After the Third Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference which was held in Columbia, South Carolina in September 2016, I felt that we had reached a saturation point. In those past three years, we had never exceeded 150 in attendance at any of the conferences. Board members Prinny Anderson, Terry James and Donald West reminded me that momentum was building for the movement and it was not worth the risk of losing forward motion by not conducting a conference in 2017. In other words, quit crying and let’s get on with the work of honoring the enslaved Ancestors.

The stars began to align. Representatives from The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville gave us an offer we could not refuse. The offer was to partner with them to conduct the 4th Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference in conjunction with UVA Bicentennial Symposium. It would be a symposium titled: Universities, Slavery Public, Memory and the Built Landscape. Yes, a no brainer.

So, the planning began, what I learned quickly was that my way of thinking and decision making does not coincide with the bureaucratic way of thinking and decision making of large universities. Bureaucracies are slow, deliberate and methodical. The Slave Dwelling Project is more nimble but what I learned from the previous conferences was that, when you are spending other people’s money, you have to jump through their hoops. That said, I think that the fourth Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference was the best one ever. In addition to the many sessions offered, the conference included sleepovers on the campus of the University of Virginia and Montpelier, the home of President James Madison.

What follows are links to the program and news coverage. Lastly, I hope that you will enjoy the accounts of some of the participants.

We are already planning the Fifth Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference. Expect a “Save the Date” soon.

http://slavery.virginia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/USPMBL-Schedule_July-2017.pdf

https://news.virginia.edu/content/participants-sleep-out-near-former-slave-dwellings-uvas-academical-village

http://www.dailyprogress.com/news/local/uva/slave-dwelling-project-brings-history-home/article_fb059459-f28f-51fd-a696-bfb990491e45.html

http://www.nbc29.com/story/36631369/uva-students-others-spend-night-in-slave-sites-as-part-of-slave-dwelling-experience

http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/students-sleep-at-historical-slave-grounds/article/2640507

Reflections on the Slave Dwelling Project sleep-over at UVA, October 2017
Emily Gee
29 October 2017

I came to the Slave Dwelling Project sleep-over at the University of Virginia (UVA) with some history in this place. As a child moving from London to Charlottesville in the early 1980s I was struck by the history of African Americans on Virginia soil, and as a graduate student at UVA 20 years later, I tried to research the places where the enslaved and free Blacks of the early university would have lived and worked, ‘behind and below’. That pre-dated the extraordinary research and energy now underway on this subject, but I crawled around and looked for places where African Americans might have lived in those first several decades of the University, trying to imagine them living in that place, within the remarkably well–surviving landscape despite the fairly scant documentary record.

Returning in 2017, I brought the perspective of 16 years of conservation work at Historic England with me. I had come to listen and also to share the work we have done to tell the stories of slavery and abolition in the English built landscape, largely through protecting but also narrating the stories of monuments, houses, statues and public buildings in the statutory record. One particularly relevant case is the tomb of Hannah Long and Jacob Walker, their most unusual shared monument now a listed structure, quietly tucked in the corner of a north London churchyard. It commemorates Hannah Long, a Virginian woman who, as a widow, married one of Jefferson’s first professors, an English classicist, George Long. It also commemorates Jacob Walker who served the family in enslavement in Pavilion V. And then, in 1828, they all journeyed together to London. When Hannah and Jacob died there, a few months apart, in 1841, George composed a lyrical inscription on their shared stone slab. Both are described as “native of Virginia”, and under Jacob Walker’s name follows the poignant phrase: “In American the faithful slave / in England the faithful servant”.

