Rare is the time where history and the present team up and rent a room in the hearts of those lucky enough to witness the union. ——–Ardell Sanders
There are times when the stars align. Saturday, June 30 was that time. I found myself at Stagville Plantation which is located near Durham, North Carolina. The fact that I would be spending a night in one of the slave cabins there for a second night was great but preceding that stay was a plethora of living history activities. Stagville was conducting a program titled Freedom 150 which was designed to commemorate the emancipation of the 900 people who were enslaved at the plantation. Prinny Anderson who has many overnight stays in slave cabins is on the Stagville Foundation’s board of directors so she had prepared me for what I was about to experience. I was in for a surprise for little did I know that I was ill prepared for what I was about to witness.
A series of activities were planned which included interpretive sessions in the slave cabins; United States Colored Troops encampment and interpretation; and live music.
Throughout the day, Jerome Bias, the famous furniture maker, coordinated several living historians in the act of cooking the meals outdoor over open fires. This was by far the most exciting part of the event as the visitors had the opportunity to interact with the historians all of whom were in period dress. The living historians included Nicole Moore of Interpreting Slave Life and Dontavius Williams, a school teacher who was once employed at Brattonsville in McConnels, SC and many others who I met for the first time. Their activities would yield hoppin john and hoe cakes for lunch of which, for a fee, the visiting public could and would indulge. Reserved for the people who would be sleeping in the cabin was a dinner that was much more elaborate for it included lamb, fried chicken, collard greens, stewed apples, pies and many other items which would be a challenge to cook in a more controlled environment let alone on open fires.
I got to engage the public in interpreting the space where I and others would be spending the night. Some were aware of those plans but most were surprised that act would occur. Some even expressed that they would spend the night if given more advanced notice. Emanuel Dabney, curator at Petersburg National Historic Site, was also one of the interpreters for the cabins. I met him at Gettysburg College in 2012 when we both served on a panel that commemorated the African American participation in the Civil War.
I got to hang out a little with the Civil War reenactors that set up the living history encampment at the event. African American reenactors are rare, therefore I knew them all. As usual the visitors were enamored by the cannon that the group had on display.
The activities also included me giving a lecture on the Slave Dwelling Project to a standing room only crowd in the visitor’s center. In the audience was Tammy Gibson, a member of the Slave Dwelling Project from Chicago Illinois, who had joined me in a sleepover at Montpelier, the home of President James Madison. Tammy had also attended the first Slave Dwelling Project Conference which was held in Savannah, Georgia in 2014. Again, Tammy had travelled a great distance to spend the night in a slave dwelling for she would be joining me and others in the overnight stay at Horton Grove. I called on her to give a testimonial during the presentation and it was powerful.
Five years into the Slave Dwelling Project, I’ve interacted with many audiences at many sites. I must say that the audience that Freedom 150 generated was the most diverse. One can easily say that should have been expected because Stagville Plantation enslaved 900 people and the descendants of those should be abundant in the area. Well that might be the case but, based on my experience, getting descendants of enslaved people to interact with the places their Ancestors were once enslaved can sometimes be a challenge.
That being said, when the audience left, the fun began. Jerome Bias continued to orchestrate the preparation of the meal. We got to know each person who would be spending the night in the cabin better as we all began to claim our spaces in the cabin. We wanted this done before darkness would descend upon us because this was a cabin without a light source. Joining us would be students from North Carolina Central University’s Men Achievement Center and North Carolina State University’s graduate program in public history. Making the decision to stay overnight on that day was Harvey Gooding, one of the Civil War reenactors. Then dinner was served, one of the best that I’ve had to date at an historic site prepared in that manner. Jerome and all of the living historians did superb jobs in preparing a scrumptious meal over open fires. And they did it in period clothing!
The meal was followed by storytelling. Dontavius Williams introduced us to the character Adam an enslaved boy sold at a young age. The setting, on a plantation, along with the eloquent delivery by Dontavius made the story that much more profound.
