Monday, October 29, 2012

Pioneering efforts continue at Sweet Briar College


We are so very fortunate to have you on the front lines pioneering the cause to share the history of our ancestors at these sites, Joe.  We wish you continued blessings and health as you strive to make sure our heritage continues to be shared and preserved.  We also hope that those who should take part and open doors will soon do so.  We appreciate your dedication.  The accounts of the following participants will be published separately:
Crystal Rossen
Dave Griffith
Lynn Rainville
Mike Hayslett
Toni Battle

Stay tuned!
Robin Foster
About Our Freedom

Pioneering efforts continue at Sweet Briar College
By Joseph McGill, Jr. | Field Officer | Charleston Field Office
National Trust for Historic Preservation | William Aiken House l 456 King Street, 3rd Floor, Charleston, South Carolina 29403 |




Despite spending a night in 37 extant former slave dwellings in 12 states in 2 ½ years, bureaucracy has always been a challenge for the Slave Dwelling Project to overcome.  Private owners and not for profit organizations get it and are well represented among the 37 stays, however, state and nationally owned entities and institutions of higher learning had never given the project the green light.  That would all change with stay number 38, Sweet Briar College.

Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia was founded in 1901, the legacy of Indiana Fletcher Williams, who left her entire estate to found an institution in memory of her only daughter, Daisy, who died at the age of 16 in 1884. At the time of Mrs. Williams' death in 1900, her estate consisted of more than a million dollars, and over 8,000 acres of land, including the Sweet Briar Plantation.

On Saturday, October 6 I found myself transitioning from Bacon’s Castle, my first stay in Virginia, to Sweet Briar College which would be my second.  That transition required a 2 ½ hour westward drive at night.  Luckily for me, I was joined by Toni Battle who had traveled all the way from San Francisco, California to participate in both stays.  I knew that Toni had at least one person who was lynched in her family tree but I found out during the drive that there were at least two more people who were lynched in her ancestral past.  The details were not pleasant but what accounts of people being lynched are?  The details of the matter helped to keep me focused on the unfamiliar highway 60 westward drive through the winding foothills of Virginia. 

Arriving late into the night, the hospitality began immediately with the security guard escorting us to our quarters, which was located between the big house and the slave cabin.  Toni immediately speculated that this was once the quarters of the overseer.  The stay in the slave cabin would occur the following night.  The security guard then gave us a ride to the dining hall.  During the late night meal in the dining hall and upon our return to the quarters, Toni and I had ample time to recap our stay at Bacon’s Castle the previous night and anticipate the remaining time that we would spend at Sweet Briar College before we both turned in for the night.

The next morning while walking to breakfast, Toni and I had the opportunity to take in the full beauty of the Sweet Briar College campus.  While at breakfast I met my host Dr. Lynn Rainville.  Since I could not remember how Sweet Briar College became a stop for the Slave Dwelling Project, I asked Dr. Rainvlle to remind me.  She stated that she heard me on National Public Radio (NPR) when the project was in its infancy.  Being quite knowledgeable of Sweet Briar’s history she was quite forthcoming about the complete history of Sweet Briar when it existed as a plantation and started as a college.  I learned from her that Elijah Fletcher the founder of the plantation was a former abolitionist from Vermont.  I also learned that the college was founded in 1901 for the education of White women.  It would later take a court order to break the will to allow the college to be integrated.  After breakfast, Dr. Rainville accompanied us to see the cabin.  She verified that Toni was correct in assuming that the house that we stayed in the previous night was historically the house of the overseer.

Like the stay at Bacon’s Castle, I again had the opportunity to witness Toni experience the cabin for the first time only this time the same applied to me because this was also my first time in the cabin at Sweet Briar.   Inside it had hand hewn logs that were still virtually round with the only flat side coming in direct contact with the ceiling.   Above the ceiling was an attic that was converted into living space, like other cabins I’ve seen, access could be gained to the upper level by some steep stairs.  It was less than half the size of the cabin at Bacon’s Castle but larger than some of the other 37 of which I have stayed.   After the last inhabitant of the cabin moved out in the 1920s, the cabin had been used for many things to include a classroom and farm tool museum and had been modernized accordingly as evidenced by the electrical outlets along the wall.  A forge from its existence as a farm tool museum still occupied a corner.

Dr. Rainville had my remaining time at Sweet Briar College chalk full of activities.  My first official duty was to give a slave dwelling presentation in the Sweet Briar College Museum, an event that went exceedingly well.  After the presentation, I led the group on a tour of the slave cabin.  During the tour of the cabin, I met Dr. Jo Ellen Parker, the president of Sweet Briar College.  I took the time to thank her publicly for allowing the Slave Dwelling Project to come to Sweet Briar College.  Additionally, I requested and received her permission to leverage the stay at Sweet Briar to help convince other leaders of institutions of higher learning to follow this fine example. 

