Twelve of our presidents owned slaves, eight of them owned slaves while they served as president.
Public Service Announcement: Montpelier, Virginia is not where Montpelier, the home of our fourth President, is located. I learned this the hard way as the navigation system on my phone took me to Montpelier, Virginia exactly as I had instructed it to do. Montpelier, the home of James Madison, is located near Orange, Virginia which is one hour away from Montpelier, Virginia.
Going back to sites to conduct overnight stays in extant slave dwellings is becoming more commonplace. That said, my second visit to Montpelier was still filled with a lot of firsts. My first visit to Montpelier was to participate in a field school, the purpose of which was to build a slave cabin in the manner that the Ancestors would have done. That finished structure, known as Granny Milly’s cabin, is now sitting on the footprint of the original cabin and is where I would spend my first night at Montpelier. The interior of the cabin looked a lot larger inside than when the grueling building process was being done. The dirt floor was covered with mulch which somewhat alleviated my fear of sleeping on dirt floors. Joining me in the stay would be Eric Larsen and Carol Richardson both of whom were on the team to help build the cabin. Also joining me and on his second stay was Dr. Terry Brock, research archaeologist at Montpelier. Terry’s first stay was in a slave cabin in Historic St. Mary’s, Maryland. Students were supposed to join Terry and me but they never showed. Other staff members from Montpelier would also join in on the overnight stay which made for a total number of seven.
While I am impressed that Montpelier is using archaeology and a $10 million donation from David Rubenstein to recreate the slave dwellings on the site, I am even more impressed that they are involving the descendants of the enslaved in this worthwhile endeavor. Descendants of the enslaved had been at the site all week participating in a field school that allowed them to participate in an archaeological dig in the area known as the south yard. Special because this is where the original cabins were located for the enslaved who served the big house of President James Madison. When I got to the site, the family and staff were engaged in a dinner that celebrated the finish of the field school. The rich discussion of which I engaged one family member made me deeply regret getting lost and showing up one hour late.
Unfortunately, none of the family members would be joining us in the slave cabin for the sleepover, however two of them, Sherry Williams and Cydni Hinton, did join us in the cabin and would engage in rich conversation. Sherry and Cydni requested permission from the eldest in the cabin before they entered. That eldest happened to be me. Upon entry, they blessed all of the corners of the cabin with sage, a practice of which I was somewhat familiar. The conversations were worthy of the educational level of those represented in the space and focused on the participation of the descendants of the enslaved in the activities at Montpelier. The subject matter of the great migration of African Americans from southern to northern states occupied a great part of the conversation. None of us lasted much longer after Sherry and Cydni left the cabin.
Saturday morning afforded me the opportunity to hang out with more of the descendants of the enslaved. They were staying in the Arlington House which was where I stayed when I participated in the field school for building the slave cabin. Eric Larsen and Carol Richardson who had spent the night in the slave cabin and who helped to build it joined me at the Arlington House. This time I got to hang out with some of the seniors of the group. My interaction with them, although powerful and enlightening, still did not convince them that spending a night in one of the dwellings would be in their best interest. With the Slave Dwelling Project, I will take what I can get because I cannot convince some African Americans to set foot on a plantation, let alone spend a week at one to participate in an archaeological dig.
The focus of this day was the ground breaking ceremony of the south yard and commemorating the $10 million donation received. This well attended event was highlighted with a keynote presentation by John Franklin of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The evidence of how the history of African Americans has been neglected through preservation permeated throughout all of the speechifying done from the podium. Montpelier’s prominence should be a major step in convincing other entities that telling the whole story is indeed the right thing to do.
Since the start of the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010, I have only spent the night in one dwelling belonging to freedmen. This was an overnight stay in Eliza’s cottage which is located at Middleton Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. My second stay in a dwelling belonging to a freedman would be at the Gilmore Cabin and Farm. According to its website: “Gilmore Cabin and Farm is the home of George Gilmore, born a slave at Montpelier about 1810. Gilmore built the cabin in 1872, after his emancipation following the Civil War. Montpelier restoration crews and archaeologists have carefully researched, stabilized and restored the cabin, working closely with descendants of its builder. Gilmore Cabin and Farm is believed to be the first freedman’s site in the nation to be preserved and opened to the public to interpret the transition from slavery to freedom in this country.”
