Corley, who has renovated other historic sites, including the Lemmon Hill Plantation and Corley Hall Plantation, is planning to turn the long-empty, boarded-up structures in Anderson, South Carolina into an apartment complex.
The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation purchased the structures in 2009 and prevented them from being destroyed; its director says that they are the “last-known slave cabins in the upstate.” Corley is now under contract to buy the buildings and turn them into rental units. Bobby Baxter, who has lived near the site of the slave cabins since the early 1960s and seen them deteriorate year after year, welcomes Corley’s plans. “It’s important to keep the squatters out of here,” he says.
Commenting on how “well-built” the slave cabins were, Corley says he hopes “to save [them] in as pure a form as we can save.” Renovating the cabins could cost from $50,000 to $100,000, he estimates.
If Corley proceeds with his plans, it will not be the first time that a site where slaves lived — a building of deep historical significant about a not-too-distant and dark period of America’s past — has been renovated and then used in ways that would have been unthinkable. A number of former slave quarters in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina have been turned into bed and breakfasts.
At B&W Courtyards Bed and Breakfast in New Orleans, a slave cabin has been converted into a “Barbados-style beach house.” At the Boxley Bed and Breakfast in Madison, North Carolina, guests have a choice of sleeping in the inn’s main house or in a cottage where slaves once lived. The Prospect Hill Plantation Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia offers guests a number of sleeping options, from the 1740s overseer’s cottage to the the 1790 slave quarters to “Sanco Pansy’s cottage, originally the residence of a former slave.”
One manager of one of these converted properties in Louisiana describes them as “buildings with some history”; he also notes that the bed and breakfast is “not responsible for the history. The history’s there … Either you live with your past or you destroy it.” Developer Corley makes a similar argument, saying that he does recognize that slavery is “such a part of American history” while still making his plansto convert the South Carolina slave quarters into apartments.
Angela da Silva of the National Black Tourism Network counters that converting former slave quarters into bed and breakfasts — into vacation lodgings — is “truly whitewashing slavery.” Turning former slave cabins into apartments that people would actually live in full-time raises a number of ethical issues. More than a few of us (I’ll include myself) would not care to sleep, much less live, in a place where people once lived as slaves.
Certainly it is important to preserve historic structures and learn the full story about this country’s past. In 2010, residents of Greenville, South Carolina rehabilitated a slave cabin from the 1840s. The cabin had been threatened with demolition in the face of a housing development; residents rallied to disassemble the structure and move it to the Living History Farm at Roper Mountain Science Center, which is owned by the Greenville County Schools. The reconstructed cabin now serves a valuable role, to teach children about the United State’s past and the importance of historic preservation.
In April, a $10 million gift to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation donated funds to restore slave quarters at Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. At least two log buildings on Mulberry Row will be rebuilt. One is thought to have housed relatives of Sally Hemings, who is believed to have had at least six children fathered by Jefferson. As senior curator Susan Stein says, “By bringing back the place, we bring back the people, and we’re able to put a face on slavery. It’s actually the lives of people.”
Homes where slaves once lived have an important story to tell about America’s past. Is it right for commercial interests — bed and breakfast proprietors, real estate developers — to be profiting from sites where slaves formerly resided? Does converting them for such uses amount to yet another example of the legacy of racism in the United States?
Photo via Thinkstock