McGuffey Cottage

I cannot help but think of Jacob Walker when wandering around Pavilion V, and likewise couldn’t help but think of his peers when sleeping the night of October 18th 2017 in McGuffey Cottage. For the sleep-over, I had the privilege of sleeping inside the small dwelling, not on the very cold grass of the serpentine gardens where most of our group spent the night. McGuffey Cottage is one of the few known dwellings for the enslaved people at the University to survive. After group conversation, as we settled onto the brick floor to sleep, sharing one small room of the two-room dwelling with Joe McGill (who does not snore!) and Jerome (who doesn’t snore either!), I felt deeply humbled to also be sharing the space of those who lived there long before us, and laboured in the landscape we are studying today. How many lived in that room, cooked there, worried there, raised families there? The tiny house is off the main axis, behind and below the colonnade and the herringbone red brick path, in the foothills of the Rotunda. What did the enslaved early residents think of their place within this remarkable, beautiful, ordered, and then-oppressive landscape? Did they know Jacob? Did any of them make it to freedom in exceptional circumstances like he did?

I am grateful for the opportunity to have met Joe, Prinny and the Slave Dwelling Project team, to have understood the importance of being still and quiet within these rare and special quarters, and to have had the chance to contemplate the power of place like never before.

Jerome Bias

Jerome Bias

Names
Abe – Good – Stable Boy
Abigail – Bright – House maid
Coffee – Mulatto – Laundress

Names. Names on a list
Big Henry – Stout -Driver
July – Black – Mechanic
Lewis – Dark Mulatto – Carpenter

Names. Trained for labor, rented, borrowed
Lemrich – Mulatto – Blacksmith
Patti – Dark Black – Laundress
Child – Mulatto

Names. Monetized, chattel, humans
Phoebe – Mulatto – Fancy maid
Sam – Mulatto – Cook
Billy – Light mulatto – Mason

Names. Mothers, Fathers, Aunts, Property
Momma – Laundress
MeMaw – Cook
PawPaw – Plasterer

Names. Do they matter?
Grand Mother
Great Great Grand Mother
Poppa

Names. Names on a list.
Names that matter
To whom

Names.

Jessi Bowman

The overnight experience at UVA was moving because it gave me the chance to learn about an important aspect of American history that is so often left out of the narrative. It also fostered a bond between those of us who participated that cannot be replicated in any other way; sleeping in the McGuffy Cottage garden with descendants of those who were enslaved at UVA is something I will not soon forget.

Thanks so much for all of your time, energy, and hard work.

Beverly McNeil

It was amazing, but I kept waking up because I was cold. Catching up with folks I know as we settled into sleep was a great experience, but I kept thinking it would have been warmer in the Horton Grove Quarters.

Katherine McCarthy Watts

I wanted to write and thank you for organizing the Slave Dwelling Project sleepover at UVa. It was a privilege for me to take part in honoring the enslaved who labored at the university from which I am now pursuing my second degree. At the same time, sleeping outside seemed like the least I could do, having spent the majority of my years living in a world of white privilege. In my mind, the least I could do was take one night sleeping outside to empathize with the enslaved people who lived, worked, and died at UVa for my and other students’ benefit. I hope my stream of consciousness makes some sense. The conference has been wonderful. Keep up the good work!

The Slave Dwelling Project, University of Virginia grounds, garden spaces
October 18, 2017                                                                                                                                                         Patricia Besser, October 2017

Preface

Patricia Besser

My name is Patty Besser, and I am currently a senior at Simmons College, an all-women’s, private college in Boston. I am slated to graduate this January with a BA in History and was recently accepted into Simmons’ dual Master’s program in History and Archives Management. Prior to my time at Simmons, I received my AA in Social Science from Quincy College in Plymouth. My concentration and background include: social and cultural history during the American Revolutionary War period (give or take a couple decades in either direction), Colonial History with an emphasis on the lives of enslaved and free African Americans who lived within the northern American British colonies, including Canada post evacuation. I also have an extreme interest and have accumulated a great deal of knowledge and background in Africana and Africana Diaspora studies. I have chosen to concentrate most of my more modern studies in history to cover the time periods from Reconstruction, the Civil rights Movements, to present matters and issues which affect communities made up of primarily black and brown bodies, such as Black Lives Matter, and todays current political and economic climates, respectively.

