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'You Can Never Truly Understand What Happened Centuries Ago': The Slave Cabin Project

Slave Cabin
Leoneda Inge

There is no official count on how many slave cabins are left standing across the country today.  You might ask,  “Who’s counting?”

Well, the South Carolina-based Slave Dwelling Project is counting and so is the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Archaeologists at James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia set out to locate where slave cabins once stood on its property.  And last week, a group of people helped re-build a part of that history.

The 2,700 acres at James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier estate looked like a winter postcard when the 16 of us arrived for log cabin building school. 

Our eyes got real big when we approached the worksite, and saw the huge pile of logs.  We weren’t here to stack pre-fab, pre-cut pieces of wood to construct a slave cabin. 

There was proof of how this 1790s cabin was made and where it stood, in full view of the Madison’s mansion.  You see, many slave owners wrote letters and kept meticulous notes. 

Matthew Reeves is Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at Montpelier.  He’s leading efforts to find all of the demolished slave dwellings there.

"What we can do is help people begin, visitors begin, to imagine what this plantation looked like.  That it just wasn’t the brick mansion set in a pretty green lawn," said Reeves. 

Reeves says they’re striving for authenticity.  He wants the public involved in this transformation of the grounds and a diverse group answered his call: 12 men, four women, three African Americans, a couple of restorationists, a Washington, DC lobbyist, a DuPont chemist and more.

Leoneda Inge de-barking a log. The original cabin was probably built by 3 to 4 slaves who were skilled carpenters.
Credit Terry James
Leoneda Inge de-barking a log. The original cabin was probably built by 3 to 4 slaves who were skilled carpenters.

We didn’t have to chop down the 30 trees needed for this 16 by 20 foot cabin, but we had to de-bark, juggle, score, hew and notch each log, or at least try.

Craig Jacobs of Salvagewrights Architectural Antiquities out of Orange, Virginia taught us what we needed to know.

I was afraid of using those 150 year broad axes.  They looked like a weapon a Viking would use!  I was more into de-barking with a drawknife.  I quickly discovered, bark does not peel off that easy.

Eric Larsen is an archeologist from Arlington, Virginia.  Larsen says he jumped at the chance to be here.

“I told people, my friends, that I was coming here and they kind of looked at me and said, well, they are not going to let you use anything sharp are they?  And sure enough, first day, here we are with the axes, the chain saws, the drawknives and everything.”

Larsen says with every chop, he couldn’t help but think about the enslaved people who would have lived in a cabin like this. 

"Just part of the learning for me is realizing one, just how much labor and craftsmanship is really involved in this and then thinking about who was just doing that work and their circumstances," said Larsen.

'I wanted this cabin to be perfect. There were emotional times for all of us at Montpelier.' - Leoneda Inge

That was something to think about, and when I did, I cried.  I wanted this cabin to be perfect.  There were emotional times for all of us at Montpelier.  You see we didn’t just work together, we lived together in an 1840s era home on the grounds.  We ate most of our meals together and with no TV, and sparse internet and phone service, we sang together.  Come on, not Negro spirituals.  We’re more of a UB40, “Red, Red Wine” kind of group.

We all paid $1,000 each to participate in this slave cabin project.

>> Read Leoneda's week-long blog.

Audra Medve is a Preservation Manager for three National Trust of Historic Preservation sites.  

“What a privilege to better understand, however, can you really?  It’s not the middle of the summer. You’re not doing it sun up to sun down. You can leave and break whenever you want to.  You can drink as much water as you want to," said Medve.   "So you can kind of get a concept of the methods and tools they used.  But you can never truly understand what happened centuries ago.”

Medve believes slavery is not adequately interpreted at many historic sites. But she hopes with workshops like this one, that will change.  In April, there are plans to re-build two to three slave cabins at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

>> Look at a photo gallery of images from the project.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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