Creaky boards, high pitched mosquito whines, bellows from gigantic frogs and gentle hoots from owls. Those are just a few of the sounds that a night in slave cabins will offer. Below you will find three short videos of our overnight stay at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina during last summer’s Marquette University High School Civil War Adventure. The group, 16 students and 6 teachers, slept in Magnolia’s slave cabins along side our guide of three days, historian Joe McGill. It was an incredible experience that I have found very difficult to describe.I hope these videos and student reactions below will help shed light on this unique experience but also show why this type of educational trip can be valuable for students to understand history outside of the classroom.
In addition to the beautiful camellia and azalea gardens that surround Magnolia’s impressive plantation house, Magnolia’s four slave cabins rest in a wooded enclave. In contrast to the Big House, the cabins are surrounded by swamps full of spanish moss draped cyprus and tupelo gum trees. Unlike other plantations we visited that centered their historical interpretation on slave experiences, each of Magnolia’s cabin interprets a different time period of habitation from the times of slavery through the 1970s. The realization that these buildings sheltered African Americans up to a few decades ago was a surprise. Most of our group thought that few people would want to live in former slave cabins but we were clearly wrong in that assumption.
Isaac, a former resident of the cabins, provided testimony that proved these cabins provided meaningful life to their inhabitants long after slavery. He shared his life inside and outside the cabins during the Civil Rights Era. Magnolia’s gardens and swamps provided “a paradise” for him during that turbulent era; it was a place where he and his family felt safe. The irony that a former slave plantation provided refuge when violence erupted in the Charleston community was not lost on our group. He provided a small group of us a personal tour of his family’s cabin and it was one of those experiences that you felt very fortunate to be a part of. Below is a video tour of the slave cabin where Isaac and his family lived.
The next video shows another cabin in which four teachers and Joe McGill chose to lay and sleep.
Not only were Magnolia’s gardens and swamps impressive to observe during the day, they also provided incredible nighttime listening. With a few thin boards separating you from the wild environs, the sounds kept me up and developed into a wild symphony of nature. I thought how Isaac, cramped in his family’s cabin, could not wait for the sun to come up so he could get out and explore. I also imagined northern soldiers who campaigned in the South and what they would have thought about the unique southern landscape and all of its sounds.
Below you will find student reactions from their stay at both Magnolia and Hopsewee Plantations which were written the morning after their overnight experience.
“Magnolia’s four cabins were set up in a chronological order based on the style of the cabin. I slept in the cabin from 1920, I think. The Magnolia cabin I slept had walls covered in newspaper and had a fireplace, and a stove. The obvious difference between the Magnolia cabin and the Hopsewee cabin was the time period that they represented. The style of the cabins was similar. Both had a fireplace in the center, and wood that would close over the windows. In conclusion, the cabins at Magnolia are better maintained, and show the differences between the building styles over time.” –Sam Gebhard
“Sleeping in the Slave Cabins really changed my view of how the slaves lived. The cabins that we slept in were kind of cramped even for the 6 of our gear and us. I can’t imagine what it would be like with a full family. The slaves would have to deal with hoards of bugs, the heat, and space arrangements, making even sleep a problem. Sleeping in more than optimal conditions gave us only a taste of what the slaves had to live through.” –Quinn Furumo
“Sleeping at Magnolia and Hopsewee Plantations showed me the true dire straits of slave life. The slave cabins we slept in were said to be high quality slave cabins, yet we couldn’t fit over five people in a cabin. How would two families fit of four, five, six? Also, as we were told, if the slaves expressed any discontent at the crowded situation, their children would be sold in a heartbeat. The level of injustice in the fields compounds in the home.” -Jacob Webb
“Traveling through different states and learning about the little aspects of Civil War has been a wonderful experience. Also having the opportunity to bond with my classmates, and teachers, and getting to know them has been great. This was a great way to start the summer.” –Donovan Taylor
“Sleeping at the Hopeswee and Magnolia Plantations has been a real eye opener for me on this trip. Its one thing to learn about the places where slaves lived, but its another to make your own first hand account by sleeping in one. I can now a slighter more great version of how slaves might have felt and their hardships.” –Connor Johnson