One of the nation’s foremost experts on plantation architecture kicked off a Black History Month celebration at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens by discussing the progression of materials and styles of slave cabins, as well as recalling fond memories of a Charleston legend, Philip Simmons.
Dr. John Michael Vlach, retired professor of American studies and anthropology at George Washington University, used slides to illustrate the array of styles and quality of cabins used before and after slavery. The quality of cabins varied widely with the owners, along with available materials and the spare time slaves and former slaves had to make repairs.
Some plantation owners realized that good shelter paid dividends in keeping slaves and field hands healthier and longer, while others didn’t, said Vlach, the author of eight books including “Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation.”
While quality varied, one common denominator didn’t: Cabins typically were lined neatly in rows because it made a statement and offered more control.
“Slave holding is mostly about holding,” said Vlach.
He wrapped up his mostly informal talk — the first of two on Saturday — by offering recollections of Simmons, whom Vlach got to know well in writing “Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons.”
Vlach recalled getting Simmons to agree to come to Washington, D.C., for an event during the Bicentennial. Simmons asked if “hillbillies” were going to be there. Worried, Vlach said some would be there. Simmons replied, “Good, because they sing so sweet.”
Black History month events will continue at Magnolia on the next three Saturdays of the month.
“Every Saturday we’re focusing a different time period and different cabin,” said Lisa Randle, Magnolia’s director of research and education, in reference to the four different time period cabins at the plantation.
This event focused on 1850 cabins. The next three will be 1870, 1926 and 1969.
Randle noted that the focus on differences of plantations underscores the fact that seeing one doesn’t tell the whole story.
“You can’t go to one plantation and say I’ve seen them all. They were all were different,” she said.
It depended on what the slave owner wanted to prove and to show.