"It's Living History" in Nacoochee Valley

Thank you, Caroline!  This is a moving piece that brings great hope for what the future will hold as we think about bringing attention to slave dwellings and their first occupants. It is great to see descendants take part.  We appreciate you sharing the history of Nacoochee Valley as well as the impact of The Slave Dwelling Project experience at the African American Heritage Site at the Sautee Nacoochee Center We published Attention to Slave Dwellings:  "By any means necessary,"  by Joseph McGill, Jr, for those who may have missed it. 

Robin Foster
About Our Freedom

"It's Living History" in Nacoochee Valley
Submitted by, Caroline Crittenden, project coordinator

Andy Allen (left), Caroline Crittenden (center), Stacy Allen (right). Photo credit:  Billy Chism, White County News
In 1822, slaves came to Nacoochee Valley in Northeast Georgia against their will with the early white settlers to clear and cultivate the land in corn fields, gold mines and mills of wealthy white landowners. There were 462,198 slaves in Georgia in 1860 according to the federal census. In that same year, 263 black people in bondage were reported in White County.

"We were worked in all weathers,” wrote Frederick Douglass. “It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him.”

One hundred and fifty years after emancipation, the descendants of a slave owner in Nacoochee Valley preserved slave dwelling, an antebellum artifact, and the impact of a “peculiar institution” on Nacoochee Valley during that dark moment in our nation’s history. Descendants of slaves, who still live in the Bean Creek community nearby, also wanted this cabin preserved as a “memorial and sacred space” where their stories and cultural traditions would be interpreted from the African American perspective. According to the blind matriarch in Bean Creek, “If we don’t keep this history alive and preserve what’s left, our children and grandchildren will never know the history and hardships of our ancestors.”

And so it was, on April 27 at the African American Heritage Site at the Sautee Nacoochee Center.
A re-enactment about runaway slaves who became black Union soldiers and a presentation about the Slave Dwelling Project in front of the Nacoochee slave cabin was the kind of program envisioned by those who have been so deeply involved in this preservation project.  

Collaborators from Bean Creek were enthralled by the re-enactment and reassured that this project is guided by a determination to honor this unique heritage, a shared legacy of slavery, and a desire to strengthen the ties that bind. 

Proud to play his part, Bean Creek resident Lawrence Dorsey participated for the first time as a re-enactor, a silent back drop for Joseph McGill’s program. Lighting lanterns and tending the fire, Lawrence was a freedman wearing a hand-stitched block shirt made from 1850 fabric.

As the sun set behind the cabin and dusk descended, the lanterns hanging from tree branches drew our attention toward the black soldiers dressed in the uniforms of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment Volunteer Infantry. The audience was transported to the nineteenth century by figures assembled in front of the rustic cabin with authentic military uniforms, guns and equipment used during the fight for freedom.

Echoes of “Am I Not a Man” were words once uttered by Frederick Douglass during the War, “If anyone asks if a slave would fight, tell him no. If anyone asks if a Negro would fight, tell him yes.” Recounting the assault on Morris Island and the battle at Battery Wagner, Joseph McGill told of the terrible loss of life suffered by the 54th, which ultimately proved that former slaves serving as black soldiers would fight ferociously for freedom. More the 200, 000 black soldiers fought on the battle fields of freedom because the 54th did not falter from fear or fatigue. “Tell them we did not fight with our backs to the enemy. We died facing forward!”

When re-enactor James Brown began his harrowing account as a runaway slave, recaptured and tortured and undaunted, he captured the crowd’s attention with the BOOM of a black powder rifle, like those used by black soldiers in blue. “Before I be a slave, I be buried in my grave,” he wailed. The re-enactors’ performance of story telling and the Slave Dwelling program was compelling.

Questions during the “talk-back” (Q&A) session ranged from the Slave Dwelling Project, to paraphernalia worn by soldiers during the Civil War, to the suffering of people in bondage, to other slave dwellings in Georgia. When the program ended, the audience toured the cabin by the light of a fire and lanterns to examine the furnishings, to read the “interpretive laundry” and talk to the Joseph McGill and James Brown before night fell.

