Gazing out from the columned manor of Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, S.C., visitors can admire green gardens, footbridges over burbling canals and moss-cloaked cypress trees. When the azaleas bloom each spring, one can almost forget that these 500 acres (originally, it was 2,000 acres) of Lowcountry Field were once a working plantation where dozens of slaves toiled growing rice. Staring the brightly colored flora, it’s difficult to comprehend the majestic home hasn’t always been a place of beauty and was once a site of exploitation, whippings and sexual violence.
Out of sight from the main residence, stand four extant wood-sided cabins, painted white. Here, slaves slept and ate and prayed and sang, raising families in single rooms. Amid the lovely Southern grounds, these dwellings stand as a reminder of the captive men and women who lived and died on the land they were forced to cultivate.
Across the country, these shacks and cabins are under threat. Unlike the mansions where slaveowners displayed their wealth, these dwellings are far from magnificent. Housing fieldhands, many were built from the cheapest material available. Most resemble tool sheds, which, some might say, is effectively what they were. Among the catalog of historic homes, battlegrounds and memorials worthy of recognition, these hovels rarely make the list.
That’s why Joseph McGill, a Charleston native, began sleeping overnight in these crude shelters in 2010. Now nearing 80 overnight stays in 16 states, McGill says what started as a kind of publicity stunt to draw attention to the structures has grown into a movement. After the election of our nation’s first black president, the conversation around daily violence in urban communities and the retirement of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, McGill hopes the preservation of these makeshift homes will play a part in how America comes to terms with its racist past. Without the buildings, he argues, what’s there to remind us of the institution of slavery?
“One of the things that we need to understand is that 12 of our former presidents were slaveowners, eight of whom owned slaves while they were in office. Even those who contributed to those major documents that we live by today — you know, the Constitution’s ‘We, the people.’ It should have read, ‘We, the people,’ comma, ‘here in this room,’ because otherwise that document meant nothing to you,” McGill tells NationSwell. “Even after emancipation, there were obstacles put in place to deny those recently freed people their pursuit of happiness. Reconstruction was replaced by Jim Crow laws and white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings. We’re still being denied opportunities to pursue that happiness. We’re dealing with the residuals of that today.”
McGill always loved history. In his prior day job at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he safeguarded America’s iconic buildings. And on weekends, he dressed up as a solider for Civil War reenactments. (As a black man and descendant of slaves, he “fought” for the Union.) But he began to notice that African-Americans’ place in history, especially antebellum history, was often glossed over. It’s undisputed in textbooks that landowners held slaves and a bloody conflict erupted over their freedoms. But outside of, say, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass, there’s little public knowledge about the everyday lives and traditions of the enslaved. Across the South, McGill felt like he had a much easier time spotting statues of Johnny Reb (a personification of Southern states) than seeing plaques about early African-American figures.
McGill slept in his first cabin — on the oak-lined Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant, S.C. — in 1999, as a way to get footage for a documentary about war reenactors. He didn’t think of the meager buildings again until 2010, when he was asked to consult on the restoration of Magnolia Plantation’s slave cabins. After his second overnight stay, he realized these places had to be preserved. “When the buildings aren’t there, it’s easier to deny the people who lived in those buildings,” he says. “The fact that they exist is an opportunity to let the world know that these people not only existed, but contributed highly to the fruits of this nation.”
McGill started contacting historic sites and preservation groups across the Palmetto State and soon, up and down the entire Eastern seaboard (including several in the North, where, we often forget, slavery persisted through the late 18th century), asking to visit their slave residences. Because of their enthusiastic responses, he created an official organization — the Slave Dwelling Project — that works to protect the homes that remain standing more than a century and a half after being erected.
Soon, people started reaching out to him (both individual families researching their lineage and established historical societies hoping to broaden their offerings), wanting to join his overnight visits. “I’m seldom sleeping in these places alone anymore.”
