S.C. Plantation To Open Restored Cabins for Tours
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Feb. 17, 2009
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, S.C., may be famous for its gardens, but it's also notable as one of the few places in America where black people have been living and working for more than three centuries. From 1679 until the 1990s, African Americans have been living in cabins there, tending Magnolia's grounds.
Now, for the first time ever, the five remaining cabins, built between 1850 and 1900, have been restored. On Feb. 28, the plantation will hold a grand opening, and tours of the new exhibit, called "From Slavery to Freedom," will begin the following day.
"It just seemed like the kind of thing whose time had come," says Taylor Nelson, whose family founded Magnolia Plantation in the 1600s. "What sparked the idea to actually [restore the cabins] is that I was working for a couple of years with my grandfather at Magnolia for a couple years, and he passed away. We thought it was an appropriate time to tell that story."
Nelson organized a luncheon last year with the descendants of slaves and freedmen who had lived in the cabins. "We all got together to talk about how their input could be taken into this project, and the lunch ended with everyone holding hands and singing 'Amazing Grace'."
The cabins "were in pretty bad shape. They were in danger of falling to pieces," says DJ Tucker, senior project contractor at The Living History Group, based in Charleston, the exhibit's designers. In January 2007, before the work began, archaeologists conducted a six-month survey of the area.
"We were just gobsmacked about the number of Colonial artifacts we were finding," Tucker says: a cup, a candlestick, a button from a British uniform sold to slaves, and pieces of Colono Ware, early pottery made by African slaves. "It was tremendous."
Last February, workers focused on the cabins. "Once we got past the [1980s] additions, we found the craftsmanship was excellent," says Kevin Meek, CEO of Charleston-based Rock Creek Craftsmen. "We recycled all the materials we could; preservation is the ultimate green."
The Living History Group restored each of the cabins to a different time period: an 1850 slave cabin, an 1870 freedmen's home, a 1900 gardener's home, a 1930 gardener's home, and the 1969 Civil rights-era home of the Leech Family, third-generation residents of Magnolia, who lived in the cabin without running water until the 1970s.
On a tour, visitors will listen to an interpreter highlight the cabins' histories as well as parts of the preservation project. Then they'll be able to wander through the structures, including the oldest cabin, where half of the two-family dwelling has been left unrestored as a time capsule.
For more information, visit Magnolia Plantations and Gardens.
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