The act of sleeping in an extant slave dwelling is simple. Finding them on the other hand can be more of a challenge. The act of finding them is now made simple because the Slave Dwelling Project now has loyal Ambassadors who can help in locating these extant slave dwellings. Finding them is one thing but the stewards must then be convinced that I come in peace and I mean them no harm. Lynda Davis is one such Ambassador who can make things happen. She is a resident of Baltimore, Maryland and a member of Coming to the Table, an organization that the project has partnered with whose mission is to provide leadership, resources and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery. Lynda’s first overnight stay in a slave cabin was at Gunston Hall in Lorton, Virginia.
Lynda made arrangements for the first two 2016 out of state overnight stays. They would be at the James Brice House and the William Paca House and Garden both owned by Historic Annapolis in Annapolis, Maryland. Having already stayed in slaved dwellings at Sotterley, Maryland and Historic St. Mary City, Maryland, these stays would be my third and fourth in the state.
There are times when some overthink the intent of the slave dwelling project. More specifically, they think that extant slave dwellings are only found on southern plantations. If that was the case, no urban dwellings or northern states would be in the portfolio of extant slave dwellings where I have spent the night. The James Brice House and the William Paca House both fit the category of urban slavery.
Our first night would be spent in the James Brice House. Its website states:
“The James Brice House is one of the largest and most elegant of Annapolis’s historic mansions. Construction on the five-part Georgian home started in 1767 after the death of James’ father, Judge Brice. Using enslaved and indentured labor as well as local craftsmen, the house took nearly 7 years to complete.”
“Today, this National Historic Landmark is the headquarters of Historic Annapolis. Highlights of the central block include a magnificent mahogany staircase and the lavishly decorated drawing room, which features a plaster cornice and paneling, a carved mantel and over mantel, and interior window shutters. The spacious modern conference room can be rented for meetings, presentations, and other events.”
Our tour of the house revealed how architecturally the enslaved could be relegated to parts of the house that could keep their presence to a minimum if necessary. The spatial segregation was evident in the second set of stairs that gave the enslaved access to certain parts of the house. Our search for fingerprints in the bricks proved successful.
Eight of us would all sleep in the part of the house that was originally the carriage house but has now been converted into a conference room. Historically, the carriages would have been kept there and the enslaved would have slept in a room above the carriages.
Until this stay, Terry James and I had always been on the fringe of dressing the part of our enslaved Ancestors. Often we would wear our Civil War uniforms that represented the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. For this stay, our sleepover was incorporated into the Maryland Day Celebration which required living historians all of whom would wear period costumes. I donned the dress of a butler, Terry a gardener / coachman and Lynda an indentured servant.
Our second day of activities would be conducted in the William Paca House and Garden. According to its website:
“This five-part Georgian mansion was built in the 1760s by William Paca, one of Maryland’s four Signers of the Declaration of Independence and the state’s third Governor. Carefully restored by Historic Annapolis beginning in 1965, today it is recognized as one of the finest 18th-century homes in the country and a National Historic Landmark. Guided tours of the house, which features period furnishings and paintings, reveal the inner workings of an upper-class household in colonial and revolutionary Annapolis.”
“Painstakingly restored to its original splendor using details drawn from historic artwork and archaeological excavations, the two-acre colonial William Paca Garden is a picturesque retreat from the bustle of the city. Visitors can view native and heirloom plants while exploring the terraced landscape’s formal Parterres, naturalistic Wilderness, and practical Kitchen garden. The charming Summerhouse beckons guests to cross the latticework bridge over a fish-shaped pond. The garden frequently hosts weddings, receptions, and other special events.”
Our tour of the house revealed how the enslaved interacted with the space and the interpreters were more than enthusiastic and willing to share the information. Throughout the day, Lynda, Terry and I were free to roam throughout the house as we pleased but we found ourselves most comfortable in the kitchen where we knew the enslaved would have spent most of their time in the William Paca House. My biggest disappointment was that there was little to no racial diversity in the number of people who chose to visit the site.
This trend would continue as only one African American attended the free lecture that was offered to the general public. That lack of diversity would permeate our conversation as five of us would all bed down in the kitchen for our sleepover.
I approached this stay with some skepticism. Until this stay, I had never donned an outfit that resembled that of an enslaved person. My Civil War uniform was as far back as I had gone when dressing the part of our Ancestors. I must say that I was comfortable in the outfit of a butler but the fact of the matter is that most of the enslaved Ancestors were field hands. As I explore the outfits of the enslaved of which to invest, I must continue to test my level of comfort. I have yet to take this project to the level of where Terry James has gone for he continues to sleep in shackles to commemorate the voyage of the middle passage.
The lack of diversity that I witnessed is part of a bigger problem. The current narrative that interprets most of the architecturally significant antebellum houses does not inspire most African Americans to visit them. It is the intent of the Slave Dwelling Project to help change that narrative to include the facts that: the enslaved physically built some of those house; the labor of the enslaved provided the wealth for most of those houses to be built. Historic Annapolis is doing its part to help change that narrative and the Slave Dwelling Project will do its part to assist them.
