In 2010, when I first started sleeping in extant slave dwellings, I had some strict rules. I vowed that I would not sleep in recreated slave dwellings or relocated slave dwellings or in places where slave dwellings were once located but no longer exist. Seven years into the Slave Dwelling Project and I have broken all of those rules. What I’ve learned in this educational and sometimes arduous journey is that if you make the rules, you can change the rules. If I had adhered to all of those rules, I could never reward the efforts of those entities and individuals who have the desire but not the means to honor the enslaved Ancestors at the properties of which they are stewards. I’ve also learned that longevity requires the evolution of thought.
On this journey, I have met some interesting people who share a passion for preserving historic buildings. Many of those people have joined me in some of the many sleepovers in extant slave dwellings located throughout the United States. If one were keeping score, I would say that the demographics of the people who have joined me in these sleepovers is 50 % African Americans and 50 % Whites and covers a wide spectrum of people. Some people, like me, take their desire, passion, and obsession of preservation to another level. Franklin Vagnone has created Twisted Preservation, a program that is similar to the Slave Dwelling Project. While the focus of the Slave Dwelling Project is preserving extant slave dwellings, Franklin’s is historic house museums. In 2016, Franklin and I worked together on a project at Montpelier, the home of President James Madison but that did not involve a sleepover.
Franklin and I would, however, collaborate on a sleepover at Menokin. The twist was that the big house on the property which is the focus of Franklin is in ruins and the slave cabins that are the focus of the Slave Dwelling Project are no longer on the property. These dilemmas set the stage for an interesting collaboration. Despite the big house being in ruins and the slave cabins missing, the importance of the matter was that the stewards agreed that both Franklin and I could add value to their mission by both of us spending the night at the site.
Before I could deal with Menokin, I had to take a detour to St. Mary’s College of St. Mary’s, Maryland. My relationship with St. Mary’s College is continuing to evolve. St. Mary’s College is a case of how institutions of higher learning are dealing with their ties to the institution of slavery. St. Mary’s College is exploring the on-campus archaeological evidence that documents the presence of enslaved people when that college was once a settlement or plantation. Yes, there are many institutions of higher learning that are on former plantations, Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts is one of them.
I spent the night in the past in a slave dwelling owned by St. Mary’s College. This time around, I accepted an invitation to give a public lecture about the Slave Dwelling Project for the Museum Studies Program’s Museum Studies Week. Sleeping in the slave cabin was not necessary this time. My accommodations would be two nights in the luxurious Brome Howard Inn, a Bed, and Breakfast.
Our trip to Menokin included a tour of Mount Airy. My expressed research theorized the house orientation is to the Rappahannock River, the owner thinks otherwise. It is now a private residence and hunting lodge. The hunters sleep in the space where the enslaved would have occupied. I wonder how many of them are aware of that fact. I should request to sleep there next time I visit that area.
The owner took us to a lonely deteriorating cabin in the woods. It needs some attention soon. The desire is there, but the resources are not. Restoring this structure might be a great project for Historicorps.
Inside the visitor’s center of Menokin was a display that was assembled to interpret the skills of the craftsmen who assembled the big house. Everything from handmade nails to ornate moldings had been salvaged from the big house before it collapsed. These salvaged parts are now stored in a section of the visitor’s center.
The slave dwellings that once dotted the landscape of Menolin are long gone. The evidence of the home for the field hands of the property has been proven through archaeology. It was this evidence that was used to figure out where we would pitch out tents. What was once fields that were cleared, planted and harvested by enslaved people are now corn and soybean fields.
My visit to the ruins of the big house was illuminating. A massive roof now covers the ruins protecting it from any threats from above. The ruins are being stabilized and made capable and safe for public access. This rare and unusual method of the exhibition will give the public the opportunity to see how craftsmen applied their skills to build these structures. In some of the bricks, I found some fingerprints that were the evidence of our enslaved Ancestors contribution to the building of that structure.
In the visitor’s center, Franklin and I addressed an assembled crowd of about 30 people some of whom would be spending the night with us at the site. Our walking tour of the property took us on a route that explained how the enslaved Ancestors tamed the land to get the products to and from the water access. As some of us struggled and complained about the journey, we could only imagine what it took for the enslaved to negotiate that terrain while they transported materials in hogshead to and from ships.
Our cook for the night was Dontavius Williams, on an open fire, he prepared the meal that included beef stew as the main course. Dontavius then regaled us with his unique style of storytelling which had many of the audience members in tears.