The highlight of the evening for me was being with a small group who gathered with Joseph and James in the cabin long after the audience was gone. I was grateful for the time and attention they devoted to Bean Creek residents Sabrina Dorsey and Stacey Allen as they shared their personal experiences with overt and latent racism, with discrimination as children and as adults.

McGill’s presence and his performance provided an opportunity for Sabrina to uncork bottled up feelings in the intimate setting and safety of the cabin with Joe and James and Stacey that night. Another companion, Sabina’s contemporary and classmate, shared her "ah haaah" moments, when her social consciousness was awakened, as a young white college student, by dramatic scenes of police brutality and instances of social injustice during the Civil Rights era. 

Andy Allen was pleased that her son Stacey shared the experience and spent the night with Joe and James. As a close personal friend, I was moved by the way Stacey “took” to Mr. McGill and Mr. Brown, like a child watching in wonder, soaking up wisdom and oral history, sitting on the knees of his elders.

Stacey embraced his junior status role and nickname "Youngblood" as he sat quietly rocking by the flickering fire, poking embers, nursing his pipe, listening intently to Joe and James, absorbing the "awesome" experience, and sipping some “Oh, Be Joyful” (Brown’s brandy). 
Stacey settled in for the evening as though that cabin were his home. For all intents and purposes, it could be his ancestral home, and it will be there for his grandchildren. Indeed, it may have been the same or a similar dwelling for one or more of his ancestors who lived in bondage. 

I quietly savored every moment, every expression, but sensed that Joe and James might like to pursue their conversation in private with those young impressionable people. It was a magical evening, and I was privileged to have been a part of it. Framed by an open door, the soft glow of lanterns created silhouettes of the black figures gathered within the cabin as I drove away into the dark night at midnight. 

The dim light spilling from the doorway of the dark slave dwelling was like an antebellum image in a time warp, like an aged sepia print or a tin type snapshot of a moment that symbolized the culmination of a quest to save this cabin and include the history of black people in the story of Nacoochee Valley. Thirteen years of fundraising and preservation work was triggered by a chance encounter with a young black girl who visited the local history museum one day when I happened to stop by to buy a book about the area’s environmental and historic resources.

This little local museum highlighted the history of Native Americans and early white settlers who migrated to the Sautee and Nacoochee valleys. After perusing the artifacts and reading the text, an inquisitive black student commented that there were no exhibits about African Americans on display. “There’s nothing here that speak to me or tells the story of my people.” Her critique was concise and absolutely correct. When asked what she would like to see, she replied, “I want to know about slavery and the contributions of black people to our community.”

This young girl’s observation about the omission of black people from the history of the Valley launched a project that focused on the history of black people in Bean Creek and eventually wove the threads of history of Native, European and African Americans into the textured fabric that tells a more complete story about this little corner of Northeast Georgia. A casual comment created a unique collaboration between the descendants of slaves and slave owners.

An immeasurably valuable but vulnerable antebellum artifact was saved when a dilapidated and deteriorating slave dwelling was discovered, donated, and restored by the descendants of the slave owner and slaves preserving a shared legacy of slavery. Together, we preserved this antebellum dwelling and establish an African American Heritage Site for the inclusion of the black experience in the history of the Valley. According to Andy Allen, who desegregated school buses in White County, Georgia, 35 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, “It’s not about you; it not about me. It’s about preserving our history and historic sites for future generations.” We wanted to reveal the history and inhumanity of slavery and confront the lingering legacy of racial injustice endured by black people. We wanted to tell the truth about our history, celebrate the contributions of African Americans, and strengthen bonds between black and white residents in our community.

On his quest with the Slave Dwelling Project, Joseph McGill travels from one hard planked bed to a rough sawn or swept dirt floor to another lumpy sleeping pallet, never knowing if he’ll be sharing the night with others or the mattress ticking with a bed of mice, bed bugs or something sinister. On the night of April 27th, he slept in the relative comfort of a cabin once occupied by the “house servants” of a slave master in Georgia.

