While I like to think I’m in control, sometimes I have to go where the Slave Dwelling Project takes me. Such was the case with the overnight stay at Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama.
It started with an email and then a phone call from Vanessa Fernandez, a member of the group No Race No Hate which is located on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University. Her desire was for the group to join me in an overnight stay in a slave dwelling during their spring break. I insisted that the group come to South Carolina because, closer to home, I have established relationships with property owners that will allow me to invite visiting groups and use the structures as classrooms. Vanessa insisted that the stay occur in Alabama because it would be logistically more feasible for the group. Needless to say, Vanessa won that debate.
Now the burden was on me to find a place in Alabama that could accommodate the group. Initially, the plan was to have the stay occur at Riverview, a privately owned plantation near Montgomery where I had stayed once before. This plan was ideal because if these kids were going to immerse themselves in what it was like to stay in a slave dwelling, a plantation would be the best place to give them that experience. While the owners or Riverview Plantation were receptive to the stay, the agreed upon date did not work for them.
The second choice was the slave dwelling at Old Alabama Town in Montgomery. I had also stayed there once before. This was the site that early on in the process, convinced me to change the name of the project from the Slave Cabin Project to the Slave Dwelling Project. Two major factors for changing the name were that this site was clearly not a cabin and it was located well within the city limits of Montgomery. In stepped Carol King, curator at the site. She was there when I stayed there initially and was quite familiar with the continued work of the Slave Dwelling Project. She advocated for the overnight stay and got approval.
For the day of the stay, Carol organized a public presentation that was well attended. Before the presentation, I met Vanessa and the group. Vanessa informed me that the group of 30 had whittled themselves down to the 16 that made the trip. I jokingly predicted that we would lose five members before the overnight would occur.
One member of the audience was Dorothy Walker a friend and fellow historians who I met when I was employed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Dorothy, now employed by Alabama State University, would take us on a tour of the new library that is located on that campus. There we were immersed in the civil rights history that is contained within the well developed and implemented displays. We then visited the home where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in when it was bombed. From there, we visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dorothy’s tour concluded with a stop at the square where people who would be enslaved were once sold. Dorothy’s impromptu tour added great value to our purpose of sleeping in a slave dwelling by juxtaposing the civil rights that our enslaved ancestors were denied to the civil rights that our ancestors were still fighting for one hundred years later, because Montgomery is arguably ground zero for the modern civil rights movement.
There are times in this project when some people are inspired to spend the night in a slave dwelling just by attending the public presentation prior to the stay. Such a request was made and it was approved by Carol King that two of the audience members would join us for the overnight stay.
By the time of the stay, we had lost two members of the group who sought refuge in a local hotel. Inside the dwelling, we had a choice of four rooms and the students staked out their spots before they would all gather in the room where the fireplace was activated. We engaged in rich conversation about the institution of slavery and indulged in some singing before we all went to our designated spots for sleeping. It was quickly discovered that nothing could be done in that dwelling in secrecy because every footstep and other sounds made could be heard throughout. All through the night, the meager construction of the dwelling would provide a conduit for a symphony of snores to effervesce throughout the structure. I discovered the next day that we lost two more of the group through the course of the night, they had retreated to their vehicles to continue the night.
With the success of the overnight stay in Montgomery, Alabama, 2015 is turning out to be a very rewarding year for the Slave Dwelling Project. Both stays this year, Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington, North Carolina and Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama, I have been joined by college students. The stewards of both of these sites should be commended for not only preserving these dwellings of the enslaved Ancestors, but also allowing the Slave Dwelling Project to use them as classrooms.
Sunday night March 1st I had an extraordinary experience of reconnecting with my ancestors in Montgomery Alabama. The experience occurred at Ordeman House Slave Quarters which is located in downtown Montgomery Alabama in Old Alabama Town. When I became aware that this event would occur, my anticipation grew greater with each passing day. I took a keen interest in this event for several reasons, one because it sheds light on a dark period of American history that is not discussed fully at face value, two it allowed me to revisit a space in which my ancestors creatively survived against all odds, and lastly because I’m co-coordinator of the Annual Montgomery Maafa Commemoration. As night fell, everyone gathered in a circle in which there was an open wood fire burning in the fire place. Brother Joe McGill reminded us that even though the room was scarcely furnished this dwelling would have been of upper echelon due to it being a two story building and because it did not have a dirt floor.
Brother Joe and Brother Terry James had an in depth conversation regarding the institution of slavery and the residual negative effects it has on all Africans of the diaspora. Florida Gulf Coast University students shared what they hoped to gain from participating in such in unorthodox experience. Everyone in the circle had an opportunity to engage in dialogue. Impromptu singing & humming of the African American spiritual “Hush” lead by Brother Theodore Lush. This singing placed a somber but unifying feel across the room. As the group continued to sing the song repeatedly for several minutes, Theodore broke off into storytelling mode to include the reenactment of a slave traveling between the windows of time to encourage us to pause and fully embraced this special moment. His booming voice weaved amongst the other voices of those humming and singing created a rhythm and tapestry that cannot be described in mere words. After about 10 minutes of this unified effort, the group began to pair off and claim there sleeping area for the night.