The storytelling of Dontavius set the mood perfectly for the powerful conversation that followed. For all that we discussed about slavery and the legacy that it left on this nation, I was surprised and relieved that the conversation about the current political situation was minimal.
The following morning the sleepover participants left after enjoying a continental breakfast and coffee. The remainder of us concluded our weekend at the site with a roundtable discussion of what we experienced and ideas for moving forward. We concluded that what we had experienced was powerful. Menokin with all of its quirky uniqueness has great potential. Its greatness potential is its willingness to tell the stories of all of the people who once inhabited the property. Although the African American participation in the weekend’s activities was sparse, some did participate, some did participate, and that is the important thing because that participation can and should be leveraged. We further concluded that whatever the future holds for Menokein, it should include the input of the descendants of the enslaved community. The Slave Dwelling Project will continue to do its part to help facilitate that process.
Menokin Sleepover Conference
This past weekend, I attended the Menokin Sleepover Conference in Warsaw, VA. As soon as the event was advertised to the public, I signed up immediately for the opportunity to sleep on the grounds of Menokin Plantation and meet both Joseph McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project and Franklin Vagnone, co-author of the book Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums.
In my spare time, I work with the Fairfield Foundation in my hometown of Gloucester, VA. Fairfield’s cultural resource management firm, DATA Investigations, performs archaeological surveys at Menokin. For the past 5 years, I have helped wash and sort artifacts discovered beneath Menokin’s rubble. When the Sleepover Conference started, I was excited to see Menokin’s artifacts on display. I viewed ceramic pieces that I helped wash and examine in DATA’s lab. I was not expecting to be reunited with these artifacts, so it was a neat surprise.
Looking back on the event, I really enjoyed the Saturday dinner with all the attendees. Dontavius Williams cooked a delicious meal for us using open fire cooking techniques. We ate beef (not opossum) stew, summer squash pudding, and pound cake prepared by his students. After dinner, everyone reflected on the work of both the Slave Dwelling Project and how we interpret historic sites. Everyone mentioned what brought them to the conference, and we continued to ask each other questions and reflect on both the past and present.
To be honest, I was nervous about the camping part of the conference. It was my first time camping, and it was definitely a memorable event. As I laid down in my small tent wrapped in a sleeping bag, so many thoughts ran through my head and I experienced different emotions. I tossed and turned. I even got up in the middle of the night to walk around. I kept thinking about enslaved women my age in the past. I thought about their lives and struggles in the Antebellum South. I woke up in the morning feeling melancholy, but I also felt hopeful about all the hidden stories and history being shared in classrooms, museums, and historic sites across the country.
Thanks to all parties involved for organizing a thoughtful and engaging experience. I have already shared my experience with my family and members of my hometown community. I am very grateful for the learning experience this past weekend in Warsaw!
When I arrived at Menokin, a journalist asked me why I do the overnights with the Slave Dwelling Project. My answer included, as it always does, the fact that it is a great way to practice the four approaches of Coming to the Table, which is a partner of the Slave Dwelling Project. In short, the four approaches are: uncovering history, making connections, working toward healing, and taking action click here to see more. To me, uncovering history means facing and feeling the truth of history instead of denying it or believing the myths we were taught in school. As James Baldwin said “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” One way to fully face and feel history is to join the Slave Dwelling Project and immerse yourself in historic places like Menokin where one can use the five senses to experience, not just learn, history. Before joining the Slave Dwelling Project and Coming to the Table, I had an intellectual understanding of history. These groups, and the experiences I have had with them, have helped me to learn history by experiencing it with the five senses. At Menokin, I heard Dontavius Williams tell the “Chronicles of Adam,” a powerful and moving story about an enslaved person who was sold away from his family as a young boy; I tasted and smelled the beef stew and the squash casserole cooked by Dontavius Williams over an open fire in heavy iron pots; I saw and walked on the roads built by enslaved people and upon which the enslaved people toiled, pushing heavy tobacco barrels to the ships and hauling cargo uphill from the river; and I slept on the hard ground where the slave dwellings once stood. Learning history this way has helped me face and feel its full impact and has empowered me to practice the fourth approach of Coming to the Table, which is taking action: actively seeking to dismantle systems of racial inequality, injustice, and oppression and to work for the transformation of our nation. I hope you will join me on the next overnight with the Slave Dwelling Project so that you too can face and feel the past and be empowered to take action to transform our nation.