As darkness descended upon us, the time came for all of us still there to introduce ourselves and express why we were there. The confessions sometimes got very emotional as the diverse crowd began to talk about everything from slavery to how slavery factors in to current affairs.
Inside the cabin, the night gave way to a cacophony of snores.
We pulled this all off and it was not even Black history month.
Words: Reflections on a night in a slave cabin
Humbled. Trepidation. Excited. Nervous. Worried. Sacred space. Pain. Tired. Weary. Honored. Respect.
The cabins at Horton’s Grove were lived in by people owned by another person. Families owned by another family. We know names because these people were considered property and were kept track of, like property. Much like getting the title for a car, people sometimes came with a receipt of purchase.
This is a sacred space. I thought about taking pictures, but decided against it. Am I tourist for this event? Am I reenactor? This is a different form of heritage tourism. I have a few friends who shook their heads and said “No way” when I told them what I was going to be doing. They understand why I am doing it, but they have no desire to even consider doing an event like this themselves. I am not going to press them for a reason.
After the day’s events were done and our guests left, it was time for dinner and fellowship. It was an amazing dinner. There were probably twenty-twenty five people at dinner. Not every person was going to be spending the night. After dinner, introductions were made and talked about why we were participating in the evening. We had a group of young men from NCCU, a mother from Chicago, two students from NCSU, a Buffalo solider reenactor from Kinston, a man from South Carolina—a wide variety of people. And a wide variety of reasons for participating in the sleep over.
The sleep over itself. A friend of mine said “Oh, it will be like camping!” Another friend said “This will not be glamping.” Glamping being ‘glamourous camping’ near as I can tell. At first, I thought I would have trouble falling asleep. I was listening to a program about sleep and how our minds work when we are sleeping someplace new, like a hotel or even a slave cabin. Because it is not a familiar space, your mind is more vigilant and you do not get as much REM sleep because your mind is in a protective mode. I was so tired after the day’s activities that I did fall asleep, but I also kept waking up. Each time I woke up I thought about the peoples who had slept here before I did. These were people who were owned by another person. I think we had ten people in our space, which is about the number that might have slept in here before the Civil War. People snored. I shifted about because my right hip hurt. I was also not used to sleeping on a floor, as I have not done that in a very long time. But, as I said earlier, I was so tired from the day and from staying up and talking with my fellow participants, that I know I slept at least a little while.
I was very glad to wake up in the morning and pack my things and have coffee and a biscuit. I really could not imagine having to sleep in that space every evening for my entire life. I am glad I had the experience. Will I do this again? Yes. Will I have the same set of feelings the next time around? Yes. No matter how many times I participate in this project, I do not think it will ever become routine.
Reflection for Slave Dwelling Overnight at Stagville Rare is the time where history and the present team up and rent a room in the hearts of those lucky enough to witness the union. The Slave Dwelling Overnight at Stagville did just that. From the authenticity of the hearth cooked meal, complete with delicious sweet potato pie, to the traditional slave garments, the experience created a confluence of historical tales and current day headlines that helped created the fabric of this nation. Joe McGill and Prinny Anderson created an atmosphere of learning, cultural understanding, and historical significance that transcended color lines without disrespecting the individual stories and human element. The sleeping quarters experience provided a one-night glimpse into the living conditions of the people who cultivated and maintained the Stagville plantation, even in the absence of freedom. Although often seen as America’s dirty little secret, slavery was an evil that many would like to sweep under a proverbial rug and forget it existed. The work of the Slave Dwelling Project helps us remember the men, women, and children that were enslaved, as well as their stories. It helps remind us that their contributions to the health and development of this nation will never be forgotten. It helps us to see that people of this nation have more things in common than things that are different. It helps all the MAKERS of this nation to live on.
