Five years of sleeping in slave dwellings has given the Slave Dwelling Project relevance beyond my wildest dreams. Sleeping in these dwellings as well as sharing the knowledge gained through giving lectures is beginning to strike an equal balance. I did not anticipate this form of advocacy when I embarked on this journey five years ago. I only anticipated bringing much needed attention to these often neglected dwellings. One new element to the project is consulting. To that end, I was honored to be asked by Cliveden to participate in Living Kitchens.
Cliveden of the National Trust is undertaking a historical interpretation project that compares domestic life in two centuries through the exploration of the 1767 and 1959 kitchens inside Cliveden’s historic Germantown mansion, revealing how architecture, design, and the technology of the times defined the experiences of those enslaved and in service and their relationships with the household’s family. Living Kitchens aims to reorient how audiences understand Cliveden’s history by shifting the focus of the house museum from the high-style Georgian country estate of the Chew family to the service buildings. Interpretive material will allow audiences to compare and contrast the evolving design of the spaces, while learning about the stories of those who worked inside the kitchens during two centuries. The project will be complemented by a series of public programs, including a community-curated exhibition of household items, and “Kitchen Conversations” led by expert scholars who will share ongoing research and invite community input during the planning process. I am fortunate to be one of those scholars.
Participating in a sleepover at Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, precluded me from attending the first session with the rest of the esteemed scholars.
When the Slave Dwelling Project just got started, David Young, the director of Cliveden understood it and invited me to spend the night there. That overnight stay happened in June 2011. I stayed in the 1767 kitchen and I slept alone. Cliveden was then going through the beginning stages of Cliveden Conversations based on some recently discovered papers that documented the enslaved people at Cliveden. Their bold and appropriate choice of Cliveden was to make the discovery of these papers public and invite public input on the process of reinterpreting the stories told at Cliveden. Through a new exhibit and new and retrained staff, the reinterpretation now includes the stories of the enslaved. Cliveden is a great example that other like entities should follow if they can get out of their comfort zones and begin to interpret the lives of all of the people associated with their sites.
In fulfilling the requirements of the consultancy and on my second trip to Cliveden, I could have chosen to stay in a hotel but since starting this project that is just not my modus operandi. I was scheduled to spend two nights in Philadelphia and I insisted that I spend them at Cliveden in the space where the enslaved would have slept. I was also hoping to be joined by others. Since I had already spent a night in the kitchen where some of the enslaved had slept, I chose the attic because the enslaved also slept there and it was warmer. To my dismay, no one joined me in the sleepover on the first night. Though dismayed, I was not surprised because I often get prospects who toy with the idea of spending the night in spaces where the enslaved slept but the reality of that act is just too much to bare.
Talking about the slave dwellings I’ve slept in throughout this nation comes easy to me but, I knew that the presentation titled, They Lived Where They Worked, that I had to give to this audience had to be different than the usual. Cliveden had done a wonderful job in marketing this event to the public as a focus on the two kitchens associated with the mansion. As a result of telephone interviews, two local papers published articles on the event on the day that I got there. A local radio station interviewed me on the day of the event. The marketing was so great that the event was sold out and people were still trying to get seats on the day that the event occurred. I spent a great part of the day developing the presentation by tweaking my usual power point on the Slave Dwelling Project. My propensity for taking lots of pictures at each site recouped its value. It was just a matter of adding elements of the hearths and stoves in the places where I had spent nights. My intent was to show how the enslaved used these hearths and stoves to cook not only for the enslaved but also for those who enslaved them.
The audience began to gather. The sold out event was enhanced by people who did not book in advance but took a chance on getting in by just showing up. Some cancellations dictated that no one had to be turned away. In addition to the presentation, the evening would include a tasting buffet of South Carolina Geechee cuisine of descendants of enslaved Africans prepared by Chef Valerie Erwin, of the former Geechee Girl Cafe in Mt. Airy. The audience was diverse with about 50% Caucasians and 50% African Americans.
The question and answer period following the presentation was interesting. It almost never fails that when I come to northern states, I am often approached by someone seeking reparations for the work done by our enslaved Ancestors. That was indeed the case here. Let me make it clear that that this project is about preserving buildings that can help tell the stories of the enslaved Ancestors. Reparations, ghost and artifact/treasure hunting are not my intent. I could not have spent nights in over 70 slave dwellings in 16 states for the past five years if any of the aforementioned was my intent. The stewards of these sacred places would have shut me down long ago if that was the case.
One amazing revelation during the question and answer period was the revelation of one of the participants that he was a descendants of a slave owner. While I get these confessions often, it does not usually occur among diverse audiences who don’t know each other. The Slave Dwelling Project is powerful enough but throw in some food and look what happens.
I opted out of sleeping in the mansion the second night for no one wanted to join me.
Thank you Cliveden for continuing to do the right thing for the enslaved Ancestors.
Please check out this blog by one of the participants.