Greenville, SC: Sleeping in a relocated slave dwelling

This is another wonderful post that reveals the history of slave dwellings brought to us by Joseph McGill Jr. and the Slave Dwelling Project.  I cannot think of a greater experience than going back to the place where our ancestors lived during slavery.  Thank you so much, Joe,  for writing about your experiences and sharing them. It is the next best thing besides being there.  If these wonderful updates have kept you fascinated or helped you learn more, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Robin Foster
About Our Freedom
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Joe at Roper Mountain Slave Cabin
Sleeping in a Relocated Slave Dwelling
By Joseph McGill, Jr. | Program Officer, Southern Office
National Trust for Historic Preservation | William Aiken House, 456 King Street, 3rd Floor, Charleston, SC 29403 | Phone: 843.722.8552 | Fax: 843.722.8652 | Email: |

Saturday, June 11, 2011 found me in Greenville, SC to stay at Roper Mountain Science Center in a former slave dwelling that was disassembled from its original location and reassembled there. Preservationists prefer that buildings are restored in their original locations but we know that this is not always the case. This is an example of an alternative that can save a building.

Since the project started McGill has come across many property owners who either want to move a slave dwelling from or to their property.  The former slave dwelling that is now located at the Living History Farm at Roper Mountain Science Center is an example of how that process can work.

This would be my second venture into the upstate of South Carolina to stay in a former slave dwelling. The first was Morris Street in Anderson early in the project. I first learned about the building at Roper Mountain years ago when an application for funding the move came across my desk. At that time, the Slave Dwelling Project was only an idea but I did make a request to spend a night in the dwelling at some point in the future.

On this trip, I traveled with my daughter, Jocelyn, and my wife, Vilarin. Although Jocelyn shared the experience of spending a night in a slave dwelling with me in the past, she and Vilarin had conveniently booked a room in a Greenville Hampton Inn. After my stay in the slave dwelling on Saturday night, our intent was to deliver Jocelyn to Tuskegee University in Alabama on Sunday to spend a week in their VET STEP program.

I arrived at Roper Mountain around 10:00 am as planned. I was surprised and impressed that there was a young African American female in period dress interpreting the dwelling. I only regret that time did not allow me to interact with her. I only know that she is a volunteer and a high school senior. Knowing that we have so much in common, I wanted to compare notes and know what inspired her to take on such a controversial task. 

The 23X16-foot structure was built before the Civil War by people enslaved by Dr. Thomas Blackburn Williams, a prominent Greenville physician. After slavery, the dwelling became a home for families who worked on a nearby farm. The last occupants moved out in the early 1930’s. Unfortunately, only fifty percent of the original materials were able to be used in the reassembled building.
Roper Mountain visitors
I was scheduled to interact with the Roper Mountain visiting public from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm. It turned out that the initial group occupied the entire time span. The question and answer period proved to be most interesting. We covered everything from slave dwellings to current day race relations.

The center provides science classes for school children across South Carolina and also teaches in-service programs. It sits on 62 acres with classrooms/labs, a pioneer farm, nature trails, a planetarium and observatory, life science labs, a rainforest and an amphitheater. Public programs at the center are limited to Friday with the "Starry Nights" program and the Second Saturday is public day. I discovered that I was not going to spend the night alone in the dwelling. Thomas Riddle, a local history teacher and his son, Ben, would spend the night with me.

When the park closed, Vilarin, Jocelyn, and I left with the intent to come back at 7:00 pm. On the return trip, we experienced a severe thunder storm complete with rain and hail. My first thought was that a tornado was approaching.  Fortunately, I was wrong. The storm was a testament that the dwelling was properly sealed because no water entered the structure. When the storm passed, Jocelyn and Vilarin left for their hotel room leaving me with Thomas. 
Joe and Thomas Riddle in Roper Mountain Slave Cabin
The company of Thomas was much welcomed. He gave me a thorough history of the dwelling with accompanying video on his laptop computer. The disassembling and reassembling were all well documented. We left Roper Mountain and visited the original site of the cabin. The dwelling was moved because of a proposed housing development. Unfortunately the current economic conditions have forced the developer to alter his plans. Along with saving the cabin, preservationists were able to save one barn. One barn was lost. The big house was moved to another location on the site and is now being restored.

After the tour of the original site, we proceeded to the city of Greenville. I had no idea Greenville was so vibrant with night life. Hundreds, I would even venture to say thousands of people of all hues, were taking in all the city had to offer. Pedestrian traffic galore, live music, sidewalk dining, it was all happening there. In the city is where we met Ben, Thomas’s son. His mission was to pick up a few items that Tom forgot before meeting back at the cabin.
Thomas Riddle (left) Ben Riddle (right)
At the cabin, we all decided to occupy one of the two rooms. Ben chose the bed, Thomas chose the spot by the door and I chose the spot by the back window. Before going to sleep, we first recorded a video that will be used for some type of promotion in the future. We all slept well.

The next morning we all discovered that we shared the cabin with a nesting Carolina Wren. The nest was located in a basket about one foot above my head as I slept. This experience taught me that relocating a slave dwelling can work if there is a plan and resources in place to sustain the structure. The leadership at Roper Mountain should be commended for overcoming all of the challenges of dissembling, moving, reassembling, interpreting, and maintaining a former slave dwelling on their property.

The remainder of Joseph McGill Jr's schedule includes:
  • Stay and lecture at Sotterley Plantation, Hollywood, Maryland, July 9-10
  • Family reunion lecture, Charleston, SC , July 30
  • Lecture, Greenwood County Historical Society, July 31
  • Lecture, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis Missouri, August 14
  • Panel Discussion, American Association of State and Local History, Richmond, VA, Sept. 14 – 17
For more information, follow these links:

Cliveden Opens Its Servant's Quarters For the First Time in Its History
Expert on slave quarters to speak at Bellamy Mansion
Saving slave cabins one at a time
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  1. Joe, Your work validates that historic preservation is the highest form of education. It is quit rate that a person in the 21st century can have your experience to sleep and spend time in spaces once shared my slaves. Learning about the history on site with Thomas, and feeling, touching, and sensing the past in the present is a special honor I'm sure.

    I can't wait to see what other historic places you make visible to the public.


  2. Please excuse my typing errors above: 'rate' should be rare and 'my slaves' should just be slaves.

  3. Joe,
    Following your travels and Slave Dwelling Project highlights not only the importance of historic preservation, but has given light to towns, communities and the social history of the various locations of our ancestors. I do hope these experiences will be documented in a compiled book. This is the type of project I would love to incorporate in the Ancestry and Academics Program. Thanks for sharing!


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