I prefer that every slave dwelling ever built was still on the American landscape to remind of the enslaved Ancestors, but that is not the case because we have been a nation that would rather forget about those parts of history that make us uncomfortable. Some slave dwellings are not part of the built environment because of demolition by neglect and the fact that they were not initially built with the best and most durable materials. Some antebellum historic sites use the absence of slave dwellings as their reason for not interpreting that aspect of American history.
Some organizations take a different approach. Some sites such as Montpelier and Monticello conduct archaeological research to recreate the slave dwellings that once existed on the sites. Some sites recreate slaves dwellings based on pure speculation. Concise of speculative, both efforts of creating the spaces that mimic the places where the enslaved Ancestors once inhabited are efforts worth being rewarded if done correctly.
The James K. Polk site is a combination of things. The buildings are historical in the sense that they are parts of antebellum buildings once located elsewhere in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina where they were disassembled and reassembled at the James K. Polk site. The land that the buildings sit on is in close proximity to where President James K. Polk was born which put the site well within our mission. Most intriguing, I could not pass up an opportunity to spend a night at the site of one of our twelve slave owning Presidents.
Before this sleepover at the James K. Polk site, I slept at the Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson; Montpelier, the home of President James Madison and Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson. I am on a quest to sleep at the sites of all of the twelve slave owning Presidents and just to keep things in perspective, all of the sites associated with Jefferson Davis is also in my sights.
This sleepover showed great potential. It started with Stories Untold: A Communal Dinner at the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was the keynote speaker for the event. A diverse group of people attended this semi-formal event. Some of the dinner guests would be joining me at the James K. Polk site for the conversation and sleepover. Those participating in the sleepover won that opportunity through a lottery system which I thought was an interesting concept.
I would see the site for the first time in the dark which is something I try to avoid in an attempt to establish my confidence in sleeping in strange places sometimes with people I do not know. Of the two reassembled buildings, we would use the two-level building with the hearth for our sleepover. Some of us would sleep in tents. Development abuts the property’s every boundary. A band from a nearby club was celebrating Octoberfest and playing German music when they went into a rendition of dueling banjoes as heard in the movie Deliverance. German music and Deliverance, a scary combination.
The conversation around the camp-fire was robust. Everyone had an opportunity to introduce themselves and state why they were there. The lottery system that got them all there for the sleepover yielded youth, seniors, Blacks, and Whites. Descendants of the enslaved Ancestors and descendants of those who enslaved them were all there. A local news reporter and a photographer from the Charlotte Observer were there to document the campfire conversation, but they would not spend the night with us. I was again impressed that we managed to engage in such a meaningful conversation without delving into our current political situation.
The next day we engaged the public in Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. The James K Polk site interspersed other elements of education throughout the event on Saturday. A moderate number of predominately White people, 65/35, came to the event throughout the day. I saw old acquaintances from days past. The plan seemed to work; space was spread out enough for all of the living historians and other craftsmen and demonstrators to have their space and audience.
The cooking demonstration was done in the hearth in the cabin where some including me slept in the night before. Six of us slept downstairs, and two of us slept upstairs. Our cooks would tell you that they prefer functional hearths as opposed to cooking outside. The huge hearth and ample floor space provided the perfect setting for the cooking demonstration to occur. This stage was Nicole Moore’s first time serving as the lead cook on one of our outings, and she did a beautiful job cooking and interacting with the audience within the space.
Storytellers James Brown and Dontavius Williams also delivered the goods.
In the seven years of the Slave Dwelling Project’s existence, four slave-owning Presidents down Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Polk. Eight slave-owning Presidents to go Washington, Monroe, Tyler, Grant, Johnson, Taylor, Van Buren and Harrison.
The footprint of the chattel slavery that consumed this nation runs deep. Forty-one signers of the Declaration of Independence, twenty-five signers of the United States Constitution and twelve of our former Presidents, were slave owners. We desire that the Slave Dwelling Project can interact with all of these sites through conducting sleepovers and living history programs. You should join us in changing the narrative of this nation. Stay tuned.
Frederick Deshon Murphy
Days leading up to the stay, I revisited my own ancestral research to reemphasize the importance of this event. As I looked at my enslaved family’s picture, I wanted to walk in their shoes in some way shape or form, and this overnight stay was the perfect opportunity. While packing for the night, I made it a point to make sure the most comfortable sleeping gear was to accompany me. I brought along extra thick socks, a hooded sweatshirt with a long sleeve shirt under it, sweat pants, comfy pillow and super warm sleeping bag. I was all set. Participants of the sleep over met at the President James K. Polk site. Upon arriving, I was reunited with familiar faces and also new ones. I looked at everyone’s sleeping gear and it appeared comfort was the theme. We attended a dinner at the Harvey B. Gantt museum which highlighted the work of Mr. McGill Jr. After the formalities were over, it was time to return to the James K. Polk site and sleeping quarters to discuss the history of slavery and anything else relevant to the subject. While walking to our sleeping quarters to set up shop, I thought to myself, “look at us with all these fancy smancy items our ancestors did not have when it was time to retire for the evening.” The audacity of us.