Remembering the Enslaved in Annapolis’s Great Houses
Glenn E. Campbell
Senior Historian, Historic Annapolis
Just after Thanksgiving 2015, Lynda Davis with “Coming to the Table” asked me if Historic Annapolis would consider hosting Joseph McGill, founder of the “Slave Dwelling Project,” at one or more of the properties that we manage and interpret on behalf of the State of Maryland. I’ve known Lynda since she volunteered to transcribe runaway slave and servant notices published in 18th– and 19th-century issues of The Maryland Gazette. That research project informed both Historic Annapolis’s 2011 living history stage production “Project Run-A-Way” and our 2013 exhibit “Freedom Bound: Runaways of the Chesapeake.”
My colleague Lisa Robbins agreed that Lynda’s proposal was a great idea, and we set March 18-20, 2016, as the time for Joe’s stay along with Terry James. That’s the weekend on which historic sites in Annapolis and the surrounding Four Rivers Heritage Area celebrated Maryland Day, a state holiday marking the founding of the colony in 1634. We planned to sleep in the James Brice House (built 1767-73) on Friday night, include Joe, Terry, and Lynda in our Maryland Day tours and public programming, and stay in the William Paca House (built 1763-65) on Saturday.
A reporter and photographer from The Capital newspaper were on hand when Terry and Joe arrived in Annapolis after a long day on the road from South Carolina. An Anne Arundel County middle school teacher, three staff members with the “Legacy of Slavery in Maryland” project at the Maryland State Archives, and Lynda Davis rounded out the group that I led through the James Brice House, from the grand public entertaining rooms and private family chambers to the utilitarian basement and the service wings that once contained the kitchen, laundry, and carriage house. The resulting front page Capital article is posted here: http://www.capitalgazette.com/news/annapolis/ph-ac-cn-mcgill-slave-house-0320-20160320-story.html
After the house tour and interview session, eight of us dined in a restaurant overlooking historic City Dock, where the Kunta Kinte—Alex Haley Memorial commemorates the African-American family story immortalized in Roots. Conversation about early Annapolis and Maryland, life and work on the Chesapeake Bay, forms of bound servitude, historical interpretation and reenactments, and Joe and Terry’s experiences during previous overnight stays flowed around the table. After dinner, we walked up Main Street, around Church and State Circles, down Maryland Avenue, and along Prince George Street to the Brice House at the intersection with East Street.
We decided to bed down in the building’s west wing, which originally held a carriage house but is now a spacious conference room. One of the individuals held as slaves by James Brice undoubtedly spent much of his time in this wing. This 1797 runaway notice describing a young man named Jem lists “taking care of horses, and driving a carriage” among his many duties in the Brice household:
After our late dinner conversation and walk through the historic district, we were all primed to drop off to sleep fairly quickly. My own rest was disturbed only by the cold draft that crept in under the carriage door (I should’ve thought of that when I laid out my pallet!) and the occasional sounds of energetic snoring from some of my companions (not pointing any fingers, Terry J).
My 7:30 alarm sounded before I knew it, and we were off to a hearty breakfast with Lisa Robbins—she would be spending Saturday night on the brick floor of the William Paca House kitchen while I was enjoying the comfort of my own bed. By 10:00 the staff members and volunteers of Historic Annapolis were welcoming Maryland Day visitors into the William Paca House and Garden, the James Brice House, the Hogshead living history site, and the Historic Annapolis Museum and Store. Joe, Terry, and Lynda donned reproduction colonial garb and plunged right into the day’s activities. At 5:00, the three of them spoke about the shared goals of the “Slave Dwelling Project” and “Coming to the Table” before an engaged audience in the Brice House space where we had spent the night.
Historic Annapolis gives a huge “thank you” to Lynda Davis for introducing us to Joe McGill and Terry James—they are remarkable men who are bringing needed attention to the neglected sites and forgotten stories associated with the enslaved individuals of our national past. Their knowledge and passion are impressive and inspiring, and they model and encourage open, honest, and thoughtful discussion about the historical realities and continuing legacy of American slavery.
I came away from the weekend determined to ensure that interpreting the presence of enslaved people in our city’s “great houses” continues to be a major theme in Historic Annapolis’s site tours and public programming. We need to tell visitors of Jem the runaway groom and coachman, and of Tom, Nan, Jenny, the two Hennys, Jesse, Caroline, Kitty, Nathan, Doll, and the other bound laborers whose names we don’t know who lived and worked in the Brice household. At the Paca property, we must call to mind Denby, Alsy, Poll, Bett, Sall, and the other enslaved individuals who dwelt there. Historical integrity and common human decency require no less.
Just For One Night
Just for one night I entered the world of the enslaved in a grand colonial home in Annapolis.
In a very small way and just for one night . . .
There was no harsh treatment, hard labor, nor hunger.
I came with a full stomach, an open heart and an open mind.
I spread my sleeping bag on the cold brick floor of the William Paca House kitchen.
Our space was limited making for crowded conditions,
but closeness also brings a sense of camaraderie and comfort.
There was little sleep for me, rather the night offered a time for reflection.