In 1860, E.P. Williams owned of 18 slaves and 3 slave cabins. Built on a foundation of hand-hewn timbers and framed with lumber bearing the tell-tale marks of a sash saw, the 16 x 28 “single pen” Nacoochee slave dwelling perched on stacked rock piers in plain view of the Unicoi Turnpike for more than 150 years, the only slave cabin to survive in the region. The conspicuous location and quality of the cabin’s construction may have reflected the slave owner’s desire to display his prosperity and his “benevolence” toward the black people enslaved and exploited by him.

Although Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863, it applied only to states occupied by Union forces, so it had little effect on Georgia and other slave states. Records indicate that many black people remained enslaved long after Lincoln signed the Proclamation. Many people in bondage heard about freedom long after the Civil War ended on April 26th, 1865. News of freedom found its way to Confederate states on different dates. Slavery and involuntary servitude were not formally abolished until Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December of 1865. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States...”  A document discovered in an attic 150 years later indicates that some bondsmen may have been freed in Nacoochee Valley on July, 15th, 1865, if not before. The property owner signed a sharecropper’s agreement, “Acording to Militery orders,” and a former slave made his mark.

The Nacoochee slave cabin (circa 1850) survived, in large part, because the property owners remodeled it as a cottage, long after emancipation, for use by subsequent generations of white family members. It is a supporting structure on the National Register of Historic Places. Now fully restored and framed by 19th century landscaping and antebellum artifacts, this cabin provides a focal point for the story of a people whose labor contributed in countless ways to life in the hills and valleys of Northeast Georgia. The impetus for restoring this cabin came from a sense of urgency shared by the descendants of slaves and slave owners about preserving this vulnerable and vanishing history.  

On a larger scale, Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project is calling the nation’s attention to the plight and importance of preserving antebellum structures that once sheltered thousands of enslaved black people. Sabrina, Stacey, Andy, Lawrence and other Bean Creek residents are full of praise for what Joe and others are doing to raise awareness about this unique and largely untold story.

To see this cabin “occupied” once more during Joseph McGill’s sleepover was an opportunity for reflection. Three direct descendants of enslaved people slept in the Nacoochee cabin the night he came to the Valley. That image of dark figures huddled around a rustic table and highlighted by flickering flames with light and laughter spilling through an opened doorway onto the swept yard of red Georgia clay will stay in my memory. It will inspire and motivate me and my Bean Creek collaborators to present many more meaningful programs like the Slave Dwelling Project.

We were extremely fortunate to have someone from the National Trust for Historic Preservation visit our African American Heritage Site and grateful that Joseph McGill included the Nacoochee slave cabin in his Slave Dwelling Project. We are honored that McGill slept here, his first slave dwelling in the state of Georgia. We are grateful he made it such a rewarding experience. 

Among the 129 people who attended the event, we were pleased to have representatives from the Georgia Department of Economic Development; University of Georgia/School of Environmental Design & Historic Preservation; the African American Programs Coordinator for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources/Historic Preservation Division; Appalachian Studies Center; the director of White County Community Planning & Economic Development;
members of the Sautee Nacoochee History Museum and the White County Historical Society, as well as many others from near and far, black and white.

Caroline Crittenden, project coordinator

Below are some comments about the program by people who were in the audience:

Allen Stovall: (our UGA landscape architect from Athens, GA [My wife and I truly enjoyed last night's slave dwelling project and were happy to be there. The audience seemed [highly attentive and inquisitive.] It was good to see Bean Creek folks there. Lawrence is a treasure. You have created an important missing piece of local history through this project and it's encouraging to see how it's being presented and the potential for networking with groups across the state and region.

Candice Dyer: (writer and contemporary of Stacey Allen and Sabrina Dorsey, commenting on the intimate follow up conversation in the privacy of the cabin after the program):  I had such a good time last night -- staying up past midnight having an intense, honest, and illuminating conversation with people who can teach me something about life. I don't get that nearly enough. But it also dawned on me how important it was to Stacey to spend the night there and that he and the other guys might want some space and time to reflect while they were there, and that I might be distracting or detracting from that -- unintentionally. I sincerely hope that wasn't the case. Thank you again so much for cluing me in to this -- I hope you'll keep me in your magical loop! 