Upon arriving inside the cabin, by habit I thought to turn on the light switch but of course that wasn’t happening. The room was dark other than a few candles lit and lights from participant’s cell phones used as guidance to claim their spot on the floor. After sleeping designations were determined, we all gathered outside the cabin in a circle to discuss the evening and history of slavery. Everyone had a unique reason why they were present which unearthed a much-needed jolt of optimism, particularly from those who were non-African-American. After the conversation around the fire ended, it was time to do what we came to do…sleep in the dwelling. While laying in my sleeping bag, I wondered if the ancestors were looking down laughing at how high class we were behaving with all the sleeping gear at our disposal.
Sleeping in very close quarters with others was a reminder of how many families may have shared one slave dwelling. I reckon no enslaver would sacrifice work being completed on the plantation by not acquiring the number of slaves needed because of space. Besides, most were transported from various parts of the world in close quarters via slave ships packed like sardines (shaking my head) so comfort didn’t come with this hotel stay. As the night started to elapse, I could hear tossing and turning from other participants. The crickets were doing their thing outside, and I even heard a few owls. Being that the doors were open, I did wonder if coyotes would be tempted to come in and snoop around since the property was yards away from a wooded area. As the night went on, I had more questions for the ancestors like, what if the enslaver decided to come take a female from the dwellings at night to have his way with her. Would she return quiet and not disturb anyone else, or would she still be emotionally intact and cry after returning to her sleeping space. If so, what would be going through the other enslaved minds?
I wondered what it would be like to rest your head at one place one night and possibly shipped further south or up north due to being sold the next. How about the anger one would feel being separated from their family and possibly NEVER seeing each other again?
After this experience, I pondered was there ever rest? Mentally, emotionally, and physically. The enslaved were on call 24/7 literally and figuratively. The wooden floors in the dwellings had no leeway, but for those who worked sun up to sun down, did that even matter as long as their limbs were not in use? These are questions to ancestors that will not get answered, but the empathetic inquiring mind I have wants to know. I hope everyone in attendance gained an even greater appreciation for the enslaved but more importantly I hope my enslaved grandparents are proud of my commitment and dedication to keep their legacy alive. BIG shout out to Joseph McGill Jr. of the Slave Dwelling Project for providing such a unique opportunity.
THE JAMES K. POLK HISTORIC SITE – WHAT’S THERE AND WHAT’S NOT THERE
As historic sites go, the James K. Polk Historic Site is unusual. It consists of several acres of open land, a house, a kitchen building, and a barn. But since it’s a commemorative site rather than a site with the genuine farmstead of the Polk family, some features are not there. For one thing, the buildings are not on the actual site of the Polk family’s farm; that space is no longer there for use as a park, it is now an apartment complex. The actual Polk family farm buildings are also not there. They were abandoned and eventually collapsed. What is at the park are buildings transported to the site from the nearby area and reconstructed to give visitors a sense of the kind of structures the Polk family lived and worked in.
Another feature that is not there are the dwellings of the enslaved people. Some record of the enslaved people owned by the Polk family does exist, so we know there were two named women, Violet and Luce. There were also two men, but their names are unknown – not there. Another record that is not there is of where these four people and a child lived. Maybe in the loft of the kitchen building? Maybe in separate cabins? But the record is not there.
For our overnight stay and day of Inalienable Rights living history, what was there were people. More than ten people, many from nearby Charlotte, NC, were present in person for the firelight conversation and the sleepover. Most of them brought their memories and their thoughts about their ancestors. So although Violet, Luce, the two nameless men and the unnamed child were not there, many who had shared their experience in slavery were there, in the hearts and the words of their descendants.
During the following day’s program, many more people were there to enjoy demonstrations and craft activities. They came as families – children, parents and grandparents were there. They also came as individuals and couples. Their memories of the cooking, the meals and the kitchens of their early years with the older members of their families were there, too, circulating through the kitchen house.
Although the physical structures from the past were not really there, what was there was what matters most – heritage, memory, family.
In Their Own Words
The lottery that selected the participants to sleep in the dwelling, required that they write about the experience. Here are their responses.