It’s common to hear people warning high school seniors of the cramped living spaces that they will live in their freshman year in the dorms. Students begrudgingly live through that first year of college living in a space about the size of the closet they had at home, and share it with another person.
Now, imagine being forced to live in an extremely small space with your entire family, hard floors and no electricity.
That is what slaves at the Hamilton Plantation endured in the early 1800s.
Two of the slave cabins are still standing on the property, and thanks to the Cassina Garden Club, you and your family can take a tour of the tabby slave cabins from 10 a.m. to noon every Wednesday free of charge. If you are unable to make it during those times, you can call to set up a time for another tour.
Tour-goers will get a chance to see the renovated tabby slave cabins and learn how the slaves would have lived in that time.
“Our cabins were probably for house slaves or higher-up slaves,” said Leslie Carlton, co-chair of the docent committee.
The cabins that currently stand are made of tabby, while the houses for slaves ranked lower on the totem pole would probably have been made of wood, she said.
“Tabby is a building material that was native to Africa,” said Martha Armstrong, co-chair of the docent committee. “It’s made of equal parts of sand, crushed oyster shells, lime and water.”
While the walls were put up with tabby, the group recently discovered that the floors may have been made of the material as well.
“The floor was probably tabby, too. It would be covered in straw to protect their feet,” Carlton said.
You can only imagine how much straw that would have taken to feel somewhat comfortable because whatever shoes the slaves would have worn wouldn’t have been like what we have today.
The plantation was highly valued back in its heyday. Royalty valued the crops that the plantation yielded.
“The cotton that came from this location was highly prized,” Armstrong said. “It made a silky material.”
The garden club has been working to restore the cabins to what they would have originally looked like.
“The Cassina Garden Club has undertaken a capital campaign,” Armstrong said. “(The cabin) will be restored as much as possible to its original appearance.”
Everything from the windows, to the walls, to the placement of the doorway has been historically checked with the help of historians and archeologists to restore the cabins.
“We have found boards, painted an early version of what we think was Haint Blue,” Carlton said.
She said that Haint Blue is a type of paint slaves used, with a distinct color blue, in hopes to ward off evil spirits. It can be seen throughout historical areas where slaves lived.
Another renovation came by replacing the windows with shutters.
“The windows have been replaced by shutters that look like the originals,” Armstrong said. “The nails are hand forged to replicate a style that would’ve been used in the early 1800s.”
Armstrong said that the shutters were hung with a process called clinching in which the nail is put in and hooked around to secure the shutter.
Another big change was the placement of the doors on the cabins.
“These cabins have just been so interesting,” Carlton said. “We originally thought the doors faced Arthur J. Moore Drive, but they really faced the river.”
The cabins themselves were quite small for the amount of people dwelling inside.
“There was a dividing wall and one family lived on each side,” Armstrong said.
“Each building housed two families,” Carlton added. “It could be a husband and wife or it could be husband and wife and five (or) six children.”
The club’s goal is to get people to learn more about the slaves who once lived here, and one day hopefully restore the cabins to exactly what they would have looked like when they were in use.
“Many people have read or been educated in their lives about slavery,” Carlton said. “The importance is to get people to come inside and realize that real people lived in those cabins. They can see the size of the space that entire families lived in, I’ve seen bathrooms with bigger space.”
The tour will feature a short video about the plantation, a speech about the cabins and a tour of the two remaining cabins.
“The cabin is just telling its story,” Armstrong said.