Putting together a group isn’t always easy. McGill has to fend off ghost hunters and treasure seekers. And some private hosts worry that descendants of slaves will knock on their door asking for what McGill calls the “r-word”: reparations. And interestingly, McGill says blacks can be hesitant to participate. “There are a lot of us, being African American, that don’t even want to set foot on a plantation,” he says, explaining that they don’t want to go to a place where their family was held as chattel. “I express to them that they are part of the problem, not the solution. As long as we continue to be afraid to even want to come to these places and have the courage to tell that story, [others] are going to tell it the way they want,” referencing tour guides who say masters were kind and treated their slaves well, calling that narrative, “junk history.” Once that message is delivered and it becomes clear that these stays are about African Americans and their history — revisiting history, not revising it — most agree to participate.
Once others started accompanying him, the project’s aims subtly shifted from an external campaign for recognition to an internal dialogue about race in America. Bringing together descendants of slaves and slaveowners in the very place where one group once shackled the other inevitably prompted soul-searching and candid discussion.
One night in Stagville, a historic North Carolina plantation, for example, young black men spoke by glinting lantern-light of the anger, fear and frustration they live with. In Mississippi, one female college student asked McGill if he had ever met a descendant of slaveowners who is proud of his family’s history. On South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island, a young black man, whose family had been enslaved there, stared at a wall built of tabby concrete, made from broken oyster shells, sand and ash. “I’m allergic to oysters,” he said. “I wonder if my ancestors were.” And in the coachman’s quarters on a Hillsborough, N.C., plantation, a 100-year-old matriarch told stories about her ancestors, who had been born into bondage on the property.
McGill’s stays are not just for African Americans; whites who want to revisit their history as a way of making amends often join him. Prinny Anderson, a leadership coach descended from Virginia slaveowners, has joined McGill on 22 stays to date — all within driving distance of her Durham, N.C., home. When descendants of slaves are sharing their family history, she’s largely silent, preferring to listen and absorb. But when the group is largely white, she says she’s an “instigator,” asking critical questions.
Anderson’s most moving trip was a visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s hilltop estate in Charlottesville, Va., where she has family connections. She fell asleep in the basement (where the slave workplaces were constructed, hidden from sight), thinking about her distant cousins, white and black, and what it meant to revisit their shared home.
“That really felt like getting the blessing of my ancestors. You came home and slept where your great auntie slept,” Anderson says. “Nobody who lived in the big house during that day ever came down to the [slave] quarters and slept on the floor. In that sense, it was like crossing the bridge.” Spending the night there, it was like Anderson had atoned for something.
Part of the Slave Dwelling Project is to recover slaves’ individual narratives, finding personal stories amidst the black mass in chains. “I think the general perception is that enslaved people were brought here for the ability to do grunt work or heavy lifting: the physical labor. But there’s a lot more to their skills and abilities,” McGill says. From the engineering feat of “taming those cedar swamps” to growing rice and constructing building frames, ironwork, bricks and tools, slaves were vital to the plantation’s production, arguably much more so than any master lounging in the big house.
While the conversation at these places steeped in history may be the most candid talks you’ll hear these days on the subject of race, McGill knows it’s not the only forum for the issue. If anything, he hopes the talks will overflow into guests’ neighborhoods and university dorms. And there, discussion will be led by people who are better informed of their place in the long march for racial equality.
Above all, McGill wants his guests to remember that black history does not begin at a Montgomery bus stop in 1955 and end at a Memphis hotel room in 1968. It spans lifetimes, back to the auction block and long past when Obama leaves office. The recent conflict at the University of Missouri, which ended in the president’s removal, did not begin when these students arrived on campus or even when the school was ordered to integrate by a court order in 1950. Anyone who has listened to Billie Holiday croon “Strange Fruit” knows Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance featuring dancers in Black Panther uniforms was not the first to push the envelope. These victories, whether from the Civil Rights movement or Black Lives Matter, all date back to one common source: slavery, a period we cannot forget, McGill insists.
“Historically, these are some times we have not yet overcome. There’s still things that we have not yet dealt with, rooted in the institution of slavery,” McGill says. “If we should let these buildings go away, then we are going to allow this nation to continually perpetuate that false narrative. We shouldn’t allow that to stand. We shouldn’t let that narrative carry the day. The record needs to be corrected.”
Through McGill’s work, the authentic story is now being told.
Correction: This article originally stated that Magnolia Plantation was 390 acres in size and that slaves worked in cotton fields and later on as freed sharecroppers. NationSwell apologizes for the errors.
Let’s fix this country together.