I am also a 35-year-old, Latina woman. At this time, and for the foreseeable future, I am the only person who looks like me in my program. This does not affect my education in any way, or does it make me feel inadequate. The more I learn about America’s past two histories, one from white voices, and one made from black voices, the more race has become apparent in my everyday life. I began to notice how others felt in their skin, particularly those in black bodies. I noticed how not only my school looked awfully white, but so did my town. All I knew was my own personal story; I wanted to attend my school because of its well-known Archives program, not because of the Latino ration. —But, I cannot help to think, what if I was in a black body and a person who wanted to specialize at a school which was primarily made up of white bodies? Would I still want to attend that school? Would it matter? Do students in white bodies ever have to ask themselves that question?

McGuffey Cottage

 

I include this information not to sound pretentious, but to anchor myself for the reader as a caring and empathetic student who wants to give voices from the past agency. I also include my academic bio to show my respect and knowledge of the topic. My opinions are based and formed as a direct result of my education, research, and passion on the abovementioned topics. I have studied our Founding Fathers extensively, especially Thomas Jefferson. Prior to my experience with The Slave Dwelling Project and the recent symposium on slavery at the University of Virginia, I had previous knowledge on Thomas Jefferson as a president, slave owner, and his intimate relationship with one of the women he owned (and presumably cared for), Sally Hemmings. I also knew and had done previous research on Jefferson/Hemming children, and had read and studied writings of Jefferson’s, such as his Notes on Virginia. I was not aware of how much of the story I did not know. I knew he was the father of the University of Virginia and that enslaved workers had been the major source of labor. That was all on that topic. I did not know about UVA’s complicated legacy, both with its own past history, and its current relationship with ALL past and current members of Charlottesville. I did not know about the overarching legacy that UVA holds, one very similar to Jefferson’s; complicated at best.

Please do not get me wrong. UVA is a gorgeous and extremely important historic and academic institution. It holds its reputation for a reason. Some of the most talented and brilliant minds of multiple centuries have studied within it beautiful walls. If I did not have children, I probably would have done anything within my capacity to attend such an institution. I do not wish to disrespect this institution, or Jefferson’s legacy. I admire Jefferson and his many attributes and accomplishments. He was an extremely talented man. I do not wish to argue this point. I simply wish to reflect in a respectful manner. I think Thomas Jefferson is and was an enigma, and cannot be judged through a modern lens. It is our job as historians, scholars, museum professionals, genealogists, and decent human beings to highlight past transgressions for the purpose of reflection, commemoration, and closure.

The Slave Dwelling Project: Sleep over in UVA’s Gardens

I had very little knowledge about the construction and daily operational procedure that kept the University of Virginia afloat during its early years of operation. Over a span of a couple of days, I learned from academic professionals, UVA archivists and scholars, and UVA walking tour guides (and very accomplished History Honor students ) about the beautiful serpentine walls which surrounded garden spaces just behind hotel rooms and professor apartments. I learned from Brandon Nigro, University Guides, that the serpentine walls once stood eight feet tall, presumably to shield a mini- enslaved community from less than empathetic, white eyes. By Jefferson’s own design, the walls were a natural conductor of sound, keeping loud, or unwanted sounds away from university view. I learned that students and professors did not own the enslaved population themselves, but were allotted use of rented or hired out enslaved and free workers of color, at the student and faculty’s discretion. Both parties were also allowed to treat, mishandle, and abuse these workers whenever they deemed fit, with little if any acknowledgement or punishment for bodily harm or death . This background history seemed even more poignant coming from a student and guide for UVA and Monticello. His dedication and desire to tell the real story of the enslaved who lived and worked for UVA was admirable for a man of such a young age. As devastating and articulately given his take on his work to transcend UVA’s legacy and reputation into a more supportive and transparent time, it was not his words that impressed me most, but the story of Terry’s ritual at each and every The Slave Dwelling Project’s sleep overs. Joseph McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project made a quick advisory for anyone who may have been planning to sleep next to Terry that night: Terry sleeps with chains, shacked in order to commemorate and remember his enslaved ancestors . I knew that this wasn’t going to be a normal sleep over, but that story ushered in a thoughtful reflection state that I am still in, even a week after the fact.