I first learned of the Slave Dwelling Project through following my friend Michael Twitty in his work as a culinary historian and scholar of the lives of enslaved people in this country. The idea moved me deeply right from the start, but I initially had no thought of taking part myself, though I was very grateful that Mr. McGill was doing this work and leading this profound action. I hoped to hear him speak and meet him in person down the road, but that was it. When I learned that he would be joining the program for #Freedom150 at Historic Stagville on May 30 of 2015, I felt lucky and happy, because I was already involved with the event and knew I would be able to hear him and meet him. The idea of joining him and the group planning to sleep in the beautiful homes at Horton Grove just eased its way in to my mind. I went from hoping to hear him to deciding to stay the night without any attention to it. I wanted to, because it felt like something precious, a gift and an opportunity. I will say that a lifetime of camping made me comfortable with the physical reality of giving up my comfy bed for a night, and I felt that it would be a blessing to be there in the holy presence of the people who built those buildings and lived their lives going in and out of the rooms, cooking and wringing out clothes and making fires and carrying babies and praying and laughing and arguing and crying and watching the moon rise as we did that night by lantern light. I thought of generations of people going out to labor in the sun with the bugs and the violence and the oppression, day after day, under horrifying conditions; I can say it and think it but I cannot really imagine those realities ruling every day. I am thankful for the existence of the homes and spaces where people took their rest and sat by the fire, and tended to their children. How shameful that so many dwellings have been destroyed, neglected and lost due to disrespect and meanness and intentions of erasing what my people don’t want to see or know or consider when we lift up the ‘history’ we want to promote. How wonderful that Joe McGill has lifted a lantern and stepped out the door on a bold, profound journey to find and name and honor these places, these dwellings and therefore honor and remember and lift up these dwellers, the people who lived in their homes and lived through the horrors and wrongs, and loved and laughed and cooked and joked and endured and mended and survived and endured. Every place where people lived during enslavement is hallowed ground. Sleeping there was actually easy. I thought it would be hard and difficult because of no mattress, no aircon, no screens; and I thought it might be heavy or even scary, because I feel a presence and a spirit when I have come to Horton Grove three times now. In fact, it was peaceful and sweet. I loved sitting around the tables after a big busy day, listening to my fellow visitors, hearing people’s stories and thoughts. I’m humbled and moved by it. It is very important and worthwhile. I hope to do it again, and to support Mr. McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project going forward.
This was my second Slave Dwelling Project overnight at Historic Stagville. I first heard about Joe McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project when we sat together on a conference panel a few years ago. Being a member of the Historic Stagville staff at that time, I immediately knew that the Slave Dwelling Project had to come to the site. I extended an invitation, and Joe came for the first Stagville overnight in October 2013.
As a living historian who is no stranger to dressing in 19th century clothing and sleeping outside in all sorts of weather, I was not nervous about the prospect of sleeping in a slave quarter. However, I was not prepared for the emotional impact our stay would have on me. During my first overnight with Joe, I was overcome with sadness the moment I laid down in the quarters. I was hit with a very real homesickness, missing my wife and newborn daughter and wishing I could be with them. I went to sleep thinking of how many people were separated from their families during slavery, and wondering how one can carry such a burden.
During this overnight, it was not long before my thoughts returned to those who had endured forceful separation. When Dontavius Williams gave his performance as “Adam,” he included his story of the final moments he had with his mother before being sold away. As a father, it is especially painful to think that someone could lose a parent, and a parent could lose a child, in this way. As the evening ran on, into an electric discussion that covered slavery, race, and issues of discussing these things at historic sites, my mind was not far from either my family or the families who had lived at Stagville 150 years ago.
