Life & Work
African Americans who endured slavery created cultures instilled with wisdom, beauty, and vitality. Living a dual life—one of hardship and one of community and faith—enslaved people turned their focus towards family, knowledge, neighbors, and joy, wherever it might be found. They found pleasure in a job well done, a child well-loved, a song, a story, or a gathering that rejuvenated the soul. Life was more than enslavement.
Cabins, Pens and Homes
Slave cabins are history in plain sight throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Some peek out from under brush, many are seen in fields, and others exist in urban alleyways. Others have been restored and are featured as part of the interpretive historic landscape, even serving as guest houses at historic plantation sites.
During the period of slavery, the Point of Pines cabin existed alongside a row of at least nine others that together were considered a slave street. These cabins served as pens to hold humans as property. It was made a home after freedom came and remained so until the 1980s.
Cabin Origins and Structure
The rectangular one-story, two-room, weatherboard-clad building is constructed of southern yellow pine. It includes an overhanging porch roof, a brick masonry fireplace, and a back door. The original design featured a single front doorway, an open floor plan, and a loft. As many as 10 to 12 enslaved people were held in bondage in the cabin, where they slept in the open space and the loft.
After freedom came, formerly enslaved Black people served as sharecroppers and lived in their former slave cabins, which they retrofitted in an effort to make them homes. They added newspaper for insulation. They added a wall dividing the large common area into two rooms. They also manifested their freedom by adding a back door, enabling them to come and go as they pleased, no longer under surveillance from the single entryway.
Explore the exterior construction and materiality of the Point of Pines slave cabin.
A Historical Landscape
Point of Pines plantation is one of the earliest plantation sites on Edisto Island, South Carolina. It was established in the late 17th century by colonist Paul Grimball. The profitable enterprise of Sea Island cotton cultivated during the antebellum period by enslaved Black people provided a legacy of wealth passed down through generations of enslavers and their descendants.
The plantation is located in close proximity to key historic sites in and around Charleston, South Carolina, including Gadsden’s Wharf, the Old Slave Mart, Mother Emanuel AME Church, and the Citadel. These sites provide stories of slavery, the slave trade, and resistance.
The Black Community on Edisto Island
Enslaved Black people on Edisto Island were often forced to the region from western Africa or the Caribbean. On Edisto and other sites in the Sea Islands, the frequent absence of enslaving plantation owners provided enslaved people with the opportunity to maintain cultural traditions and create new cultural practices inspired by their homeland. The people and their cultural practices—including language, foodways, faith, music, dance, and dress—represent what is known as the Gullah/Geechee culture.
In Search of History
In 2012, the Point of Pines cabin stood alone in a field on Edisto Island. That year, a team from the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture accepted an invitation from the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society to view the cabin for possible acquisition. The Society’s leadership also facilitated a donation from the descendants of the enslaving family. After extensive archival and genealogical research and a thorough object assessment, Founding Director Lonnie Bunch and his curatorial team determined that the historic structure was an ideal object to tell the story of slavery and freedom in the new Museum.
Acquiring a Cabin
In 2013, NMAAHC staff and a team from the contracting firm Museum Resources, Inc., traveled to Edisto Island to begin the acquisition process. The cabin was meticulously dismantled, and each board was removed, labeled, and ultimately carried to a facility in Virginia for conservation. The cabin was then reassembled in the Museum as part of the Slavery and Freedom exhibition. The curatorial team intentionally chose to display the object sparingly to enable visitors to imagine what life was like in the cabin, without the distraction of a staged scene.
Crew members of Museum Resources, Inc. dismantle the Point of Pines slave cabin as part of the collecting and conservation process of the historically significant object. The crew meticulously took apart the cabin piece by piece, labeling each piece of wood to be conserved and rebuilt in the Slavery and Freedom inaugural exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The collecting process for the Point of Pines cabin involved an important effort to gather community stories. The curatorial team engaged with the descendants who were on site every day during the dismantling. Gathering around the cabin sparked organic conversations between descendants of enslaved African Americans and descendants of the enslaving families. They shared their memories, their connections to Edisto Island, and their feelings about the importance of the history.
It wasn’t a cabin to me, it was a home . . . that was Mama’s [grandmother’s] house.
Descendant, Laverne Megett, 2017
Filming with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Edisto Island descendants are diligently working to uncover, preserve, and present their history. Descendants and local residents engage in important conversations about race and the legacies of slavery. The Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society, led by Executive Director Gretchen Smith, and in cooperation with other local organizations, produce public programs that facilitate meaningful dialogue and reflect upon the island's shared history.
The Hutchinson House
The descendants of the enslaved families held in bondage at Point of Pines plantation are also descended from the Hutchinson family. Jim Hutchinson, one of the family's early patriarchs, fought in the Civil War. During Reconstruction he helped form a Black community coop and secured several hundreds of acres of land on Edisto Island, just down the road from the original site of the Point of Pines slave cabin. On the homestead site, Jim's son Henry built the structure known as the Hutchinson House. Hutchinson family members were considered community leaders. They were also entrepreneurs, as co-owners of a Black owned local cotton gin.
Today the home is the oldest identified building connected to the emerging African American community. It is demonstrative of the power of Black leadership and the Gullah Geechee culture on Edisto Island. The Edisto Island Open Land Trust is overseeing the historic restoration of the Hutchinson House, a site that details the transitional stories from slavery to freedom, through Reconstruction, and into the 21st century.
We see this historical treasure serving as a lasting monument, not only for the people of Edisto Island but a testament of an enduring symbol of economic empowerment and spirit of a resilient community of newly freed enslaved Africans.
Greg Estevez, 2021