Anne Hall: (former president of the Sautee Nacoochee Center) Thank you for the incredible program tonight. Joseph McGill and James Brown spoke with conviction and passion and the skies cleared for a special evening. I appreciate all your work and all others involved in making this happen in the Valley.

Stacey Allen: (descendant of slaves owned by the Williams family, Andy’s son) It was awesome! The Slave Dwelling Project has regional and national significance.

Jim Johnston:  (cabin donor and descendant of slave owner E.P. Williams) Well done.

Denise Hartzell: (former history teacher who said she would crawl over broken glass to get Joseph McGill to come to her class of young black students in Atlanta, to talk about his project)    
How I wish I'd been a fly on the wall of the cabin for the late-night conversation! Those are the moments to be savored, and the biggest reason, to treasure and protect the cabin, come what may... As time goes on, it will be a place where descendants of slaves, slave owners and folks from "off" (like me!) can gather to share experiences and emotions, to promote mutual understanding and (hopefully) healing. Joe McGill's evening got us off to a good start at that.

McGill is "still waters," meaning that he's a thinker... We connected in conversation about the slaves who had to live in the attic in the house in Connecticut. He seemed to understand that we had done our homework, and respected what he was up to. We had a snippet of conversation about the slaves in that attic and Anne Frank...it was going to get interesting, we got interrupted... That's another reason I hate that I missed the late night chat. When I mentioned listening to NPR on my commutes to and from Atlanta, he was surprised and commented that he didn't think that this "red state" was NPR territory. He pronounced our little corner of the world "interesting."

Ham Schwartz: (proprietor of the Stovall House, where the DNR/HPD African American Programs Coordinator stayed. According to documentation and the oral history of Valley residents, this B&B was built by a pathologically brutal slave owner at the opposite end of the treatment-of-slaves continuum from the slave cabin’s original owner E.P. Williams.) 
"The event was excellent, outstanding, captivating!"

Charles Aiken:  “The evening's event was excellent in every way! Thought provoking, socially significant, historically actuate. There was quite a crowd, and I was especially pleased to see so many of the Bean Creek residents. The Nacoochee cabin is a jewel, and you have guarded it and ensured that the Heritage Site would be a treasure for the community of black and white.” 

Anne Prescott (African American from Douglasville): Thank you so much for making it possible to share this often hidden history at the Heritage Site. The impact slavery had on our society is still with us. What you're doing is meaningful and so important. It was a wonderful evening.   

Peggy Sikes:  Fantastic evening! The African American Heritage Site provides amazing opportunities to educate children and adults about the story of slavery and racial injustice glossed over in history books.

Tom O'Bryant: (Director of White County Community Planning and Economic Development) This story is so unique to our area, and this project is so important for our community and our understanding of the history of African Americans in Northeast Georgia.  

Paul Brown:  (who sang Civil War tunes and played Spirituals on his banjo) What a wonderful event! I hope to help with any project coming up and mention me to the Bean Creekers about getting up a spiritual singing group. It's great that all your hard work for so many years is paying off so wonderfully!

Carolyn Hayes: (Sweetwater Coffeehouse sponsor) The event was absolutely incredible!  I just love what you’re doing for our community. The re-enactment transported me back to my childhood and to the stories told by the black tenement family that lived on our farm. We lived side by side; we loved each other and shared all that we had.  I practically grew up in that cabin right along side their children.

Linda Hill Jordan: (Sautee Nacoochee History Museum)  As an older, white southern lady, I found it gratifying that these young black men are courageous enough to tell these stories – even some of the harsh stories – in a setting that has been salvaged through joint efforts of descendants of slaves and descendants of slave owners; all with no expenditure of SNCA funds.

Andy Allen: (friend and collaborator on this preservation project, direct descendant of slaves owned by the Williams family) It was great! Truly wonderful!  It’s what we wanted.  I just wish more young people could see this history.  It’s living history.



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