A century of wind and rain has eroded the slave quarters at Kingsley Plantation, exposing razor sharp oyster shells at the core of the tabby concrete structures. Like their occupants, the cabins were tough and endured a harsh existence. For these cabins, protection – not renovation – is the plan. The U.S. National Park Service, which manages Kingsley Plantation, doesn’t intend to restore them to their original state, at least not in the foreseeable future, says Morgan Baird, a supervisory exhibit specialist with the park.
“We have applied some lime plaster to some of them,” says Baird. “We’re preserving and maintaining what we have.”
The cabins are a compelling feature of Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island, the state’s oldest plantation house still in existence. Its tenants belonged to Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley, a slave he purchased then freed five years later. Kingsley moved his family to the plantation in 1814, when Florida was a Spanish territory that permitted free blacks to own property and slaves.
From that time to the early 1900s the cabins were occupied by roughly five dozen enslaved adults and their children. Arranged in an arc divided by a dirt road to the plantation house, the 32 cabins typically had a cedar shingle roof, two rooms, and a brick fireplace for cooking.
Now only 25 cabins remain. The rooftops have disintegrated and so have many of the tabby concrete walls. Tabby is a material made from sand, cooked oyster shells and lime. It was poured into a wooden mold to form the cabin walls. Builders smoothed the walls’ surface with a coating of lime plaster from cooked oyster shells – similar to the plaster preservationists have been using to protect the cabins.
From late July to December, Kingsley Plantation’s enslaved picked Sea Island cotton and packed bales for shipment to market. Throughout the year they also tended indigo, citrus, sugar cane, corn beans and potatoes. They did the housework, cooking, carpentry and blacksmithing. Unlike most enslaved peoples, they were allowed to keep their tribal names, some of which originated from the Ibo and Calaban tribes of Nigeria. They worked under a “task” system, which meant that once they finished their daily tasks, they could hunt, fish, or garden and keep the profits of those activities.
Along with their names, they brought their religious and cultural practices from Africa, including the habit of burying a house charm to protect them from harm. Over the years, archeologists have found animal bones buried in the cabin doorway wall trenches. They’ve also discovered a chicken buried with an unbroken egg, a blue glass bead and a piece of iron, which may have been used to keep earth spirits undisturbed during the cabin’s construction.
The cabins are historically and archeologically significant. Most slave quarters in the South have not survived because they were made of wood, which decays over time, or they were destroyed after emancipation.
“To find any surviving slave cabins is pretty rare,” says Baird. “They’re still here. That’s what helps set this site apart.”
The survival of these cabins at Kinglsey Plantation serve as a testimony to the perseverance of history, and their preservation is a key part of honoring the American story.