Sounds are sharper in the darkness.
The distant barking of dogs brought to mind runaways and their desperate gamble for freedom.
The gentle wind chime-like clinking and clanking throughout the night
was the haunting tossing and turning of shackled hands.
Mysterious loud noises in the house startled me but I felt no fear for I was not alone.
The snoring – also loud but not mysterious – provided a constant rhythm
and perhaps some peace knowing that others were sleeping.
In the midst of the colonial display of food and kitchen tools,
I imagined being hungry yet surrounded by forbidden food
that mice and rats had the freedom to eat.
In the morning I returned to the world of gourmet coffee and homemade pastries.
Yet, entering the world of the enslaved for just one night and in such a small way
opened my eyes and made a lasting impression on me.
I was delighted that Glenn Campbell and Lisa Robbins of Historic Annapolis agreed to host the Slave Dwelling Project. I was not surprised given their previous programming (e.g. the living history stage production “Project Run-A-Way and their current exhibit “Freedom Bound: Runaways of the Chesapeake,” which has been running since 2013). These programs were based upon the individuals like Jem who were described in the runaway advertisements published in the Maryland Gazette. As you can see from the ad describing Jem, they were very descriptive as far as how the runaways looked, acted, the clothing they donned, and their locations. As of March 2016, the “Freedom Bound: Runaways of the Chesapeake,” exhibit is still on view in Annapolis, MD (see: http://www.annapolis.org/other/freedom-bound-runaways-chesapeake).
On our tour through Annapolis, we saw the statue of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney in front of the Maryland State House and discussed the current debate about such statues and how to achieve racial parity in historic public statues. Annapolis achieved such parity when they erected a monument to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on the south side of the Maryland State House in 1996. Our group agreed that we need to tell all of the stories (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and not sweep any of it under the rug.
On our tour of the James Brice House, we saw bricks with the fingerprints of the enslaved on them, the hidden stair case used by the enslaved individuals, and the hand-hewn wooden beams cut down and carried by the enslaved individuals. We saw the house through the eyes of the enslaved whose names (Jem, Tom, Nan, Jenny, the two Henny’s, Jesse, Caroline, Kitty, Nathan, and Doll), stories, and lives we need to remember along with the names (James Brice), stories, and lives of the people who owned the homes and the enslaved individuals.
I participate in the Slave Dwelling Project because I believe George Santayana who said “those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it” and because I believe it is a perfect way to live out the four practices of Coming to the Table: facing and uncovering history, making connections, working toward healing, and taking action to address the legacy of slavery.
On Sunday March 20, 2016, Joe, Terry, and I traveled to Dorchester County, Maryland where we met with several people who are interested in hosting the Slave Dwelling Project in 2017. Stay tuned for the details.
Slave Dwelling Project
Maya D. Davis
For the last few years I have been following the journey of the Slave Dwelling Project and its founder Joseph McGill. As a research archivist who studies the life of enslaved individuals in Maryland, the places where they dwell has always intrigued me. However, as much as I study slavery through documents, I needed to immerse myself in the physical environment. Now admittedly I have visited numerous historic homes and plantations for work. Visiting and dwelling are two different things!
On Friday March 18, 2015, I stayed at the Brice House in Annapolis, Maryland as a part of Joe McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project overnight stay. I must say this stay was a good start for me. As I am not always one with nature, I am not sure that I was ready to commit to a cabin just yet. My co-workers from the Maryland State Archives and I arrived together prepared to engage with our host and take on a night in a sleeping bag. We began by touring the Brice House, walking through various rooms and pointing out various things about the structure, one of them being fingerprints found in bricks. We watched as Mr. McGill, accompanied by a friend Terry James, who attends many of the overnight stays, felt his way through this home followed by reporters from a local newspaper.
After walking through the home we left to have dinner with Mr. McGill, which was delightful because it gave me a chance to discuss slavery and ask questions that I have always wanted to know about the Slave Dwelling Project. I was particularly interested in knowing what differences there are from state to state in terms of the living conditions. I also asked if there was an aha moment at any of the sites where they stayed overnight. Mr. McGill shared that his aha moment happened, not at an extant slave dwelling, but at a facility where Ann Frank hid with her family.
My stay wasn’t what I expected because we stayed in the modern conference room. It wasn’t greatly experiential, but I enjoyed hearing about the various conditions that Mr. McGill and Mr. James had at other stays. What is unique about Mr. James is that he sleeps bound by slave shackles, an uncomfortable reminder of one aspect of slavery in the United States. One of my favorite stories that they shared was a moment when they stayed at a plantation where there were so many mosquitoes and how hot it was. That story drove home the uncomfortable claustrophobic nature of living conditions for enslaved people. It was at that moment when I became more comfortable in my conference room accommodation. I could have talked with Mr. McGill and Mr. James until the sun came up.
The most prominent takeaway for me is that no dwelling, whether it be cabin, big house, or prison, can be considered comfortable when you are living under the accommodation of slavery. The next time that I attend an overnight stay with the Slave Dwelling Project I may be strong enough to stay in an actual slave cabin.