“Although public historians can sometimes be teachers, public history is usually defined as history beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.”
As defined, I will accept that term because slave dwellings are my classrooms.
Sweet Briar College, College of Charleston, Furman University, Clemson University and the University of Virginia are institutions of higher learning where members of the Slave Dwelling Project have spent the night in buildings associated with chattel slavery. That growing list of participants is an indication that more institutions of higher learning are coming to grips with their involvement with the chattel slavery that gripped the United States. Many institutions of higher learning in northern and southern states owe their existence wholly or in part directly or indirectly to the institution of the chattel slavery that existed in this nation. While some of these institutions deal with these truths directly, others continue to ignore their involvement in the atrocious institution of chattel slavery and continue to let the matter fester.
My sleepover at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia was three years in the making. My initial contact was the dynamic Dr. Kelly Deetz-Moore. Kelly contacted me about a sleepover in the only existing slave dwelling on the campus. We set a date and off went Kelly to another job so that initial plan did not come to fruition.
Dr. Whitney Leeson picked up where Dr. Deetz left off. She attended the 3rd Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference which we held in Columbia, SC in October 2016. She also attended the 4th Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference held at the University of Virginia in October 2017.
I always tell my hosts to maximize my time when they schedule events around my presence. Dr. Leeson took me literally because there was little downtime. Here is a copy of my schedule.
Joe McGill Visit
Wed. Nov 8
2 airport pickup, campus tour
4:30 hotel check-in
5:45 pick up from hotel
6 reception at millers
7:30 dinner at Blue Apron
9:30ish return to hotel
Thurs. Nov. 9
9 breakfast at hotel
10:10 class with Gregory
1. Black Lives Matter Forum in Logan Gallery
2:40 development meeting for Joe McGill
2:40 Leeson and Miller meet w/ INQ 300 students
4:00 Monterey Room 1
7 vans to dinner downtown Roanoke
7:30 dinner at Blue 5
10 Quarters campfire
12 am Remembering Monterey’s Enslaved ceremony
Fri. Nov. 10
9 breakfast at commons with
11 meet w/ PR for future stories related to Quarters and raising public awareness
12 Anthropology class
1 class w/ Gregory
2 meet Juliet Lowery
3 coffee at Mill Mountain w/ Jesse Bucher and Joshua Rubongoya
4 meet with interested members of the Confederate Memorial ad hoc group
7:30 dinner at Mac and Bob’s with BSA
8 Jerome arrives
10 Quarters campfire
12 am Remembering Monterey’s Enslaved ceremony
Sat. Nov. 11
6 pick up Dontavius from Lynchburg train station
10 Joe McGill “Slave Dwelling Project” lecture
10:45 coffee/pastries break
11 Kelley Deetz “Bound to the Fire” lecture
11:45 walk to Monterey
12 pm Jerome Bias food cooking demonstration
12:30-1:30 community feast, soliciting community feedback, tours of Quarters/Monterey/Clay Street 1:30 Dontavius storytelling
2:00 tours continue of Quarters/Monterey/Clay Street
3:30 Joe to airport
This schedule is a great example of how it should be done for maximum effectiveness.
Mother Nature was kind to us on the first full day. Our campfire chat, Slavery and the Legacy that it Left on this Nation went over well with the fifty or so college students who attended. As designed, all who attended had an opportunity to participate in the conversation. The slave dwelling is located behind the Monterey House which is currently used as a guest house on campus. My google search on Monterey revealed a lot of paranormal interest, a subject matter that is of no interest to me because the Slave Dwelling Project is not about ghost hunting. Not that I was looking for paranormal activity, but I stayed in the Monterey House two nights and experienced nothing.
The slave dwelling will be restored with the future use still being debated. Inside the slave dwelling, the twenty people who stayed for the sleepover all retreated to the second level, leaving me on the bottom floor alone where I slept next to a gaping hole in the floor. Every move that they made on the second level was easily heard by me on the first floor. I am certain those who were enslaved there experienced that same level of limited privacy. The next morning I discovered that some of the students never made it into the slave dwelling, they just stayed around the campfire and continued the conversation.
