EDISTO ISLAND — One of this area’s few remaining slave cabins seemed certain to be lost to history.
The two-room, wood-sided building, once one of dozens of similar cabins on Point of Pines plantation, had suffered from decades of neglect, a pronounced lean and lots of rot.
The Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society had planned to relocate and restore the cabin as part of the island’s small museum, but it couldn’t find enough money to move it properly.
Just when things looked hopeless, the Smithsonian Institution came calling.
On Monday, workers began carefully dismantling the cabin board by board so that it can be transported to Washington, D.C., where it will find new life inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Gretchen Smith, the society’s director, was one of many who showed up to watch the work begin.
It was a bittersweet sight: The island is losing part of its past so the nation can better understand its own. “Instead of having it here on the island where thousands would see it, millions will see it,” she said.
Kerry Shackelford of Museum Resources Inc. supervised a crew of workers holding few tools except ladders, tape measures and crowbars.
Their big challenge came in deciding what material was worth saving — and not getting hurt.
“These buildings can just come down on you in a flash if you don’t watch it,” he said. “You can’t be haphazard.”
Workers began stripping off the metal roof, then the trusses and parts of the ceiling, including a 4-foot overhang that created a small porch. Most pieces were labeled and set aside.
As workers climbed up and down ladders, the building wiggled. “Every piece of wood you take off makes it less stable,” Shackelford said.
While the society did some stabilization work a few years ago — replacing its sills and bracing up one side — he estimated that the cabin would not survive to 2015 without further repairs.
“One good puff would have taken this down,” he said, “that’s for sure.”
The reconstructed cabin will take its place among the most featured artifacts inside the new museum — right up there with Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s Bible, an airplane used by the Tuskegee Airmen and the coffin of Civil Rights martyr Emmett Till, said Nancy Bercaw, museum curator.
“As soon as this comes into this museum, every bit of this house only will be touched by gloves,” she said. “It will be handled as if it were a piece of silver.”
It will be reassembled on its first floor, as the focal point of a hall leading to the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit, Bercaw said.
“This will be right in the heart of the museum,” she said, “and that story, from slavery to freedom, is at the heart of the American story.”
Its front facade will be a focal point at the interpretation of slavery, and its rear facade, which was added onto after the Civil War, will be used to interpret the Reconstruction period.
That’s one reason a cabin from Edisto Island was so desirable: It witnessed both periods of history.
“Here on the Sea Islands, there was a much deeper sense of belonging because it was the land of their ancestors,” Bercaw said.
The National Museum on African American History and Culture is designed to be a collaboration among groups and people throughout the country as much as a building to visit in Washington.
So the museum is interested in more here than just the cabin.
It has contracted with Lowcountry Africana, a nonprofit dedicated to documenting the family and cultural heritage of African-Americans in the former rice-growing areas of South Carolina, Georgia and northeastern Florida.
The research will help shape the interpretation surrounding the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit.
The Point of Pines property originally was granted to colonist Paul Grimball but owned by the Bailey family during much of its antebellum era, one where it grew long-staple cotton as a cash crop.
Tori Carrier, a founding director of Lowcountry Africana, said the history is particularly rich following the Civil War’s end, when the Union began deciding who should own Edisto and other Sea Islands like it.
There were three separate attempts to transfer property to freedmen, or former slaves, but ultimately, none of the Point of Pines property was affected.
Still, African-Americans are believed to have lived in this cabin and others like it for decades after the war.
Cotes Simons’ family owns neighboring property, and his cousin, former Charleston County Councilman Burnet Maybank, donated the cabin to the society. Simons dropped by the dismantling Monday and said he recalls someone living in the cabin as recently as 1980.
By that time, most of its neighboring slave cabins were long gone, and it seemed like this one would face the same fate.
“When nobody wanted to live in it any longer, there was no reason to fix it up,” he said.
Now, it’s being saved not for shelter but for understanding. The millions who eventually see it will learn a little more about a point in history that continues to shape the country’s future.
“African-Americans have really expanded the notion of freedom in a way that we have all profited from,” Bercaw said.