One Man’s Epic Quest to Visit Every Former Slave Dwelling in the United States

Joseph McGill, a descendant of slaves, has devoted his life to ensuring the preservation of these historic sites

It was his weekends as a Civil War re-enactor that urged Joseph McGill to campaign for the conservation of slave cabins. (Alan Hawes)
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Now he knows. “It’s impossible to really get comfortable with your wrists shackled.” He woke repeatedly during the night and lay awake thinking about enslaved Africans packed into the bowels of ships. His constant jostling and the clank of his shackles kept McGill awake and haunted him, too. Even so, James has repeated the ritual at more than a dozen slave dwellings since. “It makes you realize how blessed you are that your ancestors survived and struggled so that eventually their children could have a better life,” he says. His overnights have also become a source of gentle teasing by his wife, who tells him, “You’d rather sleep in shackles in a slave cabin than sleep with me.”

James and his irons weren’t part of McGill’s recent weekend in Georgia, but it was a remarkable outing nonetheless. McGill’s destination, Ossabaw Island, can be reached only by boat from a dock ten miles south of Savannah. Ossabaw is the third largest of Georgia’s barrier islands and among its least developed. In fact, its principal inhabitants are 2,500 feral pigs, as well as alligators, horseshoe crabs and armadillos. Only four people live there full time, including a 100-year-old heiress from Michigan who enjoys reading Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie novels in her family’s mansion.

“I’m not sure if this is the Old South, the New South or the weird South,” McGill says, as he disembarks at a wharf and walks past palm trees and salt marsh to a well-shaded Victorian hunting lodge. “All I know is it’s very different from other places I’ve stayed.”

The island’s centenarian, Eleanor Torrey West, whose parents bought Ossabaw in 1924 as a Southern retreat, maintains life rights to her family’s house and grounds. The state now manages the island in association with the Ossabaw Foundation, which sponsors educational programs, including one scheduled in conjunction with McGill’s visit. Among the dozen people along for the trip is Hanif Haynes, whose forebears were among the hundreds of enslaved people on four plantations that once dotted Ossabaw. Many former slaves remained after the Civil War, as sharecroppers, before resettling on the mainland in the late 19th century, mostly in the community of Pin Point, the birthplace of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“We left the island, but held on to the traditions and language,” says Haynes, who switches easily into Geechee, the Creole tongue of the Georgia Sea Islands, where isolation and close ties to West Africa and the Caribbean created a distinctive and enduring culture (its cousin in South Carolina is known as Gullah). One mark of this coastal culture that remains is “haint blue,” an azure paint that slaves and their descendants applied to doorways and windowsills to ward off spirits. The practice is thought to derive from West African beliefs that water forms a divide between the spirit and human world.

“Haint blue” paint is still visible on the three surviving slave cabins at Ossabaw, which stand in a tidy row beside what was once a field of Sea Island cotton. The cabins’ building material is also distinctive. While most slave dwellings were made of wood, and less commonly, brick, those at Ossabaw are tabby: a concretelike mixture of oyster shell, lime, sand and water. Tabby was a cheap and convenient resource along the coast, and also durable, which helps explain why Ossabaw’s cabins have survived while many others have not.

Another reason the cabins endured is that they were occupied long after the Civil War and as recently as the 1980s by caretakers and cooks working on the island. The cabins are now being returned to their original appearance. Each one is 30 by 16 feet, divided into two living spaces by a large central chimney with an open fireplace on either side. Eight to ten people would have occupied each dwelling. This left little or no room for furniture, only pallets that could be laid on the floor at night.

“Cabins like this were basically used for sleeping, and cooking indoors when the weather was bad,” McGill explains. Otherwise, slaves who labored in the fields lived almost entirely outdoors, working from sunup to sundown, and cooking and doing other chores (as well as gathering to eat and socialize) in the yard in front of their adjoining cabins.

There were originally nine cabins on this “street,” or row of slave dwellings. Of the three that survive, only one had glass in the window frames and wood covering the dirt floor. This may indicate that its original occupant was the plantation’s “driver,” a slave foreman given small privileges for supervising other bondmen. This cabin has also undergone last-minute restoration in time for McGill’s visit, including the installation of yellow pine floorboards from the mid-19th century.

“When people know I’m coming they spruce the place up,” McGill says, unfurling his bedroll. He approves of this, since “it means they do preservation work that’s needed now, rather than putting it off.”


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