“The Hutchinson house was built just barely 20 years out of slavery,” said Greg Estevez, the great-great-grandson of a former enslaved man who built a 136-year-old home now being restored.
In 1885, Henry Hutchinson, who had been born into slavery in 1860, built the two-story Victorian-style home on a 10-acre plot of land on Edisto Island, South Carolina, about 42 miles southwest of Charleston.
Edisto Island was known for its abundance of sea island cotton and was home to 10,000 enslaved African-Americans between 1808 and 1860, according to the Smithsonian.
Estevez says his great-great-grandfather built the house as a wedding gift to his wife at a time when newly freed Black people were trying to gain their footing economically in the years following their emancipation from slavery. Hutchinson was among several African-Americans on the 67-square-mile Edisto Island to acquire land.
“For the first time, African-Americans were able to be independent and they can farm their own land and do things that affect their own livelihood,” Estevez said of newly freed African-Americans.
Estevez credits his late grandmother, Myrtle Hutchinson Esteves, for keeping the house in the family’s hands for so long. “Her vision was to have the Hutchinson house become an educational museum or some kind of venue where people can come and learn about the history of African-Americans and their various struggles on Edisto Island,” he said of his grandmother’s lasting wish for the house.
By the late 20th century the house had fallen into a state of decay, and by the 1980s it was abandoned. Myrtle Hutchinson Esteves owned the house until she died in 2014 at 97 years old. The house was then passed down to Greg Estevez’s sister, but she died in 2016.
“It was in jeopardy of being lost outside of the family,” said John Girault, the executive director of the Edisto Island Open Land Trust, the organization that purchased the house and the land it sits on for $100,000.
The Hutchinson family was initially apprehensive about the Edisto Island Open Land Trust taking ownership, but their concerns were eased when they learned the organization also shared Myrtle Hutchinson Esteves’ wish to restore the house.
By 2017, the Edisto Island Open Land Trust began its restoration efforts by first building a canopy to protect the exterior from further decay, then working on the inside of the house. The wood was rotting in some area, but most of the inside remained largely intact.
Girault says half a million dollars have been spent so far during restoration efforts, and he expects another $500,000 is needed to complete the restoration of the house. The land trust has raised money through donations and grants including from the National Park Service and the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
Both Estevez and Girault hope a lasting takeaway for visitors of the house is the power of land ownership and generational wealth among African-Americans and the lasting impact it has had in the immediate years following the slavery era up to modern times.
“This may need to be a site that tells a hard story and gets a bit more aggressive about trying to make some of the change that’s needed in this country right now,” said Girault.
Barring any delays, the house is expected to be fully restored and the museum open to the public in the spring of 2022.