As I contemplate where the Slave Dwelling Project should go from here, the 125 people who showed up in Savannah, Georgia September 18 – 20, 2014 for the 1st Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference have helped to influence that direction. The geographic diversity of the participants was impressive. Leading into the conference, I had only been notified by three of the more than thirty scheduled presenters that they would not be able to make it to the conference, one even offering to present his session via skype, if possible. Then it hit, faced with a situation where Patt Gunn, a board member; a major player in planning the conference; and a Savannah resident; was dealing with a major medical emergency that required surgery at the time of the conference, despite this challenge, we pressed on with the local team that she put in place.
As I have now solicited input from participants, I wanted to get this blog done before my thoughts of the conference could be influenced by that input.
The Slave Dwelling Project has always been about preserving the meager dwellings lived in by the enslaved. As intended, the simple act of spending a night in these extant dwellings has gotten the attention of this nation which is proven by the geographic diversity of the people who are now members of the Project and who registered and showed up for the conference. When the Board and the program committee planned the conference, we knew that we had the potential to take the project to another level. We wanted to convene likeminded people and entities to shake, stir and examine the potential for extant slave dwellings to continue to be preserved, interpreted, maintained and sustained. To that end, educators, property stewards, artists, preservationists, historians and people who are just plain interested in the subject matter all gathered at the Coastal Georgia Center in Savannah, Georgia to explore these matters.
Like all participants at the conference, I could not attend all of the sessions. The only ones that I could attend fully, were the two of which I co-presented. Adding to that was, as the organizer, I had to be readily available to put out fires that had the potential to erupt.
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The Sessions on Thursday
Dr. Carroll Van West, Professor and Director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University did not disappoint. As desired, he set the tone for the work that needed to be done at the three day conference and the work needed to be done to ensure the whole story is told when we teach and interpret American history. Dr. West was my first choice to fulfill this role and he did not hesitate when asked. Moreover, three students from Middle Tennessee State University registered, attended and presented at the conference.
After lunch, with quality presenters who were well versed in their subject matters, the participants had to make the hard decisions of which afternoon sessions they would attend.
All of my overnight night stays to date have been planned and well thought out. Wormsloe Plantation did not fit that mold. In 2013, I only learned that I was spending a night in the slave cabin at Wormsloe the day before the stay happened. In planning for the conference, Patt Gunn and I knew that we had to have an event at Wormsloe. It was an easy sell because the new manager, Jason Allison, was receptive to the idea.
In addition to the participants getting to view an oak allee that is unsurpassed by any of the others that I have seen in my travels, they were thoroughly entertained by the Saltwata Players and they enjoyed lowcountry boil, (a dish containing shrimp, smoked sausage, corn on the cob and white potatoes) prepared by the world famous chef and cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson.
Not to be outdone, Michael Twitty, the world famous culinary historian, was also on site interacting with the audience and preparing a period meal on an outside open fire and in a hearth inside a replicated slave cabin.
Because of the high volume of quality presenters and subject matters, Friday had the potential to be the best opportunity for the participants to benefit from all of the information that was going to be disseminated. Starting with a plenary about the transatlantic slave trade, the question and answer period got a little heated and sidetracked on the question of semantics, questioning the terms that we use to describe the experience of the enslaved.
The Friday sessions went smoothly as I got to pop in on nearly all of them and take some promotional photographs. The timing was such that, in one of the sessions, I got to give a short testimonial of my stay at Bacons Castle in Surry, VA.
Friday’s lunch was highlighted with a bonus presentation from culinary historian Michael Twitty. For those who did not get to interact with him the night before, this was their golden opportunity to make up for that.
The night ended with dinner theater with the entertainment brought by Anita Singleton-Prather and the Gullah Kinfolk. The show was a Gullah journey from Africa to America.
Extant slave dwellings come in all forms of ownership. Many stewards of some of these dwellings were present at the conference. The Saturday morning session was an opportunity for some of those stewards to give testimonials on the levels of their ownership. We had two such testimonials from Clover Bottom in Nashville, Tennessee and 25 Longitude Lane in Charleston, SC. In our discussion, we concluded that not all extant former slave dwellings can meet the Secretary of Interior Standards.
Our day ended quite appropriately with a walking tour titled This Far by Faith given by Karen Wortham. The tour ended in the barracoons where the enslaved were held when they were taken off the ships.
Arianne King Comer
Artist Arianne King Comer organized artist to interpret slave dwellings through art. For the duration of the conference, the art was displayed throughout the lobby of the conference center. All artist did a wonderful job in keeping with the theme of the Slave Dwelling Project.
Where Do We Go From Here
While it was nice to reconnect with some of the stewards of the properties of which I have spent a night and interact with scholars, artists and other members of the Slave Dwelling Project; I was reminded that the project is now much bigger than me. 2014 has been the biggest year for the Project thus far and for the ancestors, we must not regress. We have formed a nucleus of support of people and entities who are interested in going beyond preserving and interpreting the architecturally significant buildings of this nation. Their presence in Savannah was proof of that interest. On that foundation, we must build.
I was equally impressed with those stewards of properties who have the desire but not yet the means to preserve and maintain the extant slave dwellings in their care. Their presence at the conference shows their desire to do the right thing by these structures. There is a plan in place for the Project’s interaction with those sites to be stepped up for it is imperative that we identify the means to at least stabilize those structures to minimize further deterioration.
From my vantage point, the conference was a success. We are certain that as time continues to progress, we will continue to receive input from participants about the conference. One hundred and twenty five people, most of whom had to purchase hotel rooms to participate in the conference is not bad for the first time out. To that end, it was a little disappointing that more locals did not attend this rich conference, although other parts of the state of Georgia was well represented in the number of participants.
One hundred and twenty five participants is also an indication that the Slave Dwelling Project is now a major movement. The Ancestors should be proud that the effort to preserve the places that they once dwelled is gaining momentum. Sure some of the discussions may have gotten a little heated and off track, but the good thing is that those discussions were had.
Despite all of the successes of the 1st Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference, there is still a lot of work to be done. As we continue to compile the input from the participants, we will use this information to assist in planning the 2nd Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference which will be held in Charleston, South Carolina at a date and venue that has yet to be determined.