Sleeping in Slave Dwellings: At First They Thought I’d Lost My Mind
Interview with Terry James by Prinny Anderson, May 2017
Terry James is a member of the Slave Dwelling Project’s Board of Directors, a fellow USCT Massachusetts 54th re-enactor with Joe McGill, and a long-time friend. At the time of the interview, Terry had participated in more than forty overnight stays in dwellings from upstate New York to Georgia. When Terry and I talked, we were at the Lexington County Museum in South Carolina, about to begin a day of living history activities.
Prinny: Terry, how did you get started sleeping in slave dwellings with Joe’s project?
Terry: I knew Joe from the Massachusetts 54th – re-enactments, overnight campouts, commemorations, and such. I heard about the project he started, the Slave Dwelling Project, sleeping in slave dwellings, but I didn’t think about it much at first. Then Joe emailed to a bunch of the guys in the 54th asking if any of us would come along for an overnight. I thought it was a wild idea. I thought about all the worst things that could go along with sleeping out in a falling down cabin. When I told my friends what I was thinking of doing, they thought I’d lost my mind!
Prinny: But you decided to join Joe for an overnight. How did your thinking change from those first reactions?
Terry: I thought about our ancestors and all they had endured. The awful conditions they experienced in the ships and once they got here. I wanted to honor them. And I wanted to get perspective on what they went through compared to what my life is like today – having enough to eat, wearing decent clothes, being treated fairly, keeping warm on cold days and cool on hot ones. I didn’t want to take my life for granted; I wanted to remember how everything they went through, everything they were built the good life I have now.
Prinny: How did your experiences sleeping overnight in slave dwellings evolve or change over the years?
Terry: I started to learn more about slavery and about our ancestors. As I learned more, I wanted to make sure that other people, visitors to the sites we’re at or students in the schools we visit, could learn more about the details of slavery and the daily lives of enslaved people. So I studied and asked questions and became more knowledgeable.
I also wanted to make the overnights more personally meaningful. It wasn’t such a big deal for me to camp out – we did that already with the Massachusetts 54th. I wanted to make staying in a slave dwelling something more. I know a man who has a museum of slavery artifacts, and I had seen the shackles in his collection. I decided to get a replica set of wrist shackles and sleep in them to get a sense of how it was for the ancestors as they suffered through the Middle Passage. Those were terrible conditions – the stench, the heat, the lack of food and water, lying in vomit and feces, air so stuffy that some people died of suffocation. Of course, the suffering and terror didn’t stop with the journey in the hold of a slave ship. The brutality and oppression continued, through slavery and afterward, beyond Reconstruction into Jim Crow and on. I thought sleeping for single nights wearing shackles would be a way to get a small sense of the hardship my ancestors went through.
The first time I slept in wrist shackles was on a cold night at Historic Brattonsville. With my arms bound, I could not get comfortable. I could feel all my bones. I couldn’t really move. Imagining the heat or cold, the lack of bedding, the confined space, I recognized what tough, strong people my ancestors were. Lying on my back, I opened my eyes and saw the stars through the gaps in the roof of the slave dwelling we were in. I felt humbled. That night gave me so much perspective on what I call the difficulties of my own life. I looked at life differently. Now I try to pass these lessons along to younger people, to not take what they have for granted and to take all the opportunities in front of them.
Prinny: Do you have memories or associations with any specific sites where you’ve spent the night?
Terry: A strong memory I have comes from our stay at Friendfield. We had gone to sleep, and in the deep part of the night, I thought I was awake. “Who left the door open?” I wanted to know. Was someone else there in the cabin with us? Was someone there to do us harm? I think now I was dreaming, but it made a powerful impression on me.
My first visit to Montpelier, we worked for a week on reconstructing a log cabin-style dwelling. We worked with replica hand tools, and it was hard work! I ended that week knowing so much more about the skill required to construct even a small building and how tough the work done by enslaved people was.
From my stays at Monticello, I came away with more insight about the politics of interpreting slavery at a famous historic site, and the way that change comes to that kind of place. It seemed as if the stewards of Monticello had their eyes opened, and then went on to create a different experience for visitors and for their staff. They want to be true to the whole story, to tell the truth about history there. And they want to increase the number of African American visitors. The same kind of change has happened at Montpelier, a shift toward awareness and then taking action to tell the truth about history.
Prinny: What do you say to people wondering whether to come on a Slave Dwelling Project overnight?
Terry: If you can join us, you should. Wherever you stay, whatever the program is for the overnight, you will learn something, you will feel something you didn’t know before. Along with everyone who has spent a night before, you’ll honor the ancestors and help to tell the truth about our American history.