As I began to drift off to sleep I could only imagine the hardship my ancestors bore. I woke up maybe three times throughout the night due to the discomfort of laying on the bricks with my make shift pallet. Each time I awoke I would inhale the scent of burning wood, and hear downtown traffic continuing through the night. A quick glance at the windows reminded me I was in the resting space of my ancestors and slowly I would drift back to sleep. Morning came sooner than expected and I awoke to partly cloudy skies and birds singing praise of a new day. I played a few berimbau toques as some looked on and wondered what was this weird apparatus producing such an unfamiliar sound. I briefly exposed them to Capoeira and the importance of the berimbau to an empowering ☆fight for freedom.☆ Before the group disbanded and traveled our separate ways, a harambee circle was assembled and the 7 principles of Kwanzaa was highlighted between each shout of HARAMBEE.
Slave Dwelling Reflections (Florida Gulf Coast University)
My Slave Swelling Experience Written by Ashley Allen
Hello, My name is Ashley Allen; I am a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. In my future I plan to be a school Psychologist in hopes that I may start a non-profit organization to uplift and empower young girls, in my community. I like to eat a lot, and hang out with friends and family. I am a Christian and I try to live my life to reflect that. I was born and raised in the city of Miami, where I love the hot weather. Now you may be wondering what in the world does this have to do with the Slave Dwelling Project. I felt that I should give you a sense of who I am, to help you better understand how I was feeling at this slave dwelling.
Before the experience:
We have just arrived at Old Alabama Town, and I’m looking around noticing that there was nothing scary about this place. I shake the hands of Joe, which was the founder of the slave dwelling project and greeted myself to him. Through our conversations, he kept saying how he sees some of the students in my group that would not last through the experience. I’m thinking to myself, he is probably talking about me! Throughout the day, I was just thinking how I am not going to make it. How the ghosts and spirits were going to come out and find us all sleeping in their home. How I would freeze and didn’t have enough to keep me warm. My mind was racing, so I started to research the nearest hotel in the area, just in case I was just not going to do it. My friends and I were ready to book ourselves into a hotel room.
The night of the experience:
So 7 o’clock had hit and we were all getting ourselves ready to enter into this haunted place I thought it would be. We were escorted to the bathrooms, in a wooden building, which was across the street from the slave dwelling. That walk was a bit terrifying, because it was dark and cold. We were told to change into our pajamas or whatever it was we were comfortable sleeping in. we laid out our sleeping bags, blankets and pillows on the floors of the slave dwelling. Then we all sat in a semi-circle around the fireplace, in the downstairs room of the slave dwelling. Still terrified and cold, I just clung onto one of my friends as we listened to Joe and his friend tell stories of their past, and answer questions we had asked. As they spoke, I began to feel a bit at ease, thinking to myself that this is not too bad. Then Mr. Lush (a Montgomery local from New Orleans) began to talk and asked us to express ourselves on why we are here. We went around the circle a person at a time. Listening to what my peers had to say was very inspiring and uplifting. After we had all expressed ourselves, Mr. Lush began to sing a hymn, that’s when I started to get scared again. I just began to pray to the God that I serve because I didn’t know what he was singing. I was thinking to myself, was he calling spirits or something? After that hymn, everyone was starting to get tired and we all just began to go into our sleeping areas. The sleep throughout the night was not pleasant at all because I was extremely cold and it was like everyone was entering a snoring contest. We slept on the wooden floors, all we had was our blankets and pillows, not much comfort there.
After the experience:
The next morning, was great! I was so happy that it was all over. We packed up our stuff and said our last comments. There was no place to take showers. The bathrooms only had toilets and sinks, so we had to use wet rags or baby wipes. We were living the struggle for that night. Overall, I did enjoy this experience! Despite the cold weather, and the snoring competitions, the people I spent this experience with made it worthwhile. I just want to thank Joe and his friend for all the knowledge they have brought to me. I have a much better understanding about how the slaves may have lived, and what they may have been through. When I went back home, I certainly have told my parents and friends what I experienced. They probably look at me different to, but that is okay, they are learning what I have learned. To feel and go through what my ancestors may have gone through was an honor for one night. I may have siked myself out by thinking too much but I certainly made it through and I am proud of myself.
“As an African-American, sleeping in a house where my ancestors once lived is an unbelievable experience. I didn’t truly feel the cold like my friends who slept in the house with me because I came prepared. As the current Black Student Alliance president of Florida Gulf Coast University this will set me apart from my other predecessors who have done so much. This was an experience where I can tell my children, as a father, that I did something that most can’t say they did and others won’t have a chance to.”
Fire burning slowly as the clock ticks away,
Time to reach for the comfort of a phone
To light a path to the firewood,
Tiptoeing around clustered strangers
Wondering, what if this was my family
Sleeping away the sweat and suffering
Of grueling labor and perceived inadequacy
Of whips and chains
Against worn down, aching muscles.
