When I received a letter from Missouri’s Little Dixie Heritage Foundation in 2010 my first instinct was to brace myself for some language laced with hate. With the Slave Dwelling Project just getting traction and my limited knowledge of southern sympathizers, receiving a letter from an organization with Dixie in its name was not encouraging.
My instinct was proven wrong. Missouri’s Little Dixie Heritage Foundation is a public organization dedicated to recording, preserving, and strengthening the ties of the public to the heritage, history, and material culture of Missouri’s Little Dixie region through educational programs, tours, outreach, and support. The Little Dixie is defined as a 17 county region that encompasses Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Howard, Monroe, Pike, Ralls, and Randolph, Carroll, Chariton, Clay, Cooper, Jackson, Lafayette, Saline, Platte, and Ray Counties.
The letter I received was an invitation to come to Missouri and spend the night in four slave dwellings. That task was accomplished with much success. My host Gary Fuenfhausen, President of the foundation, and David Lerch, board member, even attended the first Slave Dwelling Project Conference which was held in Savannah, Georgia in 2014.
Fast forward to the present and I got an invitation to participate in the 2015 Missouri Presentation Conference which would be held in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I would co-present with Gary and Vicki McCarrell owner of Burwood Plantation, one of the four houses I stayed in while in Missouri on my first visit.
But how could I accept such an invitation without including a sleepover in a slave dwelling? That sleepover would occur at the Felix Valle House State Historic Site in Saint Genevieve, Missouri. Gary is a testament of why it is necessary to have Ambassadors for the Slave Dwelling Project who can negotiate the terms for which I can spend a night in a slave dwelling, especially those dwellings of which I am unfamiliar. It was Gary who made the pitch and explained my intent. The fact that the project has obtained a positive track record makes the process much easier but it is still a hard sell in some cases, especially when in this case, there was the bureaucracy of dealing with a state owned building.
One half of the cabin is open to the public as a museum and contains various objects that interpret the period of slavery. You can also obtain access to the loft from this section of the cabin. The other half of the cabin is an abandoned office complete with a bathroom. It was in the office that I would sleep and be joined there by Marvin Pratt, a volunteer at the site. I was successful in my quest to find fingerprints in the bricks that were left by the Ancestors.
Our activities included a luncheon that was attended by an intimate group of about ten people. Most seemed convinced that the interpretation of the stories of the enslaved in Saint Genevieve is far from reaching its fullest potential. We took a tour of various sites related to the history of African Americans in Staint Genevieve, including the Bolduc House, the Bauvais-Amoureux House and the Bequette-Ribault House. That evening there was a free public reception at the Felix Valle House Historic Site at 5:30 followed by a presentation by Gary and me.
Because the cabin had electricity, I found some quality time to get some writing done for some upcoming deadlines.
At the Missouri Preservation Conference, our session was titled: A Preservation Perspective on Missouri’s Slave Dwellings: Identification, Advocacy and Stewardship. This was one of the rare times that I got to present with a host, Gary Fuenfhausen, and a property steward Vicki McCarrell. The combination proved very effective. The question and answer period was an indication that the Missouri preservationists who attended the session are now more sensitive to the fact that there are slave dwellings throughout the state that need to be properly preserved, maintained and interpreted.
Slave Dwelling Blog
Marvin Pratt, Ancestor to both slaves and slave holders
On Oct 20, 2015, I had the opportunity to be part of the Slave Dwelling Project with Joseph McGill. I was the Felix Valle State Historical Site volunteer spending the night with Joe in the slave quarter which is located in St Genevieve Missouri.
My understanding of the project is to preserve and educate people on the slave quarters in early American history.
I found Joe to be an interesting speaker. He was able to talk about the past without having the audience feel uneasy or threatened.
I was disappointed in the turn out. I thought there would have been more people in attendance and more African Americans. I’m sorry to report we didn’t have one African American in the group.
I have found in my heritage that my blood line was not only slaves to Jesuit priests but slave owners to people of color as well, to include Native Americans.
Am I sensitive about these facts? Yes I am. When you present me with these facts, I want the truth be told and not some half truth to save face of some family name.
As I sat in the slave quarters of the Felix Valle house I wondered what type of people Felix and Odile were. I’ve heard more stories about Odile than Felix.
One of the ones that stand out is that she gave her slaves their freedom and they in return came back to work for her. To me that’s more than a master slave relationship. I believe Odile treated them as family.
I also believe that up until 1803 St Genevieve was a laid back and prosperous community and I believe this is from a French Canadian culture that adapted over time. There may have also been the influence from New Orleans and their three tiered social structure.
I’ve read that slaves and owners worked side by side in agriculture in LeGrande Champ(the big field).
During our time, Joe showed me one of the bricks on the wash house and it contained finger indentations. I was told it was caused from removing the brick from the mold before it was completely dry.