We slept under one large tent, in sleeping bags, in the walled off gardens on the UVA grounds. At about 39 degrees, to say that it was cold would be an understatement-and I’m from Massachusetts. Between ½ hour spurts of nightmare fever-like dreams, I managed to stay painfully awake for a two-hour span, 3-5. Being so cold, I did not move my body or head much, but remained looking towards a brick, serpentine wall. The last time my body was that cold was the very bad storm Massachusetts had a couple of years back. In Plymouth, we lost power for a week, and went without water, heat, electricity, with 4 children, 3 under 7. Luckily, we had a fireplace, and I took turns letting the children curl up with me on the sofa, pushed as close as possible to the fire place, and created a human electric blanket the best I could so that they could sleep and forget how cold and uncomfortable they were. This was one cold week in my children’s life. I was sleeping on the ground-in a sleeping bag- for one night. How many enslaved and free African American mothers, sisters, grandmothers, held on to their babies tight on the nights it was that cold? All I could think of was the height the walls once stood, and how they must have looked like to a child, endlessly tall, and unforgiving. The men who lived just behind those same walls could do anything to you, whether or not you were their property. Perhaps it was the warm thoughts of my children, resting peacefully in my arms, one at a time, that lulled me back to sleep that morning. I told myself that it was not my place to feel guilt. It was not my place to feel pity for those who had to sleep on these grounds more than one night. It was my duty, however, as a person who is no longer ignorant to the past of many institutions of higher learning, or the hundred thousand other locations where people were kept in bondage against their will, to help highlight and give agency to those who lived a life full of love, hopes, dreams, and above all else, resistance.

Mary Carter

Having the opportunity to sleep at these sites, where my ancestors not only worked, but lived their lives, has been an experience that has brought my journey for the last ten years into a new and more complete focus. In those spaces I was reminded of the work that they were enslaved to and the obstacles that they had to face in the institution of slavery. But I am also reminded of their strength to build family and community. It is that strength, that truly human spirit, that I stand. The strength that I can and need to share with my son as I teach him about his ancestors. These sleepovers were an event and an opportunity that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

I also was hoping that we could continue a conversation about the potential to bring a sleepover event here to Colonial Williamsburg. I know that in the past there was some push back against such an event, but we are an organization in transition. I’d like to be a voice and an advocate for this project as we move forward until the possibility can become a reality.

Jon Williams
Assistant Principal
Walkertown High School

Jon Williams

“This overnight was truly special. I have organized three overnights for schools in the past few years, and this was the first time I was not the organizer of the event. The experience was very unique in that there were around 60 – 70 people who participated and slept under “the tent” – the largest ever overnight for the SDP. We had round table discussions before and then the conversation continued well on into this dark night. For me, seeing how The Slave Dwelling Project has blossomed over the years into an organization and movement that a nationally recognized university is now taking notice and partnering with to further the mission of Joseph McGill is a validation of the importance of this work. I am very excited about the future of the SDP, and I am even more excited about how universities, museums, grade schools, community organizations, individuals, and others are joining in to further the message and mission of preserving these ‘sacred spaces’ and telling the true story of the heroes that lived at these sites.

Jon Williams

The night was very cold. Being behind the main grounds in the gardens where the ‘rented’ slaves would have stayed stirred thoughts about how the enslaved at UVA only had access to certain areas of the campus. Their sole purpose was to serve the wealthy privileged students, faculty, and administration. Through this sleepover, I again got just a glimpse of what it may have been like to be in a space of confinement, a space with no access to certain areas or things, and most importantly a space with ‘no way out.’

