My Retirement Trip has been all about “me.” Joe McGill has been on a different kind of pilgrimage, visiting and spending the night in slave cabins that still exist. He is doing an important work. Read what he has to say and pass it on:
Approximately 500,000 Africans made it to the shores of North America only to become some of the enslaved of this country. When the American Civil War started on April 12, 1861, no slavery existed in northern states but the number of enslaved in this country had multiplied to over 4 million. America continued to benefit from their knowledge, skill and labor. Their fate would hinge on the outcome of the war.
The buildings that we preserve and interpret in this country are usually iconic, architecturally significant and are usually associated with a proclaimed hero. These iconic buildings are worthy of all of the resources and scholarship that are heaped upon them. However, in focusing on these buildings we tend to neglect a major part of the American story. Slavery in American history is no secret, yet the subject is taboo in some circles. Fortunately for us, there are still buildings in northern and southern states that can assist us in interpreting this part of the American story.
For the past ten years, I have been conducting the Slave Dwelling Project. The concept is simple: find extant slave dwellings and ask the stewards to spend a night in them. To date, I have spent nights in forty-three former slave dwellings in the states of Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. The owners of these dwellings are: house museum, plantations, historical groups, non-profit, institutions of higher learning, state government and private. Current uses range from: display, guesthouse, storage space, museum, studio, bedroom to man cave. Those who have shared the experience with me range from: fellow Civil War re-enactors; teachers and professors; museum employees; chaperoned school students to descendents of the enslaved and slave owners. Some of the unexpected benefits of the project include: African Americans now being comfortable with interacting with properties that once enslaved their ancestors; creating dialogue between descendants of slaves and slave owners; hands on learning for students who sleep in slave cabins; becoming a clearinghouse for all matters pertaining to slave cabins; identifying those slave cabins that are on the verge of collapse, and writing and publishing a blog after every stay which can be found on lowcountryafricana.com.
The future for the project is bright. The list of places that are identified as extant former slave dwellings is growing rapidly. The invitations to expand the project to others sites and get other states involved that are blatantly missing from the list is growing rapidly. Although the project is not funded by an institution or other entity, the stewards of the properties know that my intent is pure. Therefore, they provide the necessary resources to make it happen. I’m not about reparations, I’m not ghost hunting, I’m not seeking artifacts, I’m about honoring the ancestors by helping to save the places that can help tell their stories and insert them into the storyline of the places that we choose to save because a lot of those places would not exist if not for the people living in those slave dwellings.