McLeod Plantation

The slave cabins at McLeod Plantation. Staff/File

No one knows how many slave dwellings survive in South Carolina, but Joseph McGill soon hopes to find out.

For the past four years, McGill, a history consultant and advocate, has made headlines across the South and beyond by seeking out former slave quarters and then spending the night inside as many as of them as he could.

McGill has kept a blog and often lectures about the need to preserve this painful but important part of American history.

Now, armed with a new $25,000 grant from the S.C. Department of Archives and History, McGill aims to take his work to the next level.

He plans not only to count all surviving dwellings but also to assess their condition and help preserve those that have been neglected.

"We're going to find those we don't have to worry about. That's going to be the good news," he said. "The more disturbing news will be those that are in a condition where if we don't do something now, they're not to be with us very much longer."

The Lowcountry has several prominent properties with surviving slave cabins, such as those on McLeod Plantation on James Island, at Magnolia Plantation on the Ashley River and at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant.

But most surviving slave dwellings are still on privately owned properties that don't routinely open to the public.

Jannie Harriot with the S.C. African American Heritage Advisory Commission said she has no clue how many dwellings survive, "and I don't think any of us have a clue."

Michael Bedenbaugh, director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, said there is no current research that would provide an answer.

"It's impossible to know," he said. "It's never been catalogued and unfortunately, when most of these plantations were put on the National Register of Historic Places, most of those (dwellings) were discounted as minor buildings."

Bedenbaugh said he tries to keep his eyes peeled and has passed along information to McGill.

John Hildreth, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Charleston office, said he also is unaware of any comprehensive survey of slave dwellings, though such a survey is critical to helping preservationists and policy makers make plans.

"A survey is absolutely bedrock to decision making," Hildreth said. Not only will it shed light on how many dwellings survive - and how many of those are threatened by neglect or other forces - but it also will help governments make better decisions in disaster recovery situations.

McGill said his Slave Dwelling Project recently became a tax-exempt nonprofit group, and it soon will focus on raising matching money for the grant. McGill hopes to begin the count in September and finish a year later.

It's unclear what kind of challenges he will face, but he said he plans to praise those who have kept slave dwellings well maintained, "and hopefully we will encourage others who may be in possession of them and don't know it. ... I also hope it gets them into a zone where they are comfortable interpreting these spaces."

Harriot said a growing number of people seem more willing to interpret this chapter of the state's history. "We have noticed new interest," she said. "I think it's economically driven, but whatever is driving it, I'm happy about it."

McGill said that he has seen slave dwellings renovated as garages, storage sheds, pool houses and guest quarters, and that's often fine.

"We encourage that," he said. "These buildings need to be living and breathing places. They can't all be museums."

McGill said he will seek help to analyze the dwellings' architecture. Hildreth said surviving cabins on plantations may be easier to identify than slave dwellings in rural areas, many of which have undergone multiple renovations.

While it's unclear how many slave dwellings survive - and how quickly they are disappearing - their numbers certainly aren't growing.

Last year, two of what most believed were Edisto Island's last surviving slave cabins were moved. One was dismantled and shipped to Washington D.C. for the Smithsonian's National Museum on African American History and Culture. An even more dilapidated one was moved into the island's own history museum.

"That was good of the Smithsonian to do that," McGill said, "but we as preservationists would much rather restore these places where they are."

McGill said he hopes the survey will serve as a model for other states and ultimately help preserve as many as possible.

"I've come across some that if not given attention now, they might not be here in 2015," he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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