Project seeks to save slave cabins


Joseph McGill, a historic preservationist, wants to sleep in at least 20 slave cabins across South Carolina. He hopes spending nights in the cabins will generate interest and prompt their owners to preserve them as an important part of history.

McGill's project begins tonight at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, where five 1850s cabins have been restored to show how enslaved and free blacks lived there from before Emancipation into the 20th century. He was denied permission to sleep in a cabin at Redcliffe Plantation State Historic site.

In addition to Magnolia, McGill has permission to sleep in cabins at McLeod Plantation on James Island, Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown and Heyward House, a summer cottage in Bluffton where he will spend the night of May 25. He was refused permission to sleep at an Aiken property.

Most of the cabins McGill has permission to stay in have been restored, but they still can bring attention to ones that are dilapidated and in need of restoration, he says. The preservationist, a program officer for The National Trust for Historic Preservation, says the project is a personal quest, but the trust is supportive.

McGill's idea for the project came after sleeping in a Boone Hall Plantation slave cabin 10 years ago. He slept there for a History Channel documentary called "The Unfinished Civil War."

"The point I am trying to make in this is that we should not be ashamed of our ancestors," says McGill, who is African-American. "I think the reason that more cabins are not out there is the desire of some blacks and whites who want to erase that part of history, take it off the landscape -- out of sight, out of mind."

D.J. Tucker, Magnolia's director of African-American history and interpretation, says the preservation of slave cabins, including those at Magnolia, is getting attention, but much more needs to be done. So he was eager to have McGill spend the night in one of the cabins,

"People are seeing that in preserving these cabins we can preserve the overlooked contributions of enslaved Africans," Tucker says. "Cabins are a touch point that opens the door to discussing this history. We have the tendency to think we know everything about this history and we don't."

McGill says calling attention to cabins could result in tourist dollars for owners who could use the money for cabin

upkeep and restoration.

Touring a plantation house does not present the whole story. The cabins represent a very important part of it, too.

"The owners have the ultimate say in what can become of that property," McGill says. "Some owners are maintaining the cabins, but there are some that are deteriorating, and we want their owners to be forthcoming and be involved in preserving them."

In sleeping in cabins across the state, McGill will arrive at around 6 p.m., early enough to make video recordings of discussions of their history with experts.

He also may sleep in the Civil War uniform that he wears as a re-enactor serving with the 54th Massachusetts.

"The immediate outcome (of the project) will be a lecture series on my experiences and preserving the cabins beginning with a lecture at the National Preservation Conference, sponsored (by) the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in October."

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705 or