Sunday, January 22, 2023

Exploring slave cabins with a descendant of a slave owner

A slave cabin — one of four — on the old plantation of Confederate General Gideon Pillow
 in Maury County, Tennessee. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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We focus the narrow beams of light from our flashlights on the walls of the abandoned cabin, hoping to find a date on newspapers used as insulation by its long-ago occupants.

Bathed in red light, my friend Campbell Ridley —
a direct descendant of Confederate Brigadier General
Gideon Pillow — sits in an abandoned
slave cabin on his property.
The light reveals a photo of a dour baseball player and partial headlines. “Johnstown police battle strikers,” reads one. “Pirates win fifth straight,” reads another. “Look here,” I tell my fellow explorers, “there’s a date: June 18, 1937.”

But this decrepit cabin — one of four standing near the east fork of Greenlick Creek in Maury County, Tennessee — far pre-dates the 20th century.

Before the Civil War, slaves of Gideon Pillow occupied these log structures. In nearby fields, they toiled for the wealthy politician, lawyer, and speculator. Clifton Place, Pillow’s magnificent mansion, stands unoccupied nearby on a hill astride Mount Pleasant Pike. During the war, the slave owner served, inauspiciously, as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

Long-ago occupants pasted newspapers on
the walls as insulation.
We’re here on this brisk Saturday morning at the invitation of direct Pillow descendant Campbell Ridley, a farmer whose family has lived in the area for seven generations. 

Months ago, 80-year-old Ridley had trees and brush cleared from around three of the cabins on his property. The interiors were cleared of trash and made more safe. 

After the war, sharecroppers occupied the structures on the ground Ridley calls “The Quarters.” Their last occupants left in the 1990s. Our focus is on those who first lived here. We have many questions.

Who were they and what lives did they lead?

How did Pillow treat them?

What became of his slaves?

And, perhaps most importantly, can these remarkable time capsules be preserved and interpreted for future generations?

Let’s keep history alive. 👊

The brick fireplace to a slave cabin
The exterior of a slave cabin near Columbia, Tenn.
We explored three of the four remaining slave cabins.
A fragment remains from The New York Times on a ceiling in the cabin. The newspaper
was used as insulation. 
Jack Richards examines the fragments of newspaper clippings on a cabin wall.
Newspaper clippings -- some ancient, others not -- on a cabin wall.
Newspaper clippings, apparently World War II era, are pastered to a wall.
A view of the interior through a broken window on a front door.
A fireplace in the interior of a slave cabin.
The remains of an outhouse behind a slave cabin. It's not wartime.

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