As I looked at this brick I was at a loss as to the origins. My theory was completely wrong. I thought that it may have been ballast from a ship that sailed into New Orleans and brought up river on a keel boat.
I talked to Donna Rausch our site director and she let me know that the bricks were made in the backyard of the Felix Valle house. She told me that she was part of a project that was able to do an archaeological dig and found the evidence that supported the information.
I now ponder as to who made the indentations. Was it Felix Valle, his wife Odile Pratte Valle. The carpenter who built the wash house or one of many African Americans from the community.
History needs to be preserved for future generations. Good or bad, it’s part of who we are as mankind.
Missouri’s Little Dixie Heritage Foundation received a warm welcome in historic Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, during our co-sponsored program with the Felix Valle House State Historic Site, which brought “The Slave Dwelling Project” and its founder Joseph McGill to the Colonial French community. The day’s events began with a lunch at the Jean Baptiste Valle House, also known as The Commandant’s House, which was built in c. 1794 and owned by The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. The attendees also visited the Colonial Dames’ 1792 Bolduc House Museum, where they were guided by museum director Lesley Barker on a personal tour of this important site and its exhibit detailing the Colonial African American experience in Ste. Genevieve. Joseph McGill and MLDHF board members Gary Fuenfhausen and David Lerch also toured the once African American owned 1792 Bauvais-Amoureux House and the 1808 Bequette-Ribault House, which is one of five remaining structures in the United States built with a Creole “poteaux-en-terre” construction, or “posts-in-the-earth,” a reference to its vertical logs built directly into the ground. Mr. McGill, Fuenfhausen, and Lerch also met the Bequette Ribault House’s owner, Hank Johnson, who has spent much of his time overseeing and participating in the research and restoration of the house. The Johnson family uses the site in conjunction with their Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, which is an exclusive vacation villa and spa retreat, featuring a winery and wedding and meeting venue accommodations. The day ended with a reception held at the Felix Valle State Historic Site’s 1819 Dr. Benjamin Shaw House and slave quarter and a presentation by Joseph McGill about The Slave Dwelling Project. After a day of learning about Ste. Genevieve’s African American history and the importance of saving Missouri’s extant slave housing, Mr. McGill spent the night in the 1840s slave cabin, which is associated with the Felix Valle House built in 1818. In total, 23 guests attended the event.
Newport, Rhode Island
From Missouri it was off to Newport, Rhode Island to participate in the Cultural & Historic Preservation Conference hosted by Salve Regina University and the Newport Restoration Foundation. With invitations to participate in more and more conferences, I do not pass up any opportunity to spend the night in an extant slave dwelling if the opportunity presents itself. Rhode Island with a history so steeped in the institution of slavery, it should not have been a challenge to find slave dwellings of which to spend the night. Until Dr. Jon Marcoux, Assistant Professor of Cultural and Historic Preservation of Salve Regina University, stepped in, finding that place was somewhat of a challenge.
Arriving on Thursday and being the last speaker to present on Saturday, the last day of the conference, I got the opportunity to take in all of the prior sessions in a relaxed mode. The conference was titled: The Remembered and the Forgotten: Preserving and Interpreting the Americas to 1820. The conference was much like a Charleston, South Carolina reunion for there were many presenters from that city speaking on matters pertaining to African American history and Charleston. Representatives from Monticello were there and presented, this interested me because this was a site of which I had spent a night in a dwelling. Also interesting to me was the session titled: The Tradesmen Who Built the Town: Rediscovering Contractors and their Slaves in Colonial Era Charleston. This presentation was eloquently given by Christina Butler of the College of Charleston and increased my general knowledge of the roles of the enslaved who were instrumental in building Charleston. Finding Gasden Wharf: Archival and Archaeological Investigations was given by Eric Poplin of Brockington and Associates, Inc. Gadsen Wharf is the site of where most of the 40% of Africans who would be enslaved in this nation, would be brought into Charleston and held captive in warehouses waiting to be sold. This is the site of the proposed International African American Museum.
Friday included tours of three sites in Newport. Our first stop was the Redwood Library, America’s oldest lending library. Our tour guide was excellent because she started the interpretation by stating the founder was a philanthropist who owned a sugar plantation.
Our second stop was the Touro Synagogue. I found the interpretation lacking because I could not get the interpreter to engage with me on how one of the founders who was one of the richest men in America obtained his wealth. The fact that he was a merchant who owned a ship was a clue, but I did not want to assume that he was a slave trader. I was also disappointed that she could not divulge details on the physical laborers that built the synagogue.
Our third stop was the Whitehorne House Museum. Their primary mission is to interpret furniture. Nice, but when I came across information on the tour that the builder of the house was in the shipping business and lost two ships at sea, I was interested to know what was the cargo, of course, that question went unanswered.