One of the most important things we show visitors at Historic Stagville is an original chimney of a slave quarter, featuring bricks hand-made by enslaved craftsmen. Several bricks feature the handprints and fingerprints of those who made them, and it is not unusual for visitors to touch those prints. I’ve always believed that when we reach out to touch those bricks, the ancestors of Stagville are reaching back. In the same way, the Slave Dwelling Project is helping us to build the connection between all of us here today and those people who lived and struggled in the past. In the evening before the overnight began, Joe had us gather in front of the slave quarter with signs that read, “This Place Matters.” As an addition, I also ask everyone to remember that These People Matter. It’s for them that I stayed that night, and for them that I will continue to tell their story whenever and however I am able. I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of such an amazingly worthwhile project.
“I’ve been a vocal supporter of the Slave Dwelling Project ever since Joseph McGill spent the night at Historic Brattonsville the first time. I thought it was a wonderful mission to raise awareness, but I wasn’t the type to sleep outdoors. When I would see Joe at a conference, we would talk about me staying and I would always say that I’d leave the staying in cabins to him. Finally, something pushed me to commit to staying when the Slave Dwelling Project returned to Historic Stagville, and I have to say, that was the best decision I’ve done regarding interpretation.
It’s easy to talk about the lives of the enslaved and what their days would be like knowing that I had the comforts of my own home to go to, but it’s a totally different experience when you have cooked over fires all day, made sure the masses were fed and while interpreting the daily work of an enslaved cook, being tired, hot and weary only to find yourself settling down on the floor of the cabin. In that moment, I understood that the comfort wasn’t in a soft bed to sleep in every night, but the comfort was finally being off of your feet, and the ability to have a few minutes to myself that wasn’t near or over a hot fire. I’ll admit, I slept soundly. My body was tired and did what a tired body does best–shut down.
As I woke up the next morning, I thought about the men and women whose job it would be get up, get the fires going and again start making the meals for the day. I learned that while interpreting the daily work is important in telling the story, it’s also important to interpret what it was like when the day was done. There was no hot shower to look forward to, but there was rest, however brief. I can only imagine that at the end of a long hot day, the enslaved were looking for ways for their body to rest and whether they were on a floor, pallet or bed, at some point, it wouldn’t matter what the surface was, as long as the body was allowed a few precious hours to recover from the days work. It’s strange, I have interpreted in a cotton field, and I have cooked at events before, but none has been as eye opening as the experience I had by staying in the cabin at Stagville. It’s made me think about how we interpret slavery and slave life and what we may be missing when interacting with our visitors. How can we get as much of this life across as possible without knowing what it felt like to have had worked so tirelessly through the day and feeling the weight being lifted by just getting off ones feet? I now know that I can’t just interpret the day life and move on once the sun sets. I will never know what it was like to be an enslaved woman in the United States, but I can at least give my visitors another piece of the story, and for that, I am thankful.”
When I think about Stagville Plantation, the first thing that comes to mind is 900. My second overnight stay with the Slave Dwelling Project, I slept in a cabin where 900 men, women and children were compelled to slavery on Horton Grove. I had a different feeling with this overnight stay than my previous one. My first overnight was a cabin that was purchased and lived in by freed slaves. This situation would be different. I would be sleeping uncomfortably on wooden floors that many of slaves were subjected to lay their bodies.
The two-story slave cabin was enormous in weight and very rare as most slave cabins were one-story single or double cabins. I was able to find fingerprints on the bricks on the chimney. As I touched the fingerprints of the enslaved, my thoughts and feelings were they were saying to me “I was enslaved here,” “I made these bricks” and/or “our story is important.” Each individual that slept on Horton Grove felt that it was important to pay respect to the blacksmiths, brick makers, craftsmen, domestics and field slaves that built Stagville. I felt the sense of togetherness being around like-minded people that have the same desire, passion and interest of spreading the importance of slave cabins and having open discussions about slavery.
The group discussion that night was very enlightening and touching. Participants from different walks of life, black and white having heart-felt discussions about their personal life in regards to race was very eye opening. Everyone had a story to tell and we learned from each other. The discussion brought a sense of understanding and extreme compassion that evening.
