Today on the blog we are honored to be able to interview Joseph McGill, Founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, which works to preserve extant slave dwellings and organizes overnight stays in them to bring attention to the history and experiences of enslaved people. Welcome, Mr. McGill!
When and how did you first get the idea for the Slave Dwelling Project?
As a former employee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I would assist property owners in saving places. Those places were usually iconic and architecturally significant which left a void for those structures important to African Americans, especially those who were enslaved. I have also been a Civil War reenactor for over 20 years. Five years ago, my experience with being a preservationist and a Civil War reenactor morphed into the Slave Dwelling Project. The concept is simple, find extant slave dwellings and ask the owners if I can spend a night in them in order to bring much needed attention to these often neglected dwellings.
How many different slave dwellings have you slept in?
I have spent nights in over 80 slave dwellings, some more than once, in the states of Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Was there a particular dwelling or experience that moved you the most?
The experience that moved me the most was the opportunity to stand on an auction block at Seward Plantation in Brenham, Texas. I thought about enslaved people standing on auction blocks having to expose their backs to show the potential buyers that there were no scars on their backs. Scars were indications that they were defiant and were beaten. No slave owner wanted to buy a defiant enslaved person to insert among his already docile and broken enslaved people.
Why do you think it’s so important to preserve these places?
The buildings that we preserve fit the historical narrative that we espouse. In other words, we tend to show our history in the buildings we choose to preserve. Preserving only the architecturally significant buildings supports a false narrative. This false narrative suggests that the purging of Native Americans was just; interning Japanese Americans during World War II was just; the lynchings that occurred in this nation were just. There are lots of items that can be added to the aforementioned list because some of our preserved buildings and monuments honor some of the people who perpetrated some of those atrocities. It is imperative that we preserve extant slave dwellings because when properly interpreted, these buildings can help change the narrative.
What do we stand to lose if they are destroyed?
If these buildings are destroyed, we tend to lose the opportunity to change the narrative. If a visitor to a site that once enslaved people should leave that site thinking that slavery was a good thing, that site has failed in its attempt to interpret the institution of slavery. When the buildings are there, it is harder to deny the presence of the people who lived there.
How receptive have plantation and property owners been to your project?
The reception of this project to plantations and property owners has been mixed. As expected, five years ago trying to convince those property owners of my intent was a challenge. Despite that, far more stewards said yes than no, which gave me that confidence to step out on faith to embark on this journey. Five years later, the project is still going strong and has become the clearinghouse for all matters pertaining to extant slave dwellings. More site stewards now reach out to me than I reach out to them.
I’m not sure if you’ve seen this, but two children’s books came under fire recently for depicting smiling slaves (more info here and here). What are your thoughts on this? Do you have any advice for children’s book authors who want to write about slavery, or parents teaching their children about slavery for the first time?
Everyone should do their homework. No one should portray slavery as being good for this nation. No one should portray the enslaved as being satisfied with their lot in life because that is that false narrative that needs to be corrected.
What is the top thing you wish Americans knew or understood better about slavery?
Although movies and books are good sources for obtaining history, they do not always get it right. I encourage people of all races, especially African Americans, to visit sites that once engaged in enslaving people. The fact that African Americans have a tendency not to want to visit these sites, gives the stewards the unchecked opportunities to interpret these sites as they wish.
How can people support your work or get involved?
The opportunity to spend a night in a slave dwelling with me and others is an open invitation. You can find out more about upcoming stays or become a member of the Slave Dwelling Project by visiting the website at: www.slavedwellingproject.org.
Mr. Joseph McGill, Jr. is a history consultant for Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC and the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, Inc. His extensive experience in preservation and education includes positions as a field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as Executive Director of the African American Museum located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as Director of History and Culture at Penn Center, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, and as a Park Ranger at Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina.
Mr. McGill is also the founder of Company “I” 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment in Charleston, South Carolina, the regiment portrayed in the award winning movie “Glory.” As a Civil War Reenactor, Mr. McGill participates in parades, living history presentations, lectures, and battle reenactments. He appears in the book Confederates in the Attic and is a member of the South Carolina Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Mr. McGill is a native of Kingstree, South Carolina.