 The tour of the slave cabin was followed by a tour of the big house appropriately, where the college president now presides.  Dr. Rainville took charge and did not sugarcoat any of the history.  It reminded me of a similar tour I took at Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown County, SC that I also loved.  The senior White tour guide at Hopsewee was quite knowledgeable of the history of the plantation and was quite professional in telling the whole story.

Dr. Rainville had arranged for 8 other people to share the sleepover in the slave cabin with me.  It was an interesting mix of people which included Crystal Rosson whose ancestor was the last to inhabit the cabin.   Knowing this made the night even more special for all involved.  The night was made even more special by Toni Battle’s smudging or blessing the space and the pouring of libation.  We created a powerful circle where ancestors were called, confessions were made and tears were shed.  After some storytelling and a sweet song which was sung by Barbara Payne, we all drifted off to sleep. 

When we all woke up the next morning in denial of snoring, Lynn then made an attempt to leave the cabin and at that moment we found ourselves mysteriously locked in.  Apparently, David Griffith got up early and left the cabin mistakenly engaging the outside latch.  Lynn informed us that David would be back and a professional photographer was on the way but I took the opportunity to speculate out loud about how we came to be locked inside the cabin.  David indeed got back before our thoughts got too outrageous, however he did deny locking the door.  The group’s time at the cabin was concluded by photographic documentation before most of us proceeded to the dining hall for breakfast.  It was at the breakfast table that I had the opportunity to talk candidly with Crystal whose ancestor was the last to stay in the cabin about her experience.  She mentioned that without the Slave Dwelling Project, she would never have interacted with that space in any similar manner.  I informed her that I wanted her to speak about her experience at a presentation that was planned during lunch.  Not only did I want her to speak but I wanted her to be the closer, she hesitatingly accepted.  I also asked Michael Hayslett to give an account of his slave cabin experience during the presentation.

After breakfast, Toni, Dr. Rainville and I had some down time which was used to go to the overseer’s cottage to shower, change clothes and check out.   After checking out, we drove to the slave cemetery which was located on a hill on the campus.  In her spare time, Dr. Rainville documents the often forgotten and neglected graves of African Americans.  She did a beautiful job of ensuring that the African American grave site on the Sweet Briar campus is properly marked and recognized.  Toni in her reassuring and special way ensured that we paid proper respect to the ancestors who were laid to rest in this sacred space.  In all fairness, we visited the grave site of the plantation and college founders which is located on a hill overlooking the college.

 I adjusted the lunch time presentation to address dwellings in all 12 states that I have stayed in to date.  Toni Battle, Michael Hayslett and Crystal  Rosson all participated in the presentation as I requested of them.  As promised, Dr. Jo Ella Parker, President of Sweet Briar, attended the lecture.  During the question and answer period, I was made aware by some community members of other slave dwellings in the area that need immediate attention.  One couple that resides in Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland made me aware of slave dwellings there.  It was then established that with the work that Dr. Rainville is doing to reinterpret the slave cabin at Sweet Briar College along with the support that she is getting from Dr. Parker, the network is now in place to start the process of saving the endangered properties mentioned in the question and answer period and other like properties in the area of Sweet Briar College.

The plan was then to address Dr. Rainville’s class after the lunch time presentation.  A local TV station changed that plan.  They interviewed me but appropriately they were more interested in the Crystal Rosson story, so much so, that they wanted to interview her inside the cabin.  Toni and I said our goodbyes to Dr. Rainville and proceeded to the cabin with the TV camera crew and Crystal.  And that’s how it ended, with Crystal being the closer.

Afterthoughts:

Patience is certainly necessary when trying to establish the legitimacy of oneself or a project.  Spending a night in 38 slave dwellings in 12 states over the past 2 ½ years are major steps in the direction of establishing legitimacy for the Slave Dwelling Project.  To that end, stay number 38, Sweet Briar College, has thrown out the gauntlet.  Before Sweet Briar, other institutions of higher learning, government and state owned entities that are stewards of extant slave dwellings have been approached to participate in this project, to no avail.
One major reason that slavery prospered was because it was an institution.  In an ironic twist, generally, institutions have not yet embraced this project.  I want the bureaucrats to know that I come in peace, not ghost hunting, not seeking reparations, and not looking for artifacts but to simply acknowledge you for doing the right thing by owning and restoring an element of the African American built environment.  Furthermore, I want to use your example to encourage others to do likewise.

Before I paint all bureaucrats with one brush, let me announce that the College of Charleston will be added to the 2013 schedule for the Slave Dwelling Project.  Additionally, I am in communications with the Superintendent of Kingsley Plantation about spending a night in a slave cabin at that location, in fact, I got the email requesting a phone call or face-to-face visit while I was at Sweet Briar College.

Thank you, Sweet Briar College, for taking a chance on the Slave Dwelling Project.

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