I applaud Joseph McGill, Prinny Anderson, and Terry James for their amazing work in bringing the true stories to life of the brave and courageous men, women, and children who stayed in these dwellings.”

 

UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA – SLEEPING WITH THE WOLF
Prinny Anderson

Prinny Anderson

The fourth annual Slave Dwelling Project conference – Universities, Slavery, Public Memory & the Built Landscape – was put on in partnership with the University of Virginia and held on its grounds in Charlottesville, VA. The conference kicked off with a Slave Dwelling Project program and overnight. During the program, the head of the student-run University Guides, Brendan Nigro, presented the history of slavery and its aftermath at the University. He quoted the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, on the subject of slavery. “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson to John Holmes, (discussing slavery and the Missouri question), April 22, 1820

As I shivered in the cold night that followed, questions about that quotation chased themselves through my mind. Who is the wolf? What is justice? Whose self-preservation?

The dilemma Jefferson captured seems to be that he and other privileged, slave-owning elites could either do the “right thing” – be just – or preserve

Prinny Anderson, Terry James and Joseph McGill

The writer of the Declaration of Independence reveals the narrow view of equality, liberty, and justice held during the first decades of this country’s existence. The “self” he refers to were only the wealthy and powerful selves of the ruling class, the class that held others in bondage. The “all men” whom Jefferson considered to be “created equal” were only a small segment of American society. The preservation of this elite depended on the free labor provided by people abducted from their countries, put into slavery, and persistently dehumanized. The “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” of the land-owners depended on a pervasive and massively immoral system – apparently glimpsed by the country’s third President who had helped to establish it. The persistence of this point of view haunts us still.

“Justice” encompasses fairness, equality, honesty and moral rightness. In relation to slavery, Jefferson seems to have seen that Americans could either be just – fair and moral – or they could preserve the system of slave-based wealth and privilege. Justice or privilege. It would have taken great courage to actually live out the virtues espoused in the Declaration and the Constitution, and too few of the political class had that courage. So privilege won.

Prinny Anderson

Finally, the wolf. Who or what is the wolf? My first thought was that the wolf symbolized the enslaved people themselves. That Jefferson and his class saw enslaved people as animalistic, savage and dangerous, and feared that freeing the enslaved would endanger the lives of their former owners. But my second thought was that the wolf stood for the commitment to the system of slavery, not for the enslaved people. Although justice would demand the termination of the system of slavery, the land-owning class believed that to preserve the system of wealth, power and status required the preservation of slavery. The wolf symbolized the ferocious systemic resistance to changing the balance of wealth and power, the harsh retribution facing any political leader brave and foolhardy enough to propose that the country pursue the course of justice, not the course of elite self-interest.

And maybe the wolf depicts a devouring psychological force, the way that living in and perpetuating a system of injustice attacks and destroys the heart, the soul and the conscience. Moral dishonesty ultimately eats up the power for honesty and justice in an individual and in a society. The wolf and its offspring live with us still.

Sarah Gibbons

“The day had been emotionally tiring. Part of me was energized by learning the amazing work that scholars, professionals, and community members had been doing to illuminate the lives of enslaved individuals, but I was also left with the heavy sadness that comes with a deeper understanding of what those lives were like. I’ve studied material culture for many years because I strongly believe that objects and places have power, that they are not merely inanimate, but rather characters in their own right that can teach us about the people who interacted with them. By uncovering objects and rebuilding structures that were used by enslaved people, Montpelier has allowed their lives to become clearer and more tangible. A commitment to highlighting connections between slavery and our modern society, as well as the evident support they show their descendent community, allowed the space between then and now to narrow.