The second night was not so promising as the first. With the temperature forecasted to hover around freezing, we decided to cancel the second night of the campfire chat and sleeping in the slave dwelling.
Also included in this visit were elements of our living history troupe. Jerome Bias, our cook, and Dontavius Williams, our assistant to the cook and storyteller were a part of the package. Dr. Leeson met both of them when they appeared at Goodwill Plantation in Eastover, SC during the Third Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference.
The public lecture held on the campus surprised me because of the great attendance. The presentation included me talking about the Slave Dwelling Project and Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz talking about her new book Bound to the Fire. What surprised me was that the driving distance between Roanoke College and Booker T. Washington National Monument was a mere 45 minutes. The weekend before coming to Roanoke College we spent at Booker T. Washington National Monument and over the two-day event, we managed to muster about 50 people and that included a local school group. There were more people in that room than the number of people a National Monument could muster for an entire weekend. Or could it be that I am not giving my co-presenter Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz the proper credit for all her greatness?
So, seven years ago when I started on this journey of sleeping in extant slave dwellings, institutions of higher learning were not on my radar. The reality is that all institutions of higher learning, north, and south that came into existence before 1865 or shortly after that should examine their relationship to chattel slavery. Not only should they investigate that history but, they should also be forthcoming with the results.
I will continue the conversations with the University of South Carolina, Francis Marion University, the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi as I continue the effort to gain access to the extant slave dwellings on their campuses. It will also be my desire to engage other institutions of higher learning to allow the Slave Dwelling Project access to their campuses so that we can conduct similar programs to those conducted at Roanoke College. Their participation in the programs that the Slave Dwelling Project offers can help rid this nation of some of the racism that permeates this nation.
Upon my return visit to Roanoke College, I will be one of the first individuals to spend a night in the newly restored slave dwelling. If my host Dr. Whitney Leeson has anything to do with the planning, I will continue to carry on the conversation of Slavery and Legacy that it Left on this Nation with participating students.
The conversations that we have around the campfires while at these antebellum sites are far more powerful than that of sleeping in slave dwellings. The following are the comments of some of the students of whom I came in contact while I was at Roanoke College.
“I must say it has been an honor to participate in something special that took place here in Salem, Va. Last Saturday, Joseph McGill and his colleagues brought the history of my ancestors back into my heart during the storytelling. It is a subject that a lot of folks do not capitalize on or talk about nearly as much as it needs to be. I am in full support of his project which promotes the legacy of the enslaved ancestors. Participating in movements much like these has allowed myself to better appreciate others for who they really are and I highly recommend others to take action in order to admire where they come from.” Greg Bembry
“Staying the night in the slave quarters was a remarkable and enlightening experience for someone living in 2017. The disparities of history are important to understand and experiences like this help will us move forward in the future.” Erin Cole
“I was lucky enough to be able to attend three major talks lead by Joseph McGill at Roanoke College. My favorite was the talk that happened around the bonfire before the long cold night sleeping in the slave quarters. I enjoyed this one the most because I felt it was more of a conversational style of lecture where people felt more comfortable expressing their thoughts on the topic of racism. It’s important for people to have conversations about racism even though it can cause some to feel uncomfortable. I think having this discussion on campus brought fourth many ideas and opinions that were shared in a safe environment. It was uplifting to see many people share the same hope for the future.” Maleigh Lombard
“The Historic Preservation class joined Joseph McGill overnight in the quarters bringing attention to the need for other college campuses to preserve slave quarters along side Roanoke College. The Slave Dwelling Project served as a spring board to the discussion of how to preserve the slave quarters behind Monterey ensuring that the story of those who served the Big House will be told.” Emily Searles, Roanoke College ’18
“The experience I had listening to Joseph McGill talk at the bonfire and storytelling this weekend was one like no other. I never realized how much history these places held, and how important they are to preserve to keep the history. Spending the night in the slave quarters was tough, but that is what made me realize why this place was so vital to restore and promote. I spent one night in this place knowing I would be going back home and to my bed in the morning. The slaves that lived here spent every night in this place, going through things I can’t even imagine. This was an experience that has impacted me immensely.” –Taylor Sayegh
“From the Black Lives Matter forum, to the sleep-out and the “Behind the Big House” community gathering, I truly received one of the most inspiring, educational experiences of my life. Since these events, I have a whole new outlook on the history of the United States and am more aware of fight to bring equality to traditionally suppressed groups in America that continues to this day. Thank you, Mr. McGill, for all of your hard work in bringing awareness to the significance of the dwelling places of slaves across the United States. God bless you as you continue your work on the Slave Dwelling Project.” Emma Sliwinski
“All of the events from these past few days, including the sleepover, the lectures, and the living history demonstrations, aided in my understanding of the side of slavery that is so often left out and avoided. I have recently learned a lot about the history of the slave trade in America in a couple of my classes at RC, and it is astonishing how much I did not know and had never been taught in grade school. I greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to attend the events put on by Joseph McGill, Jerome, and Dontavius, because they added and expanded to my already growing knowledge. I am not likely to ever forget sleeping in the Monterey Quarters or the stories that were told around the fire. It was truly an eye opening experience in more ways than one.”
