- Associated Press - Sunday, July 25, 2010

CHARLESTON, S.C. | When Joe McGill spreads his sleeping bag on the floor of a slave cabin, he knows that spending the night there will conjure the specter of slavery.

“If I were a firm believer in ghosts and spirits and things of that nature, I don’t think I could do this,” said Mr. McGill, who is working to preserve buildings that are part of a past that many prefer to forget.

One night he heard dogs in the distance — a sound that recalled the search for runaways during slavery. He awoke on Mother’s Day morning in a cabin thinking of children being sold from their mothers. Then he walked to the black graveyard on a plantation near Charleston.

“I thought, ‘This is why I’m doing this — for those people in those graves to give them a voice for what they endured,’” said Mr. McGill, 48.


Mr. McGill, a program officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, spent Saturday night in a cabin at Hobcaw Barony near the coastal community of Georgetown.

It was the fifth night this year that he has slept on a cabin floor, trying to attract attention to the need to preserve the structures and the history they hold.

Mr. McGill, who is black, is also a re-enactor with the 54th Massachusetts, the black Union regiment that fought at Battery Wagner on Charleston Harbor during the Civil War. He said that spending the night in the cabins helps him connect with his ancestors.

He first slept in a cabin at Boone Hall Plantation near Charleston a decade ago as part of a program for the History Channel titled “The Unfinished Civil War,” which focused on the dispute over the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina Statehouse.

He has returned to the cabin project this year and meets with reporters wherever he goes to draw attention to the buildings. He said that preserving the cabins requires local efforts and his goal is to encourage people to save the ones that are left.

The cabins where Mr. McGill has stayed — such as those at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens near Charleston — have been restored, but many others have been neglected.

Mr. McGill started in May with a list from the State Historic Preservation Office showing cabins at about 30 sites. He thinks his effort is already helping because since he started the sleep-ins, three more cabins have been identified.

He plans to sleep later this summer in a cabin in Anderson, in upstate South Carolina, and this fall in cabins in Alabama.

South Carolina once had thousands of slave cabins. Many did not survive because they were modestly constructed of wood or because people didn’t want a connection with a dark chapter of history, Mr. McGill said.

Andy Chandler, who helps administer the National Register of Historic Places for the State Historic Preservation Office, said no firm figures are available on how many cabins are still standing in the state.

About 1,300 listings are on the register for South Carolina, and some may include sites with cabins. But, he said, since some sites have been on the register for decades, some of the cabins may not be there anymore. People who recommend sites for inclusion on the register don’t always consider slave cabins worth mentioning.