After the roundtable discussion ended around midnight, we retired back to the cabin for bed time. As I looked at the sleeping arrangements, the directions of everybody’s sleeping bags looked like a crossword puzzle. I wondered if this was how the enslaved slept and if they had this many people in one room. As I laid wide awake on the wooden floor with 20 other individuals, I was envisioning the 900 slaves that had walked and slept on these floors. The pain I felt in my legs and back that entire night would not compare to the physical, mental and emotional pain that the enslaved endured on a daily basis. It was a difficult night for me, but I was determined to stay committed to this experience in remembrance of my ancestors.
The next day, brought me a sense of pride to be an African American and an awareness of the struggles and strengths that the enslaved lived during a difficult and inhumane period. I am proud of my heritage!!!!
Special thanks to Mr. McGill for another amazing experience that I will always remember.
Thoughts on Spending the Night in a Slave Dwelling
By Kathy Gleditsch
I am a Public Historian, currently working as a Museum Educator at Mordecai Historic Park, located in Raleigh, North Carolina. The main attraction at Mordecai is the main plantation home where the Lane-Mordecai family lived for five generations, from 1785 to 1964. By 1797, we think Henry Lane owned nineteen enslaved people who lived and worked near the house. The plantation reached its height by the time Henry Mordecai took ownership in 1840, at which time 122 enslaved individuals were enumerated and assigned monetary values. On a typical day, I lead educational programs for primary school students in the morning and give public tours of the Mordecai house and grounds in the afternoons. School programs last about two hours, and public tours, under an hour.
So, you may be wondering, after spending all day giving tours on one historic plantation, why would I want to drive out to the boonies of northern Durham to spend the night in a slave dwelling on another plantation site, with the bugs and the dirt and the port-a-potties?
For starters, we have no extant slave dwellings at Mordecai. We think we know where they were located (by the 1860s), but knowing that and telling my visitors to take a little ride down Mordecai drive to their probable location or pulling out maps does not in any way resonate the same as being present in actual structures where people once lived. I have toured the Horton Grove structures twice in the past, but I really wanted a more intimate experience beyond just stepping across the threshold for a few minutes.
Another reason stems from research I conducted in Mordecai family archival collections while a graduate student at North Carolina State University. I spent hours combing through wills, deeds, probate inventories, slave lists, letters, and memoirs, searching for enslaved lives. Of course, all of these documents are written by and serve the purposes of the white slave-owning (and slave-using) family members. I know that this is the typical dilemma of the social historian, but I still wanted to connect on a more personal level with the way these people lived. I also want to use this experience to engage visitors with the need to preserve these structures, as well as encourage them to visit Horton Grove and other extant slave dwellings here in North Carolina.
The heart of this whole experience, was, however, engaging with male and female participants of diverse racial backgrounds and ages. As a thirty year-old woman of European ancestry, I come to the history of slavery and race from a particular perspective, and my background also affects how visitors perceive both me and the story I tell them. Most of my visitors are also of European extraction, so it was really enlightening to hear from those who wrestle with the legacy of slavery in their lineages and have to contend with the challenges that slavery presents for genealogical research.
My goal as a historic interpreter has always been to engage my audiences with wider themes and transformations in the history of the American South. I want to use the history of the Lane-Mordecai plantation to spark conversations about place and power that revolve around race, gender, and class. I feel that I have not fully determined how to tell a complicated and inclusive story in under an hour. Some of the insights shared by the participants helped me think about how I might do this, especially where the main house is concerned.
Some of the historic interpreters spoke of the illusion of control manifested in the architecture of these houses, and it made me realize that I have not been as explicit about this as I should be when giving tours of the Mordecai house. White slave-owners exercised power over enslaved people through the construction of separate entrances, passageways, and work spaces. The shed rooms in the Mordecai house – traditionally serving as a staff room and a gift shop – have remained as storage spaces despite the construction of our new visitor center. It is not my goal here to criticize any of the Mordecai staff; this experience simply made me realize how important it is to interpret these rooms as enslaved spaces if we are going to tell a more complicated and inclusive story to visitors.