– Serena Soterakopoulos
“In the months that we have been working on the quarters I have had the privilege to be a part of helping to keep alive the memory and the history of the slave quarters. There have been many great and informative speakers here at Roanoke College, each shedding more light and understanding on a world that none of us could possibly imagine. I’m very thankful to have been able to experience and learn more about the system of American slavery and look forward to continuing my understanding and knowledge of it in the future.” Elizabeth Kronander
“Spending the night by the bonfire at Roanoke’s Quarters listening to Joseph McGill’s stories was both intriguing and educational. Hearing the stories of his travels and of the history that he unearthed was heartwarming. Overall his work has and will continue to be a huge step forward in completing both America and Roanoke’s stories of the pre-civil war United States.” Zach Caveness
“The opportunity to see Joseph McGill in action was priceless for Roanoke College and specifically the History Department. Hearing him speak about the College’s efforts to restore and memorialize The Quarters was invigorating in the restoration process. McGill was insightful and thoughtful in discussion, actions, and stature and made the weekend a memorable experience that I will never forget.” Jane Nowell
“I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to listen to Joseph McGill. His presentation not only was informative, but allowed me to think critically about the past, present, and how we should go forward in the future as a nation. I am beyond grateful to have heard him speak and be able to experience such an amazing movement.” Colin Wall
Bonfire: I hadn’t previously seen Joe McGill before at any of the events he did on campus, so I was very excited to hear his explanation of the Slave Dwelling project outside of the TedTalk format. However, I really enjoyed the last section where he allowed us to ask questions as I believe it was a moment of exploration for everyone in attendance. The more people spoke and shared their opinions, I could see why something like this was so important and my uncomfortable feelings about sleeping in the slave quarters shrank. It was very much a hands-on learning experience, one that I truly enjoyed.
Slave quarters sleepover: I started the night feeling very uncertain about the slave quarters sleepover but that quickly vanished with the discussion during the bonfire event. Instead, I was curious as to how the night would go. As it turned out, I didn’t sleep very much the whole night. I spent my time curled up in a sleeping bag trying to sleep but not really able to; I was too anxious to. Despite not being able to accomplish sleeping, I stayed in the quarters the whole night. I was very grateful for the opportunity to be part of the Slave Dwelling Project.
Cooking demonstration: The cooking demonstration was very interesting. As I watched it felt less like a demonstration and more of an insiders account of the food that we were going to be able to try. Jerome was very purposeful in the way he spoke and the information I received on the different ways people cooked things based on where they were from was insightful and something I had never thought of. Also, he makes very good okra.
Storytelling: I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the storytelling portion of Saturday, however, if I had any expectations for the event, Dontavious far exceeded them. His portrayal of a slave, Adam, was unexpectedly funny at points, heartbreaking at points, and overall beautiful. I really enjoyed this segment of the day and it felt very appropriate to end with.