This South Carolina Cabin Is Now a Crown Jewel in the Smithsonian Collections
The 16- by 20-foot dwelling once housed the enslaved; a new podcast tells its story
In the 1960s, Lavern Meggett was growing up on Edisto Island, South Carolina, with her family. Her family members had lived on the island for generations, and there was one home on the island that was particularly special—her grandmother’s.
It was a small cabin with no running water or electricity. Meggett’s grandmother (who the family called Mama) cooked on a small wood-burning stove. The kids loved it there.
“We played, we ate and we had fun because all we knew was that we were going to Mama's house. And we could run wild when we went to Mama's house,” Meggett said.
The cabin’s yard was big and open—perfect for a key component of an idyllic childhood—a makeshift playground. “We didn't have anything, so we made everything we played with. We used to play baseball, and we had a can for our ball and a stick for our bat,” she said. “We would stand on the porch and wait for whoever to get out. So the porch was like our dug out.”
The cabin—home to Meggett’s grandmother and generations before her—became vacant in the 1980s when the last family member moved out. But a few years ago, the cabin saw new life when the empty dwelling became a centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). A new Smithsonian Sidedoor podcast, "Slavery, Freedom and Grandma's House," tells the story of how the tiny cabin came to the museum.
It turned out that the Meggett’s home had a documented history dating to 1853, something the family knew little about. Their grandmother’s home was originally built as a cabin for those who had been enslaved on Edisto Island.
“We call it the Point of Pines slave cabin because it came from the site known as the Point of Pines plantation,” says the museum’s Mary Elliott, who co-curated the inaugural exhibition “Slavery and Freedom.”
The small abode was accessioned into the Smithsonian because it conveys what Elliott describes as “the harsh reality” of America’s past. Not much larger than a two car garage, the 16- by 20-foot cabin has one door, a loft space where anywhere from nine to 12 people slept, and a first floor where most of the daily tasks of living took place.
The cabin did not keep much out. Elliott says, heat, wind and vermin all came through its loose boards and thin roofing. But because it only had a single door, it kept people in.
“Really, this was a pen not unlike one you would lock up animals in at night. You put those people in there, shut that door, and they don't come out until you ring that bell the next morning,” Elliott said. “What did that do to someone's psyche and how did they transcend that?”
When the cabin was first built, it sat on what was known as a “slave street,” where rows of meager dwellings sheltered the enslaved. On the Point of Pines plantation, it was likely one of nine others.
Slave street was home to the forced labor that worked under brutal conditions picking the sea island cotton—one of the most lucrative cash crops of the time—amassing huge amounts of wealth for the landowners who sold the crop to Northern cities and abroad. The long, silky fibers would often be woven into luxury fabrics that would clothe aristocrats and royals.
As the wealth of plantation owners grew, so did the need for labor. Between 1808 and 1860, the number of people enslaved on Edisto Island nearly quadrupled from 2,600 African-Americans to 10,000.
Much of the data and information on the enslaved comes from the records of plantation owners who documented their profits and the work enslaved people were forced to do. But the Point of Pines cabin tells a story that slaveholder ledgers never would—the human story.
“It’s the place where people who were enslaved had a chance to live their own lives. It's where they were often free from control of the owner, and you see family life occurring,” says the museum’s founding director Lonnie Bunch. “You see families coming together over meals. You see people in the worst of situations bonding together because you've got eight people sleeping in a room.”
The cabins were a break from the brutality of plantation life, but not an escape from it.
“On the one hand, it's this safe space. On the other hand, it's also a space where so many horrible things happen—people were raped in these cabins. And because the cabin was not yours, you were reminded everyday that there was somebody who had greater power than you,” Bunch says. “So a cabin really allowed us to show the full range of the experience of being enslaved.”
The Point of Pines cabin was built in 1853, before the Civil War, and people continued to live in it over a century after it ended. Curator Nancy Bercaw says that part of the reason NMAAHC focused on acquiring a cabin from Edisto Island, is because the low-lying islands off the South Carolina coast were some of the earliest territories to be taken over by Union troops. In 1861, the Point of Pines plantation became a Union stronghold, and the people enslaved there became some of the first to declare themselves free.
Inside the museum, the cabin is positioned along a pathway that serves as the brink of two chapters—behind it the displays focus on slavery and before it is the promise of freedom. Just ahead is another chapter, the challenging history of the Reconstruction Era that followed the Civil War, for freedom would come with many limitations and restrictions.
After Emancipation, some people left the plantations that they had been enslaved on, moving towards cities, but many others stayed and became sharecroppers—which meant living in the same spaces they lived in while enslaved.
“African-Americans now became sharecroppers—tenant farmers. And they're back living in those same slave cabins but now it's supposed to be this ‘employer-employee relationship,” says Elliott. “Really? How do you shift overnight with that?”
Sharecroppers continued to live in poverty. What started to change, though, were the cabins. The formerly enslaved began to retrofit their cabins and make them their own. Elliott says that the family who lived in the Point of Pines cabin after Emancipation added an extra wall to break the cabin up into two sections. They even painted it—the outside was whitewashed and other parts were painted with blue “haint paint,” which was believed to ward off spirits.
But perhaps one of the most important changes to a cabin that was initially designed to contain people, was that a new door was added to it.
“The second door is a concrete manifestation of freedom,” says Bunch. “It's also about how you redefine yourself when you're not going to pick up and go. When you're going to be in that same place, but [want to say] ‘I am not the person that was owned yesterday.’”
For Bunch, the cabin represents resilience, just as much as it represents hardship.
“What I also want people to understand is that as difficult as this history is, it's ripe with optimism. It's ripe with hope, because the belief is if you can survive that cabin, there's a lot more you can survive.”
As decades went by, the Point of Pines cabin continued to serve as a home to everyone from the formerly enslaved, to sharecroppers and to families. In 2013, after the Edisto Island Historic Society donated the cabin to NMAAHC, it made a journey from South Carolina to Washington, D.C.
The cabin was carefully taken apart plank-by-plank, piece-by-piece before Edisto Island’s community, staff from the Smithsonian and members of the Meggett family. Reassembled now and on view at the two-year-old museum, it’s is recognized as the crown jewel of the collection, providing a revealing glimpse into the most formative and troubling chapters in American history.