Snoring next door,
Wondering what if those
were my brothers
Dreaming of living today
When things are easier
Of truths actually becoming
Of having the freedom to choose
Whether or not the floor would be
Or simply a tragic trip
Down a memory’s lane
Filled with shattered remorse and
Under the weight of reality.
Reaching to find some warmth,
Knowing my condition is merely
Wondering why I’ve failed
To find endless gratitude
For the suffering of souls unknown.
Envisioning the future,
As the fire bright and warm,
Breaking down the very material
Used to build and create,
Recreating what was once
“My initial take on the slave dwelling project is probably like everyone else’s. I did not want to sleep in a slave house at night because I’m a very superstitious person. I thought anyone who would do such a thing was insane. The time came where we got to tour the place in old Alabama town that we were staying. I instantly decided that I would never sleep here cause it’s creepy in the day time and it will be even more creepy at night. The night fell and it was time to make our way into the property. I decided at first that I was not going to do it and was going to sleep in the car or in a hotel but something hit me. I realized that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that there is a reason I should stay here. I didn’t know what that reason was but I had to find out. During the slave dwelling I realized I was amongst friends and that we could open up about slavery times. The designers of the project let us know how things would be in the old times in the exact house we were sitting in. This made me realize that I was blessed to not have to go through any of that. Listening to everyone’s stories and insight on situations was very entertaining and informative. I ended up truly liking my experience there and realized why I had to stay. I needed to stay because I needed to get back in touch with my roots and acknowledge that people really did live all the time, how we were living for just one night. I would like to thank everyone from Mr. McGill down to Mr. Lush and Mrs. Dorothy for showing us culture and letting us embrace the past. It was a humbling experience and I’m very appreciative for the time they took out of their lives to give me a truly unforgettable experience.”
“My thoughts prior to staying at the Slave Dwelling were not much different than my thoughts before the trip started. I was excited to experience pieces of history in which many in our society remain ignorant. I pride myself in being able to relate to people so I was looking forward to placing myself in another person’s shoes so that I could have a better understanding on who they are and where they come from. At first, during my stay there, I was kind of nervous; I had the perception that I was staying at an abandoned, haunted house. That thought quickly changed when, Joe, explained parts of the house and the living habits of the people who lived there when the house originated.
In turn, my stay at the house was a heartwarming experience. My sleeping arrangements were not uncomfortable and what I received exceeded my expectations; I did not think that I would learn so much in one night. I really enjoyed the story telling and Mr. Lush’s hymn. Not only did I feel easy with him but he gave me a sense of security when he was open about his spirituality. Mrs. Dorothy was a huge asset to the trip and an amazing tour guide. Stepping onto the porch of MLK’s home was crazy (in the best way possible)! I saw the marking of the bomb that exploded in front of the porch back in 1956 and it was a great example of the birthplace of the civil rights movement.
All the stories I brought back were equally rewarding for my family. I grew up in a small 2 bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, New York with two siblings and parents whom migrated from Dominican Republic. My parents grew up very underprivileged, lacking food, clothes and even education. They left school at a young age to help raise their siblings and to support my grandparents. With a lot of love, soul and effort, they gained the opportunity to come to the United States and make their living situations easier. Although coming here was rough as they tackled backlash for not speaking English and faced discrimination on a daily basis, my parents agreed that they would raise my siblings and I with the belief that there is no color. The only thing we should judge a person by is by their character and nothing else.
I am eternally grateful for this experience and I will strive to teach/show my peers that Racism is a mindset, not a lifestyle!”
“I thought that the slave dwelling project was a great experience. Although, I did not stay in the dwelling with the group, being able to visit the cabin was great. So much history in one spot was such a wonder to see. I think my favorite part about the project was learning about many of the dwellings that are still left standing. Knowing that we still care to keep them well-kept and running, helps to keep that part of our history true. I think it was great that the group had the opportunity and the experience to sleep in the dwelling.”
“Sleeping in the slave dwelling was definitely an enlightening event for me. Though we slept in the same place our ancestors did we slept in comfort. Most of us brought all of the necessary sleeping amenities such as sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, and warm cloths. Even with all those things, the cold seemed to reach everyone and I could just imagine how those who had slept there before us must have felt. The house at night seemed almost haunting and though, I barely got any sleep I was surprised I slept at all. Being there even though it was just for one night made me thankful for what I do have.”
“I would first like to say thank you so much for giving us this once in a lifetime opportunity to stay in a slave dwelling. This is not something I would have ever imagined myself doing but it is also something I will never regret. This experience was a bit nerve wrecking at first but when we arrived to the actual slave dwelling it felt like more of a situation where I would do this out of respect for those that came before me and suffered so that I today could be free. It was a humbling experience to feel what they felt in terms of not having the privileges we have today, heating, electricity, running water, ext. It made me have more respect for them and the trials and tribulations they went through day after day just because of the color of their skin. This is an experience that I will take with me for a lifetime and an experience that brought me closer to history than any history teacher or book could ever do. I appreciate you and everything you do. Again, thank you.”