale, all 3000 plus acres can be yours for 20 million dollars. Though not originally that large in mass, the current owner combined bordering plantations to create what is now Friendfield. Two mansions are on the property. The grounds and the mansions are beautiful and well maintained with great potential for interpretation, tourism, hunting, bird watching, farming, etc.
It was the wide expanse of the former rice fields that captured my attention. It gave me a good indication of why at one point in Georgetown County’s history it grew more rice than any other place in the world. It also made me think of the slave labor necessary to grow rice. As we walked on the berm deeper into the rice field, I could physically see the engineering skills necessary to grow rice. As I saw evidence of alligators that crossed the berm, I thought about how they, snakes and mosquitoes would threaten the lives of the enslaved people. I also thought about where in Africa the enslaved came from. An educated guess would be that they came from a region in African that grew rice.
“Old Reliable” Terry James showed up just as he said he would. The mosquitoes made both Terry and me think about the night we stayed at Mansfield Plantation which is also located in Georgetown County, SC. As soon as he arrived, we decided to leave the property seeking food. On our way back to the cabin, we encountered a snake which I did not hesitate to run over with my car. Ed Carter showed up to the cabin and met Terry and to check our safety and sanity. The three of us were pleasantly surprised that the mosquitoes were not active inside the cabin. Ed alerted me to a product called Thermacell which seemed to be working.
After Ed left, Terry began to check the cracks and crevices with his flash light for spiders, snakes or bats. I am certain that the Hopsewee Plantation, also in Georgetown County, SC was on his mind. At Hopsewee as Terry was closing the door to the cabin he saw that a snake had shed its skin right above the door. Terry’s action with the flash light is the very reason I like to get to each location no-later-than 5 PM so that I can conduct those type inspections during daylight.
We got the door to the cabin locked with great effort, Terry donned the slave shackles in preparation for sleep. It was not long after he laid down that he was out for the count. The publishers of my blog came up with the brilliant idea for me to communicate in real time via Facebook. To that end, I answered all questions as fast as my Blackberry would allow. I recall signing off around midnight. I recall waking up briefly during the night because it started to rain. The sound of the rain on the cypress shingled roof was quite soothing so going back to sleep was effortless.
The next morning, Terry did not hesitate to tell me about my talking in my sleep. Ed showed up to make sure that we made it through the night. After packing our belongings and sealing up the cabin, I accompanied Terry on a personal tour of the grounds using the information that I gained from Ed on the previous day. Terry who is a professional photographer was thoroughly impressed and took lots of photographs. He was just as amazed as I was to see the vastness of the rice fields. Before we went our separate ways, we both had one more good laugh about me talking in my sleep.
The Door Is Open
We talked about the upcoming stay in Columbia, SC and the fact that several media representatives have expressed an interest in sharing the experience. That should be interesting because I know that different media outlets do not play well together.
Additionally, it has always been an open invitation for anyone to share the experience pending approval of the property owner. Terry can verify that with the exception of only one of his eight stays, it has been only the two of us staying in the cabins. So for those of you who talk a good game, “The door is open!” “Who are you?”
About the Slave Dwelling Project
For more information, please contact Joseph McGill