The cabin was made of hand hewn logs and had two levels. The ceiling on the first level was low which made it a challenge even for my five foot seven inches. It was adorned with various artifacts and replicas for interpretive purposes.
The stay was preceded by a lecture on the Slave Dwelling Project. In the absence of power point, I used the method of calling out alphabetically all of the states of which I have spent the night in a slave dwelling just to query the crowd about wanting to hear about that stay. As always that method worked well. Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology and landscape restoration, wrapped up the presentation with detailed information on Gilmore Cabin and Farm.
After one barbeque dinner later, the crowd dispersed. Staying with me in the cabin that night would be five people. The most interesting would be Tammy Gibson, a member of the Slave Dwelling Project, who had attended the first slave dwelling conference in Savannah, GA. Tammy travelled all the way from Chicago to participate in the sleepover.
We made a camp fire and had a great time talking about the history of slavery in the United States. Matt Reeves and his son Cole contemplated sleeping outside but ended up sleeping inside the cabin with all of us. Matt and Cole took the top level while four of us slept in the bottom level. This distribution made the freedman’s cottage seem quite spacious.
The Montpelier stay was quite intense. This was my second time staying in a slave cabin that had been recreated. This was also my second time staying in a freedman’s cabin. Moreover this was my second time sleeping in a cabin at the home of one of our former Presidents. The commitment that Montpelier has made to archaeology and connecting directly to the descendants of the enslaved is unsurpassed at any site that I have experienced to date. More sites are beginning to get on board with interpreting the stories of the people who were enslaved there. To that end, Montpelier is certainly doing its part. The Slave Dwelling Project is proud to be a part of this ongoing effort.
As a white woman raised in a small town in Ohio, the topic of slavery was never brought up. It was never mentioned in my home and very little in my small (all white) school. The community where I grew up was very sheltered and isolated. It wasn’t until 17 1/2 years ago when I moved to Virginia with my husband and 2 children that I became fully aware of the institution of slavery. I had applied for a restoration position at an historic house and was thrilled when I had gotten the job. I’ve just started on my 17th year of employment there. Happily, there seems to be a movement at this site and other sites like Montpelier that are interested in not only telling the story about plantation life but the real stories about plantation owners and the enslaved community that lived and worked for them. These sites are also interested in reconstructing the slave dwellings that no longer exist. Many of the cabins are no longer standing or they were re-purposed into something else. I knew that at least 2 slave dwellings were going to be built where I worked and that I was going to be one of the people who would be caring for them. I also wanted to learn as much as I could on how they would be put together and how to clean and preserve them after they were built.
I was happy to learn that the Montpelier foundation was going to offer a field school on how to build a log cabin. One of my colleagues and I signed up for the class. Matt Reeves who is the Director of Archaeology at Montpelier and Craig Jacobs and crew from Salvage-Wrights were going to be the instructors. They were going to have to teach people from all walks of life and different skill levels on how to construct a log cabin. We were going to learn how to cut the logs, de-bark them and then hew them. We were also going to learn how to assemble the logs into a structure and cut out the doors and windows. It was during this week long field school that I met Joe McGill. Joe was one of about a dozen people who signed up for the class. I have to say that I learned more than building log cabins that week. My fellow field school workers and I had some in-depth conversations with Joe about slavery and what he was trying to accomplish with “The Slave Dwelling Project”. When I first signed up for the field school I was so excited about learning to build a log cabin by hand and then by the end of the week I was also very interested in the life of Granny Milly and the slave community with whom she lived. I wanted to see and feel how her little cabin fit into the landscape. I have to say that it was a very satisfying week for me and I found myself wanting to know more and do more. I was also excited about the prospect of Joe getting to sleep in the cabin, even though we all knew it was going to be a ghost cabin (No roof, no daubing and no floor).
