When Americans look back on the painful history of slavery, one of the images that often leaps to mind is that of a massive plantation home. But according to preservationist Joseph McGill, while those buildings played a key part in the narrative, they're far from the entire story, especially since they weren't the true homes of African-American slaves. The real setting for the story can be found inside the small cabins and shacks spread across plantation estates and farmlands, forgotten, oftentimes dilapidated dwellings that tell a much more poignant tale. McGill founded the Slave Dwelling Project, a living history lesson which finds him attempting to spend an evening in every one of the remaining slave dwellings across the country, to help raise awareness and hopefully preserve them for future study and remembrance.
"The problem I saw was the void in preservation," says McGill. "We tell the story of our country through the buildings we decide to preserve, and we tend to focus on the happy parts. We tend to want to stray away from examining things like when the Native Americans were purged so settlers could come in and settle those areas, or we tend not to want to talk about the internment camps where we interred the Japanese during WWII. Same thing applies to slavery. There was a void in this part of history, a lack of buildings that recognized the enslaved. I didn't say somebody should do something about it. I said I'm the one who recognized it, and the Slave Dwelling Project came about."
McGill, who works at Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina and participates in Civil War re-enactments (he plays a member of the pioneering 54th Massachusetts, the African-American regiment featured in the movie Glory), was inspired by the concept of learning through living history to create the non-profit Slave Dwelling project in 2010.
Initially, he thought the structures he'd be staying in would be wooden homes or cabins, and likely falling apart. But through the course of his travels across 16 states, he's stayed in 75 different dwellings in a variety of conditions. Many were used by African-Americans after Reconstruction and beyond, and others have been repaired and renovated over the decades (because of the circumstances in which people lived, and the threat of being punished, they sadly lack writings or art from former slaves). The differences are vast: some buildings are simple shacks with dirt floors, while others have been renovated and redecorated. He once stayed in a particularly fancy home that was on the market for $600,000.
McGill began the project with a focus on South Carolina, and would spend nights alone at a variety of historic sites. Sleeping atop a bedroll, sometimes on dirt floors, he would be alone with his thoughts, thinking about ancestors who slept in these conditions, the people who thought it was permissible to put others in this situation, and how those at rest could be woken up at any time at the whim of a slave master. Nowadays, as the project has expanded—the project now counts 70 members and is forming a board of directors—he often shares the space with others, and the experience has evolved.
"I invite people to come and they share these places with me," he says. "We tend to have conversations that are taboo elsewhere. We tend to use these places as classrooms. I've spent time in these places with descendants of slaves and slaveowners, so there are some powerful conversations that go on in these spaces."
Next year, he hopes to continue to expand the project and bring groups to sites. He'd like to get funding to recreate period cooking and storytelling on location with participants in period clothing, and have lecturers talk about the impact of cotton and sugarcane farming on slavery and the economy. As he continues to expand the project, including forays into northern states, where there can be a lot of sensitivity in visiting a particularly difficult part of history that locals may believe was confined to other parts of the country, he helped directly engage many in a painful part of our heritage. His ultimate destination, however, might be even more newsworthy.
"The ultimate would be the White House," he says. "Twelve of our past presidents owned slaves, and eight owned slaves while in office. That would be it."