Jeb Bladine: Slave cabins convey sense of our history

We winced in early May when President Donald Trump declared achieving Middle East peace is “not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” Days later, we shuddered when the president pondered our own Civil War: “Why,” he asked, “could that one not have been worked out?”

“Dear Donald,” we wrote, “the Civil War was fought over slavery.” That column mentioned, but did not explain, a recent personal experience that bolstered my own understanding of the dynamics contributing to our Civil War.

That experience included a tour of three slave cabins restored at the Magnolia Plantation outside Charleston, South Carolina. Before facing that humbling encounter with slave living quarters, we heard a spellbinding talk by Joseph McGill Jr., about the history of American slavery.


Jeb Bladine is president and publisher of the News-Register.

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McGill founded the Slave Dwelling Project, a nonprofit formed to help preserve existing slave dwellings. He draws attention to that mission by spending several nights, accompanied by others, in historic slave cabins — primarily in the South, but also in New York, Delaware and other northern states.

“Now that I have the attention of the public by sleeping in extant slave dwellings,” McGill wrote on the project website, “it is time to wake up and deliver the message that the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history.”

To understand the vast atrocity of institutionalized slavery, you must study the history of the transatlantic triangular slave trade that connected Europe, West Africa and the Caribbean/American colonies.

Ships loaded with European products sailed to ports on the African coast, where those products were traded for slaves provided by an African slave network. Filled with human cargo, the ships sailed to the Americas to deliver those slaves who hadn’t died from starvation, terrible sanitation and abuse.

Surviving slaves were sold as laborers for large plantations, and that money purchased agricultural products harvested by slaves. The last leg of the triangle delivered those products to Europe, where they were traded for finished European products.

That triangle of trade operated for more than 200 years. And as McGill noted in his talk, the grand plantations and city mansions we marveled at in Charleston and Savannah were built by the proceeds of that slave trade.

History isn’t always pretty, but we cannot forget it. That’s a good lesson for all of us, but especially presidents.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at jbladine@newsregister.com or 503-687-1223.