Finding extant slave dwellings in northern states can be somewhat challenging. First one must grasp the concept that slavery did exist in these states. Then one must find out the date that slavery ended in that particular state and work backwards from there. There is a great chance that slavery factored into all of the extant buildings that were built before that date the slaves were freed in that state. Although some plantations existed in northern states, one must not assume that all slavery existed on plantations, there were a lot of slave owning households in northern states, therefore there are a lot of extant buildings in northern states where slavery was applied. Well luckily, Jon Marcoux of Salve Regina University was aware of this concept and he got me hooked up with Smith’s Castle.
Smith’s Castle was built in 1678 as a replacement for an earlier structure which was destroyed by the Narragansett Tribe during King Philip’s War. Roger Williams was the founder of Rhode Island and a prominent Baptist theologian. He built a trading post on the site in 1637 to trade with the Narragansetts after receiving the land from the tribe. Eventually, Williams sold the trading post to Richard Smith to finance his trip to Great Britain to secure a charter for Rhode Island. Smith bought the trading post and surrounding lands from Williams and constructed a large house which was fortified, giving the house its nickname as a castle.
I would not sleep there alone. Mr. Robert Geake, site director, Jon Marcoux and three students from Salve Regina University would join me. Mr. Geake was a wealth of information. The history of Smith’s Castle, the purging of the native Indians from the land and the slavery that existed in Rhode Island, he explained it all. I could have listened to him all night.
The tour of the house revealed that the slaves slept in the attic and one room on the second floor. I chose to sleep in the room on the second floor where the slave(s) would have slept. Jon and the students slept in an adjacent room while Mr. Geake slept on the first floor.
Slave Dwelling Blog Post
I was very excited to sleep in a slave’s room at Smith’s Castle in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. What I enjoyed most about the experience was learning about the history of the house. I also liked learning more about slavery in Rhode Island. From the experience I learned that lots of people don’t like to think about slavery.
Abigail R. Burke
Prior to my experience at Smith’s Castle, I hadn’t realized the extent in which slavery was important in Rhode Island. Newport especially was thoroughly invested in the trade because of its dominant seaport. Like Mr. McGill pointed out, people aren’t aware of the extent of which slavery was prevalent in the north. As we discussed, this particular property had roughly 12 slaves living there at its height. To the average person who tours Smith’s Castle, unless slavery was discussed on the tour in relation to the property, they would never guess this building was home to many slaves. If you were to tour a 17th century plantation home in the south, however, the average person would probably assume slaves lived there (or there may be restored slave cabins on the property). In general, the aspect of slavery, a very prevalent and important economic institution in both the north and the south at the time, is down played at many historic sites. Mr. McGill’s goal is to bring attention to these down played locations and structures, and illustrate to the public how these dwellings and these slaves played an extremely significant role throughout early American history. Staying in a room where slaves stayed in Smith’s Castle made the whole experience and educational aspect so much more alive and meaningful to me.
Dr. Jon Marcoux, Assistant Professor of Cultural and Historic Preservation at Salve Regina University
Cheese… Cider… When I hear mention of these foods, I think of New England general stores or retail displays featuring the word “artisanal” along with a lofty price tag. What I learned on Friday night has forever changed this mental image. I learned from Robert Geake, historian and docent at Smith’s Castle, that these foodstuffs were the key products of slave labor at Rhode Island plantations during the 18th century. These items – destined for the tables of white folks across New England – were produced at this farm by enslaved laborers, all of whom slept in the locked attic of the house we’re sitting in.
This was just the beginning of a long and thoughtful conversation that took place between Joe, Robert, me, and three of my students from Salve Regina University. When I lived in Charleston, I had done some archaeology on Lowcountry sites where slaves once lived, so I had some understanding of the history and lives of the enslaved there. Having only recently moved to Rhode Island, I had never heard about the “Narragansett Planters.” On Friday, we heard about the families who had begun the large-scale farms in the area, how they gained their wealth trading cheese and horses to the merchants in Newport, and how this was all done by virtue of slave labor. We also learned of Rhode Island’s broader role in the slave trade, about the men who financed many of the early-to-mid 18th century voyages to Africa – most of which brought enslaved Africans back to Rhode Island for sale. We also learned about the Slave Dwelling Project and Joe’s goals of preserving slave dwellings and promoting the pubic interpretation of the history of the enslaved.
To say that Friday night was a transformative experience for me does not do it justice. There is no amount of reading or talking about a slave’s life that can compare with actually going up to the attic where he or she slept and to see the cramped, slanted ceilings and the lack of a fireplace. To leave through the hatched door that opens so easily for us but was likely secured with a heavy lock back then. I am blessed to work at a school that has social justice as part of its mission statement. After Friday I am even more committed to that mission and to respect and promote the dignity of the people whose daily lives I explore as a scholar and teacher.
I hope to see Joe up here again soon, as there are lots of students and faculty who wanted to participate in our conversation. Given how little attention is currently paid to the role of slavery in New England, Joe has a lot of work to do up here, so I think it won’t be long.