Sleeping on Preservation ~ Joseph McGill Reflects on His Preservation Efforts
How often have you heard the sentence “Someone should do something about that?” I found myself being that someone when I noticed that there was a void in the buildings that we as Americans chose to preserve, maintain and interpret.
That void being the buildings that once housed enslaved African Americans. At the onset of the American Civil War, there were approximately four and one half million enslaved people in the United States.
Most of them lived in buildings that no longer exist. That large number does not take into account those free African Americans living in northern states who themselves may have been former slaves or the descendants of enslaved people when the Civil War started due to the fact that slavery once existed in those states.
Despite what has been lost, there are still extant slave dwellings on the American landscape. The purpose of the Slave Dwelling Project is to bring much needed attention to these often neglected dwellings by the simple act of spending a night in them.
Since 2010 I have spent nights in more than 50 extant slave dwellings in the states of Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
At the onset, convincing the stewards of these treasures of my intent was somewhat of a hard sell and who could blame them because the request was highly unusual. Was this guy sincere about wanting to help preserve these buildings; was he seeking reparations; was he hunting artifacts; or was he hunting ghosts; I’m sure were some of the questions that the owners were asking themselves.
Yes, I did get a few rejections but those who understood that I was coming in peace granted my request because they, like I, wanted the world to know that they as stewards had gone above and beyond in ensuring that these structures will remain on the American landscape.
Many milestones for the project were reached in 2013. Because of the stay at Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown County, SC, I now request that my hosts allow me to invite students and their chaperones to share the slave dwelling experience with me.
The number of stays for Terry James, fellow Civil War reenactor, has now exceeded twenty while all the time he sleeps in shackles to commemorate the ancestors who were chained in the holds of ships as they embarked on a four weeks to four months voyage across the Atlantic Ocean through the middle passage.
Prinny Anderson, a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson reached five stays. The slave cabin at Laurelwood Plantation in Eastover, SC was restored just as the new owners promised that it would be and I stayed there along with the owner, high school students and their history teacher.
My first stay in a slave cabin constructed of tabby occurred on Ossabaw Island, GA. The stay in that tabby cabin resulted in a story in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine titled: Cabin Fever: One man’s historic mission to rediscover every former slave dwelling in America by noted author Tony Horwitz who spent the night in the cabin with me and Toni Battle who flew in from San Francisco, California for the stay.
Important to the project’s future, the application for nonprofit status has now been submitted to the Internal Revenue Service.
In 2014 the states of Tennessee and Massachusetts will be added to the twelve that the concept of the Slave Dwelling Project has been applied. One event of note will be the opportunity to join a team of people from across the nation as we gather at Montpelier in Orange, VA to build a log slave cabin on the footprint of the original.
Another event of note will be accompanying sixteen students from Marquette University High School of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and their chaperones as they join me to conduct some repair work on a slave cabin at Kathwood Plantation in Aiken County, SC; spend a night in the Old Charleston Jail and Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC; spend a night in the slave cabins at Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown, SC; and take a trip to Morris Island to interpret the Assault on Battery Wagner, the battle portrayed in the movie Glory.
The jewel of the 2014 season for the Slave Dwelling Project will not be spending nights in extant slave dwellings or the public programs that are now associated with those stays. The jewel will be the first Slave Dwelling Project Conference which will be held Savannah, GA, Thursday – Saturday, September 18 – 20, 2014. Preservationists, scholars, artists, historians, craftsmen and stewards of slave dwellings will all converge in Savannah with the intent of ensuring that extant slave dwellings continue to exist on the American landscape.