“The Slave Dwelling Project”: Preserving the Lowcountry’s Unheard History

By Allyson Jones

Joseph McGill and The Slave Dwelling Project are adding the unheard stories of the enslaved to the nation’s narrative.

Joseph McGill

Since 2010, historian and Civil War re-enactor Joseph McGill has spent the night in more than 90 extant slave cabins in over 19 states and the District of Columbia, as part of The Slave Dwelling Project.

“It started because of a void in history, a void in preservation, a void in interpreting history that pertains to enslaved African Americans,” explained McGill, a native of Kingstree, South Carolina, who now lives in Ladson. “I noticed that a lot of the places that were being preserved—a lot of antebellum buildings being preserved—were focusing on the beautiful, architecturally significant big house or mansion. All of those buildings are associated in some way, shape or form with enslaving people—they either physically built them or their labors provided the wealth for those houses to be built.”

“But those stories weren’t being told when I started this project—not in abundance, not in a manner that was satisfactory, not only to me, but to anyone going to visit those places,” he continued. “So, this project was started to right that wrong and insert the enslaved people into the narrative of the places where these buildings exist.”

While employed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, McGill spent his first night in a slave cabin at Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in 2010. His second stop was Bluffton’s Heyward House Historic Center later that year.

“The concept of spending nights in a slave dwelling is still a hard sell for some. Some still want to know why,” said McGill. “The reason is still the same: we became accustomed to not talking about that part of our history, and that’s part of the reason some of these places are not on the landscape anymore.”

“But there are still some of those buildings on the landscape and some organizations like the one in Bluffton that have not only restored those buildings, but were already telling the stories of the enslaved people who lived in them.”

Featured on National Public Radio, in Smithsonian magazine and in the New York Times, The Slave Dwelling Project has evolved and expanded over seven years to include conferences, lectures and living history programs at various “sleepover sites” across the country, such as institutions of higher education and the estates of four former presidents.

“Even after we began to get some momentum, it was still somewhat of a chore to convince folks that I come in peace; I mean them no harm,” noted McGill. “There are still those places that don’t want to go there. They don’t want to tell the story of the enslaved.”

“We find more power now having conversations around a campfire before actually sleeping in these places,” he added. “And I don’t sleep alone anymore. It took about four times before people realized there was something to this thing and I wasn’t going away. This wasn’t fly by night. Not only did South Carolinians begin to get it, it started gaining national appeal.”

Slave Dwelling Project board member Terry James has accompanied McGill on more than 40 overnights where “he sleeps in shackles on his wrists to commemorate our enslaved ancestors who came across the Atlantic Ocean in the Middle Passage bound in that manner.” Prinny Anderson, another board member who is a descendent of Thomas Jefferson, has spent more than 30 nights in slave cabins. One young woman from Chicago has invested her own money flying around the country to participate in nearly a dozen sleepovers.

Last October, the 4th Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference partnered with the University of Virginia’s Commission on Slavery to present the “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory & The Built Landscape” symposium. The organization’s most successful conference to date attracted more than 500 people to the event in Charlottesville.

“A lot of institutions owe their existence to slavery,” noted McGill. “That’s not just a Southern thing. A lot of those Northern institutions of higher learning came about as a result of slavery.” He named several prestigious universities that were built by the enslaved, founded or funded by slave owners and/or educated the Southern men whose wealth was dependent upon the institution of slavery.

“Twelve of our former presidents were slave owners—eight of whom owned slaves while they were in office,” continued McGill. “So far, we’ve stayed at four presidential sites—President Thomas Jefferson, President James Madison, President Andrew Jackson and President James K. Polk. I am really impressed by the presidential sites that are coming around to tell that story. If they continue to be that example, other sites don’t have any excuse.”

This year, The Slave Dwelling Project’s sleepover schedule includes stops in Florida, as well as Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania.

Garvin Garvey House: Photo by Allyson jones

McGill also returns to Old Town Bluffton in June to spend the night at the newly restored Garvin-Garvey House at the intersection of Bridge and Wharf Streets. Dating back to 1870 and the Reconstruction Era, the Garvin-Garvey House is an excellent example of Lowcountry vernacular architecture and is believed to be one of the oldest Freedmen-owned cottages still in existence on the May River.

In February, the organization hosts a “Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved” program at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, with the 6th Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference taking place October 24-28 at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

McGill is hoping to hold the 2019 conference near Jamestown, Virginia, to commemorate the establishment of the colony in 1619 and the arrival of the first documented enslaved Africans in the New World. However, he would first like “every state in the nation to identify the chattel slavery that existed in those states” with the goal of preserving and interpreting these places.

“I want folks to know we are a great nation, yes, but we are a nation with flaws,” McGill concluded. “Along the way, we committed some atrocities and we need to own up to that. Chattel slavery left a legacy on this nation that we’re still dealing with as a people. Until we deal with that, until we own up to that, we’re just going to keep passing those woes and that trauma along.”

2018 Slave Dwelling Project Schedule Highlights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved

Sleepover/Living History Program

  • February 15-16
  • Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
  • Charleston, SC

Edisto Island Museum

  • Sleepover/Lecture
  • February 22
  • Edisto Island, SC

Behind the Big House Tour

  • Sleepovers/Lectures
  • April 19-21
  • Holly Springs, MS

Jewish Historical Society of Charleston

  • Conference
  • April 28-29
  • Charleston, SC

Historic Huguenot Street

  • Sleepover/Lecture
  • May 11-13
  • New Paltz, NY

Heyward/Garvin-Garvey Houses

  • Sleepovers/Lectures
  • June 17-19
  • Bluffton, SC

Slavery, Resistance and Community

  • 5th Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference
  • October 24-28
  • Middle Tennessee State University
  • Murfreesboro, TN

For details, event information and registration, visit slavedwellingproject.org or check out the organization’s Facebook page.