I also really appreciated the discussion surrounding recent high-profile incidents of police violence directed against African Americans and how these events represent the product of a long history of the degradation and devaluation of African American lives in this country. I believe that recognizing the complex and entangled history of race and race relations in the United States is absolutely vital to understanding, critiquing, and ultimately dismantling the current white power structure. I feel that interpreting the lives of enslaved and freed people of color who lived at Mordecai is my role in the Black Lives Matter campaign. Even if I do not go to protests and wave a sign that explicitly states that, this is exactly the message I am trying to convey in my conversations with visitors about the vast majority of the people who lived, worked, and died on the Mordecai family’s plantations, in slavery and in freedom. Spending the night with these insightful folks at Horton Grove made me really think about how I can better convey that message in the future. It was a great privilege to support the Slave Dwelling Project and engage with others who recognize that history can be a force for good in this world.
HORTON GROVE AT HISTORIC STAGVILLE – MIXED EMOTIONS
On May 30, Historic Stagville held an all-day Freedom 150 celebration in honor of the day, 150 years earlier, when the 900 enslaved people of the Cameron family’s Stagville plantation got the word that the end of the Civil War meant they were free, free for real, not just free on paper. The owner’s family papers record the fact that the newly liberated people feasted and rejoiced, so the Historic Stagville Foundation did the same.
There was music, song and poetry. There were historic interpretations of life in the slave cabins of Stagville’s Horton Grove and presentations of Reconstruction history by scholars. An encampment of US Colored Troops reminded us of all the African Americans who took action to emancipate themselves and bring freedom to others. And there was food, food of the kind that the Horton Grove residents would have prepared for themselves – hoppin’ john made of field peas and rice, hearth-cooked hoe cakes made on griddles, lunch for the 400 visitors who joined us for the day.
The Foundation also hosted a dinner feast and a Slave Dwelling Project overnight. Nearly 40 people sat down to a meal replicating what the freed people had, planned as near as possible from the records of the day: chicken, lamb, pattypan squash, potatoes, and fried strawberry pies. After dinner, one of the historic interpreters brought us “Adam.” Adam told the story of his early childhood at his mother’s side, of the day his owner sold him away from home after his prospective new owner had first rudely examined him, and of his sorrow and courage as he learned to “make family fast” in his new surroundings.
As dusk came, the 20 overnighters gathered around lanterns to get better acquainted and talk about why they had chosen to sleep in Horton Grove. I had spent the night there once before, in the same Holman House, and I wondered what a second stay would be like. I was not disappointed.
Maybe encouraged by the feeling of being around a campfire, maybe heartened by bellies full of delicious food, maybe inspired by Adam, the heartfelt conversation touched on many emotions. Wry reflections on being the only black historian in a conference room full of white folks. Anguish at night, checking Facebook, to make sure her 20 year old son, out with his friends, was still safe. Surprised pleasure at being embraced by a new-found cousin to whom one is related by slavery. Despair about the sense of being a nobody, a non-person, in the eyes of the dominant culture. Anger and fear about encountering the police on downtown nighttime streets. Hopefulness that this conversation was happening at all. Amazement at the kindness of listening ears and hearts.
In my chosen cubby hole under the central stairway, I did not sleep soundly. I woke and slept, slept and woke, and the mix of emotions continued to come and go. Fear, anger, sadness, anguish must have visited the earlier inhabitants of this dwelling, the Holmans and the other 3 families who occupied the space. Then, jubilation, freedom, rejoicing, hope for new opportunities. But 150 years later, we are still not really free, we still sleep wakefully because our nights and our days are still haunted by the legacies of slavery, fear, sorrow, anger, despair. Sleeping in slave dwellings, sharing meals, and opening our hearts in conversation must continue until every single one of us wakes up to the true freedom morning.