Rare 200-year-old slave cabin still stands. But will it be preserved?

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ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. –  A weathered, nearly 200-year-old slave cabin in northern Pasquotank County endures as its tenants once did.

The cabin, obscured by thick underbrush, is the only one of its kind in Pasquotank County and one of a handful in North Carolina that remains in its original state, said Reid Thomas, a restoration specialist for the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. Many were altered for rental homes and storage sheds.

“This is a nicely constructed building,” Thomas said.

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Exposed hand-hewn studs and roof beams were once painted with oyster shell whitewash to brighten the room. Long flat clapboards, gray and cracked, cover the exterior of about 30 feet by 20 feet. A second story loft is likely where the families slept after cooking all day in the fireplace that once stood in the center of building.

A partition divides the house into two rooms, one for each of two families, Thomas said. A fireplace with a 6-foot hearth dominated the center of the rooms.

William Gregory, the owner, said the cabin has not been altered since his great-grandfather William James Gregory bought the farm and buildings in 1920. A tin roof replaced the original cedar shingles more than a century ago. 

“I would love to see it moved and restored,” Gregory said.

The Northeast North Carolina Underground Railroad Foundation wants to preserve the cabin, said founder Wanda McLean. Gregory has offered to sell it, but so far there is no funding or a place to put it, she said. 

“Only a few people know about this house,” she said. “I think it is a great structure to interpret how slaves lived.”

The cabin probably served as a cook house since it is so close to the still-standing main house, said Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, based in South Carolina. The men and women woke before dawn and worked into the night.

“That was pretty much an all-day operation,” McGill said.

McGill’s nonprofit seeks to preserve slave dwellings of the South. He has slept in several slave cabins and studied the lifestyle, he said.

Evergan Carver built the main home in the 1820s, according to “On the Shores of the Pasquotank,” a book on the local historic architecture by the late Tom Butchko. The farm once had 19 slaves and six slave cabins, Butchko wrote. Field slaves stayed in cabins closer to their work, McGill said.

Families slept on homemade mattresses, stuffed with straw or animal hair, placed on the wood floor, McGill said. They had little time for recreation. A few worked under the task system – once they finished an assigned job, there would be personal time for such things as fishing, hunting and gardening to supplement their diets.

Owners treated the workers better after an 1808 law prohibiting new slave importation, McGill said.

“You wanted to get the longest service you could out of the ones you owned,” he said.

The cabins, too, were built to endure as long as possible.

By Jeff Hampton 
The Virginian-Pilot

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