DIHS program sheds light on slavery in the historic Holy City
Anne Blessing has spent the entirety of her life living in a classic Colonial-style single-family home in downtown Charleston that her grandmother, Elizabeth Lucas Hanahan, bought in the early 1930s.
The house, like Charleston, is saturated with history, explained Blessing at the Daniel Island Historical Society (DIHS) meeting on Jan. 16 at Church of the Holy Cross. For that reason, the Blessing property has been a stop on a popular historic home tour for many years.
“The tours have generally focused on the architecture, the furniture and the history of the white residents of the houses,” Blessing told her DIHS audience. “Over the last maybe 10 to 15 years, there has certainly been more scholarship about the enslaved people who were a part of these houses and it’s been incorporated, but it’s never been the focus.”
Joining Blessing at the DIHS program was Joe McGill, Jr., who has worked tirelessly to preserve extant slave dwellings by educating the public through overnight stays at the sites and informative presentations across the country. McGill’s efforts have been chronicled as part of the Slave Dwelling Project, a non-profit initiative he created in 2010 in partnership with the Historic Charleston Foundation. Last September, McGill and his partners approached various homeowners in downtown Charleston with an idea to shed light on the often-neglected history of homes in the area in a special tour series entitled “Beyond the Big House.”
“The buildings we choose to preserve are those that are architecturally significant and they tell the stories with the happy endings,” said McGill at the DIHS meeting. “Those stories with the happy endings usually don’t include the story that involved the people that I derive my DNA from… Based on all that I did with the project, we collaborated with the Historic Charleston Foundation and they helped us to find private owners within the City of Charleston. We thought it would be good if we could explore some of the spaces in the city that would allow us access so that we could give the visiting public some information about how the enslaved functioned.”
Eager to explore the lesser known history of her home, Blessing agreed to allow her property to be among those featured on the tour. Instead of focusing on the various beautiful attributes of her home, like in previous tours, the Big House tour took attendees directly to the kitchen, a place where those enslaved at the home once worked for hours over hot fires.
“In our house, we do have places where we know enslaved people lived and worked,” said Blessing. “The main place would be the kitchen fireplace where they did all of the cooking.”
There is also evidence that many of those enslaved who lived in the house worked on the docks, added Blessing. Because the house is so close to the water and was owned by planters and merchants, at one time it had a fully functioning commercial dock out in front.
“They were boatmen, draymen, stevedores—those kinds of jobs,” said Blessing. “What we highlighted on the tour that differentiated our house from the others was to try and think about what it must have been like for those people to constantly be near the water, where there was coming and going and auctions, or temptation to run away and how difficult that must have been.”
Although her family does not know much about those who once lived and worked in the home, something that is certain is they were artists, added Blessing. The brick that exists throughout the house and in the kitchen is obviously handcrafted, evidenced through the uniqueness of each block and the various fingerprints on the bricks, something McGill would discover as he walked through Blessing’s home prior to the tour.
According to the Slave Dwelling Project’s website, many of those enslaved at plantations in Berkeley and Charleston Counties made bricks. One of the telltale signs of what the enslaved contributed are the fingerprints that were left in sundried bricks that were handled too early.
“The minute Joe walked in he found this fingerprint,” said Blessing, referencing a photo during her presentation. “When you’re looking at the bricks, they’re definitely textured and there are so many beautiful colors, but I have never really thought about that aspect of it. When Joe’s finger is there, you can really tell that it was probably a child making the brick. He stood there and found 10 finger prints that I would have never known were there.”
McGill, who to date has reached 90 slave dwelling sites in over 18 states, began his Slave Dwelling Project journey at Boone Hall Plantation, where he had his first solo sleepover in a former slave cabin.
“Once upon a time, when I first started this thing seven years ago, I used to stay in these places all by myself because nobody thought that what I was doing had any relevance,” said McGill. “Before I started having company, I’d think about those enslaved people in those spaces a whole lot more. That was their time of serenity—their time of peace for whatever peace they could muster in such a system. You had to think that they thought about escaping. They thought about the next day that they’d have to wake up and do these regimented things of what their masters wanted them to do.”
Since then, the project has grown at such a rate that he no longer spends the night alone, he explained. Instead, his nights are filled with informative lectures and stories by the campfire.
“More recently, when I sleep in the places, I’m not alone anymore,” McGill continued. “There’s always somebody else there. It’s the most powerful now because the sleeping is no longer the most important part of what I do. The conversation around the campfire now is more relevant. The opportunities to interact with these homeowners now has become more relevant. The opportunity to have school groups or an organized group come in and experience this is more relevant than the sleepovers.”
If interested in participating in one of the Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight stays or to view a full schedule of events, visit http://slavedwellingproject.org/ to register. Coming up just around the corner, the project will host a sleepover at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston S.C. on Feb. 15 and a living history exhibition on Feb. 16.
There are also varying options for membership, all of which are tax deductible.