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Haunting Relic of Slavery Rescued by Smithsonian

The floors creaked. The walls swayed in a strong breeze. Rot and termites had destroyed parts of the rickety structure built before the Civil War. But when curators from the Smithsonian’s new African-American history museum in Washington visited this marshy island last year, they found exactly what they were looking for: an antebellum slave cabin that captured the stark life of plantation workers before emancipation, as The New York Times reports.

Edisto Island, S.C., is home to two of the nation’s oldest slave cabins, dating to the 1850s — vestiges of what was once an entire village for field workers at the Point of Pines Plantation. Black families lived in the wood-sided, two-room houses, without electricity or heating, until the 1980s.

Now, the better-preserved of the two cabins is getting a new home in the nation’s capital. The Smithsonian Institution is dismantling it, plank by plank, and moving it to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open on the National Mall in late 2015.

It will be among the featured artifacts, beside Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s Bible, a Tuskegee Airmen fighter plane and Emmett Till’s coffin. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, called it “a true jewel in the crown of our collection.”

“Slavery is the last great unmentionable in public discourse,” he said. “But this cabin gives an opportunity to come face to face with the reality of slavery. It humanizes slavery.”

For years, local historians had struggled to save the pinewood building. After the last residents moved out, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Three years ago, the plantation’s owners donated the cabin, but not the land, to the Edisto Historical Preservation Society.

The society raised $40,000 to clear away vines and install diagonal beams to stabilize the tilting 16-foot-by-20-foot structure. But it could not find enough money to safely move the cabin to a new location.

“Honestly, we were about to give up,” said Gretchen Smith, the society’s director.

The Smithsonian called just in time. The museum, with a budget of $500 million, had scoured the country for the right cabin. Its curator, Nancy Bercaw, said Edisto Island’s was perfect: it needed a new home, and because African-Americans had lived in it long after slavery, the museum can display it in an exhibit encompassing the postwar period called “Slavery and Freedom.”

“The sea island history is so rich and multigenerational,” Bercaw said. “This history has been tucked away. It hasn’t always been safe to pull out these stories.”

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