A few weeks later, I had gotten an e-mail from Matt asking if any of us that had helped build the body of the cabin would be interested in helping to assemble the logs on the exact site where Granny Milly lived. I volunteered to help with the construction of the building along with some of the other field school students and the Salvage-Wrights crew. When I saw the cabin erected on the site where it belonged, the landscape took on a new feel. I was amazed at how close it was located to the Madison home. Believe me when I say that there is a huge difference between trying to imagine something in the landscape and actually seeing it with your own eyes.
My opportunity to sleep in the cabin came in the form of an e-mail from Matt. He said that Joe was planning on staying in the cabin on April 17th and wanted to know if any of us who had participated in the field school wanted to stay as well. I jumped on that invitation and signed up immediately. Four of us from the field school (including Joe) spent the night in the cabin along with some of the staff from Montpelier. Matt along with some special guests who were there from Chicago (Sheri Williams and Cydni Hinton) didn’t spend the night but stayed and talked for hours. Ms. Williams blessed the cabin and Granny Milly’s spirit as well as the spirits of the ancestors from each and every person present. It was a real privilege for me to hear the stories that were shared in the cabin that night. The conversations lasted until about midnight before we all decided to turn in. I lay there on the ground in my sleeping bag and listened to the night sounds outside the cabin, which included frogs, foxes and owls calling and singing throughout the night (and I might also add a few snores from certain corners of the cabin). I thought about the people who had slept there before me and knew that they probably heard the same kinds of sounds that I was hearing. I also wondered what they would have thought about African Americans, white folk, men and women all sleeping under the same roof where they had slept. Could they even fathom such a thing? Could the Madison’s fathom such a thing? I was awake all night and arose with the sound of a rooster off in the distance. The morning was magical. It was very quiet and peaceful and the fog hovered just above the ground. I watched the early morning sun as it began to shine through the trees shed its soft light on James Madison’s mansion and Granny Milly’s cabin. It was such an incredible feeling.
Lastly, I just want to say that it was a wonderful experience for me and one that I will never forget. It was such a privilege to be there and be a part of it. I want to thank Joe McGill for the message he is sending to this country and I’d also like to thank Matt Reeves and the Montpelier Foundation for giving me the opportunity to be part of something very exciting and unique.
As a graduate with a B.A. in African American Studies from Chicago State University, I have been traveling across the South for over three years learning about the lives of the enslaved. Going to Virginia to attend the overnight stay at the cabin of freed slaves, George and Polly Gilmore on James Madison’s Montpelier, was an experience that I will never forget.
My first glance at the Gilmore’s cabin and observing the interior and exterior, I can only imagine and think about what was it like living in this cabin. What were their daily routines? What were their feelings before and after slavery? What were their means of survival? These are many questions that I would like to know, that will be left unanswered.
Standing on the grounds of the cabin, there were a lot of emotions. I was sad, humble and grateful. These unsung heroes and sheroes have paved the way for many African Americans. There is no way that many of us would be where we are today, if it was not for the enslaved that built the United States of America. It hurts me when slavery is considered taboo, irrelevant and not worth talking about. Yet, 9/11 and the Holocaust should never be forgotten.
As I lay in my sleeping bag in complete darkness, I did not sleep well because I could not understand how the enslaved lived their entire life living in these conditions of servitude, disrespect, considered property and not a human being.
Waking up the next morning, I realized that I have a job to do, as a traveling historian it is imperative for me to use my gift and experience to talk about the importance of the slave cabins and the past voices of the enslaved. This experience taught me how blessed I am and not to take the simple things in life for granted.
It is very important that we teach our youth about the history of slavery and not hide and sugarcoat the truth. The enslaved need to be recognized and honored for the struggles that they have endured. It is important as educators and parents that we instill in our African American youth about their culture. Black history is American history and it needs to be accepted and discussed by all cultures.
I want to thank Mr. Joseph McGill for the experience. This journey made me appreciate the sacrifices from the past that will continue to help me grow and educate the youth in the future.