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South Carolina author and activist works to preserve dwellings of enslaved people

Author Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, travels around the country spending the night in places that housed enslaved people.
The Slave Dwelling Project
Author Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, travels around the country spending the night in places that housed enslaved people.

The Charlotte Museum of History’s seventh African American Heritage Festival kicked off today. The three-day festival includes art exhibits, dance and drum performances, a Caribbean Carnival, panel discussions and other community events.

This year’s keynote speaker is South Carolina native Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. Since 2010, McGill has traveled around the country, finding and spending the night in dwellings that once housed enslaved people.

In this conversation with WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn, McGill talks about why he got into this work and this project.

Joe McGill: My South Carolina education left me in a place where I thought that the enslaved people were happy to be enslaved and the people who enslaved them were benevolent. All that was untrue. So I had to disprove all that, if you will. I became a park ranger at Fort Sumter National Monument. And when I became a park ranger, I had to do the research to be able to talk to audiences coming to learn about the Civil War. After learning the real story, I learned that although we're a great nation, along the way, we committed some atrocities and one of those atrocities was enslaving people. But you would go to these sites and all you heard about were the architecturally significant big houses, the vaulted ceilings, the grand staircase — but very seldom would they tell you about whose labor was stolen to make all that possible.

Gwendolyn Glenn: So, you go to various parts of the country. How do you find the dwellings?

McGill: Fourteen years ago when I started, it was a matter of me consulting with the state Historic Preservation Office — every state has one — and explaining to them my desire. They provided me a list and I started making phone calls. And it was a little awkward at the beginning because, you know, if you get a phone call with such a request, you have to think about the mental capacity of anyone wanting to do such a thing. Is he looking for ghosts? Is he looking for treasures? Is he seeking reparations? I'm not looking for ghosts or looking for treasures. It was all about acknowledging the existence of these places, acknowledging the stewards of these places. Not only preserving these buildings but telling the real stories of the people who inhabited those spaces.

A former cabin used by people enslaved on the Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC. Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project has spent the night here and at other former housing for enslaved people nationwide.
A former cabin used by people enslaved on the Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC. Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project has spent the night here and at other former housing for enslaved people nationwide.

Glenn: Could you describe some of them, and what condition are you finding them to be in when you go there?

McGill: Various conditions. I've slept on some with dirt floors — that scared me the most. You know, creepy crawlies. And I slept in one that they sold for $400,000. People are using these things for all kinds of things — she sheds, man caves, offices, rental spaces and bed-and-breakfasts. Now there's a few that I refuse to sleep in because of their condition. You know, good gusts of wind would have had it collapsed right around me.

Now, as for what are they composed of, if it was the frontier, you would see a lot of log cabins. So if you're on the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, you see a material called Tabby, a mix of oyster shell, sand and lime. If you're in the Virginia area, you see a lot of fieldstones. Before the land could be made capable of growing whatever crop they were growing, they had to be cleared of these field stones.

Glenn: Now the ones that you say you were not able to sleep in because of the conditions of them, are they being preserved?

McGill: Yes, all the ones that I have come in contact with were either at a stage of preservation or getting there, with the exception of one. In Missouri, there was this case of this lady who acquired property with the slave dwelling on it. Preservationists were reminding her of what she can, or should and should not do, with her property in accordance with the Secretary of Interior standards. And she got so upset that under the cover of darkness, she tore it down.

Glenn: Oh wow.

McGill: So yeah, there's that case.

Glenn: The ones that have had more renovations, are they preserving the history of enslavement that occurred there?

McGill: I would say generally no.

Glenn: How does that make you feel?

McGill: Fourteen years ago, I was angry. I was getting even more angry. But I think the existence of the places gives potential, because when the places are not there, sometimes you're lucky if you get a sign that says 'There once stood...' You know, a lot of these places are privately owned. I only ask for access and that they acknowledge what was there historically. And some of these places they do, some don't. Now there are those places that are ready for 'prime time' as in museum-ready and they're here for that purpose.

Glenn: What's it like staying in them? What do you feel when you when you're staying in them?

McGill: When I started sleeping in these places alone, it was, you know, a challenge. But as far as the thoughts going through my head, you know, you think about people in that space, especially women in those spaces, knowing that time of relative serenity could be interrupted by the desire of the enslaver or the enslaver’s sons or overseers. I know they thought about the bloodhounds that were on the property, trained specifically to chase them down if they chose to escape.

Glenn: After going to these places, what do you hope to happen after you leave?

McGill: Some of these places are already doing the right thing, you know, honoring the enslaved ancestors and telling their stories. It is my hope that that continues. I'm dealing with a lot of cases now where people want to get to that place. This history has now become political. It's all engrossed in this thing called, you know, critical race theory and anti-woke, so some folks who want to go there are afraid to go there because of this political football that this history has become.

Glenn: And with the push, the fact that we're seeing in terms of the teaching of the period of enslavement, I would assume you may see that your project is even more important, given the climate.
McGill: Oh yeah. You know, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you know, racism doesn't stop. It evolves.

Glenn: Where do you see this project going for the long-range? What are your goals?

McGill: We are concentrating more on the conversations that we have before the sleepovers happen. We talk about those things that people don't usually talk about with folks who don’t usually look like them. We talk about white supremacy, white privilege, the KKK, lynchings and Confederate monuments —should they stay, or should they go.Weddings on plantations — that's a big thing. And, of course, now the elephant in the room, is, you know, anti-CRT and anti-woke.

Joe McGill is the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, based in Ladson, South Carolina. He co-authored "Sleeping With the Ancestors: How I Followed the Footprints of Slavery" with Herb Frazier. McGill will speak about enslavement and its impact on this country on Saturday, Feb.24, at 12:30 p.m. during the African American Heritage Festival. More information and the full event schedule here.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.