The sleepover only magnified the feeling that then and now are intimately linked and one is no less important than the other. It was the tiny glimpses of a life once lived that left the biggest impression: waking up in the loft of the cabin to hear people talking and cooking over a raging fire pit in the darkness below; the lard and ash under my finger nails that remained long after helping clean the pans and dishes from breakfast; my backpack still smelling strongly of smoke, days later. The glimpses of a life once lived – but a life, that even with this experience, I can’t truly fathom. As I drove home, I quickly remembered my thermal sleeping bag keeping me warm against the cold. My comfortable boots keeping my feet dry. My privilege within the modern world that gifts me with safety, autonomy, and comfort. All of it a reminder that there is still more work to be done and that it will require empathy, more discussions like those engendered by The Slave Dwelling Project, and the willingness to learn about the lives of others – those still living as well as those who came before us.”

Thank you again for the powerful work that you do and for letting us join you!

A Letter to My Enslaved Ancestors
By Preslaysa Williams

I slept where you slept and breathed the air you breathe. Air filled with soft laughter, hard labor, and memory.

I slept where you slept, and dreamed the dreams you dreamed. Dreams of better days and quieter nights. Dreams where you stood in the fullness of your respectability.

I slept where you slept and touched the blades of grass where you walked. Sharp blades. Sharp like harsh words and cutting eyes. Blades which shredded the remains of your humanity.

As I was still and lying there, I felt your peace, your presence, your hope, as if you knew I’d exist one day. That I’d exist freer and wiser and filled with a beauty created with your DNA.

It’s almost morning now, and earth’s stars are fading into heaven’s light. I’ll be leaving this space, but I carry you with me—your dreams, your memories, your hope, and your peace. Rest well now, dear ancestors.

Love,
Your daughter, liberated.
Your daughter of this new day.

Note from Preslaysa:

My overnight stay near the slave dwelling at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, VA impacted me greatly. Some of my ancestors were enslaved people. I wrote this letter to honor their memory, acknowledge their full humanity, and recognize their work in building America, our country.

I’ve experienced racism in many forms in my life. As a result of my personal experiences, I’ve felt a strong need to research my own history in order to get the “blueprints” for how to navigate life as a woman of color in America. The conversations I had at UVA, along with my overnight stay, connected me with my enslaved ancestors in a powerful way. In ways I don’t fully know yet.

This experience enabled me to start the healing process in my own life, a healing from present-day racism and America’s history of slavery. This healing started when I first acknowledged and accepted this history, and when I connected my personal experiences to the history of American slavery. That was the biggest takeaway of my time at UVA: healing.

And my healing story has only begun…

Sarah Gibbons

“The day had been emotionally tiring. Part of me was energized by learning the amazing work that scholars, professionals, and community members had been doing to illuminate the lives of enslaved individuals, but I was also left with the heavy sadness that comes with a deeper understanding of what those lives were like. I’ve studied material culture for many years because I strongly believe that objects and places have power, that they are not merely inanimate, but rather characters in their own right that can teach us about the people who interacted with them. By uncovering objects and rebuilding structures that were used by enslaved people, Montpelier has allowed their lives to become clearer and more tangible. A commitment to highlighting connections between slavery and our modern society, as well as the evident support they show their descendent community, allowed the space between then and now to narrow.

The sleepover only magnified the feeling that then and now are intimately linked and one is no less important than the other. It was the tiny glimpses of a life once lived that left the biggest impression: waking up in the loft of the cabin to hear people talking and cooking over a raging fire pit in the darkness below; the lard and ash under my finger nails that remained long after helping clean the pans and dishes from breakfast; my backpack still smelling strongly of smoke, days later. The glimpses of a life once lived – but a life, that even with this experience, I can’t truly fathom. As I drove home, I quickly remembered my thermal sleeping bag keeping me warm against the cold. My comfortable boots keeping my feet dry. My privilege within the modern world that gifts me with safety, autonomy, and comfort. All of it a reminder that there is still more work to be done and that it will require empathy, more discussions like those engendered by The Slave Dwelling Project, and the willingness to learn about the lives of others – those still living as well as those who came before us.”

Thank you again for the powerful work that you do and for letting us join you!

 

 

 

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