October 2, 2017
Few historic moments continue to reverberate through our nation quite like the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. But despite the way the history lives on, there are some parts that will always be challenging for us to face as a nation. Joe McGill, the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, joined me to discuss the work he does to shed light on some of the most painful, yet powerful, places in America. Join us for a discussion on the value of remember all aspects of our past, from slave dwellings to Confederate monuments, on this week’s PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Few historic moments continue to reverberate through our nation quite like the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. But despite the way history lives on, there are some parts that will always be challenging for us to face as a nation. Joe Mcgill, the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, joined me this week to discuss the work he does to shed light on some of the most painful yet powerful places in America. Join us for a discussion on the value of remembering all aspects of our past from slave dwellings to Confederate monuments, on this week’s PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland’s studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Mr. Joseph McGill, who is a history consultant for Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. Prior to this current position, Joe was a field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was the Executive Director of the African-American Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was the director of History and Culture at Penn Center, and has done a lot of different work with regard to historic preservation. But his current position really is something exciting and something we want to talk about and really, an important project, The Slave Dwelling Project. Joe, it’s a pleasure to have you on PreserveCast today.
[Joe McGill] Pleasure to have this opportunity to present.
[NR] So we would love to know more about you. I mean, your bio is dripping with different, exciting, and important historical experiences. How did you get into this? Why the love of history? Where did you grow up and what was your path to preservation?
[JM] I grew up in a very small town of Kingstree, South Carolina, Williamsburg County. And I guess my gateway into history, at least, my aha moment for loving history was when I was in the military, I visited the home where Anne Frank hid from the Germans during World War II in Amsterdam. And from that point forward, I knew that places were important, especially, preserving those places. It didn’t really matter what the history was associated with those places, whether something to be happy about or sad about. Having the place in place is important to jog that memory and know that it is important to preserve these places. So I applied that process, that thinking process, to preserving slave dwellings.
[NR] I mean, I think that makes a lot of sense. And why don’t tell you us a little bit about The Slave Dwelling Project itself? I mean, what is it that your working on right now? What should people know about The Slave Dwelling Project if they don’t know anything at all?
[JM] The Slave Dwelling Project is a project that’s very simple. It’s a very simple concept of just finding historic places and spending the night in them. But in this case, these historic places are places that we normally don’t think about because it is a sad part of our history that we tend to want to forget. It takes us out of that comfort zone. We, as Americans, we are preservationists. And we preserve buildings, we preserve antebellum buildings, those buildings that were built prior to the Civil War. A lot of those places are associated with slavery but we, as preservationists, we as historians, tend to want to preserve those places of the enslavers not those who were enslaved. So this project identifies those places, wherever they are, and we ask the owners if we could spend the night in these spaces. And the attention garnered from performing that simple act is leveraged to convince property owners that it’s a good thing to preserve these places. Not only preserve them, but interpret them, maintain them, and sustain them with the intent of them telling the stories of those people who were enslaved.
[NR] So, what you described is the simple act of sleeping in a place really has had a very physical result. So there are examples, I guess, that you could point to that buildings that, maybe were on a path towards not being preserved are now preserved?
[JM] Yeah. There are those examples. For the past seven years, I’ve been sleeping in these dwellings. And The Slave Dwelling Project, we can probably take credit for some of these places still being on the landscape. But going into this thing, I realized that a lot of these places were hidden in plain sight, if you will. A lot of these places are currently being used for things. The buildings have evolved and they’re currently being used for things that one would not think that this place has a history that started out housing enslaved people. Some of these places are under various ownerships, some are privately-owned, some are owned by non-profits, some are museum-ready and they serve as such. But because these places evolved, because they were in use long after slavery existed, these places are still with us. So, of course, our intent is to encourage these owners, these stewards of these places, to allow these places to help tell the stories of the enslaved because some of the places are no longer on this Earth because there was somebody in its past that didn’t want it to be there. And some of those places are not here because they weren’t built with the best materials to start with, especially, if they were intended for the field hands that worked on plantations. But as some of these places were associated with the nice mansion, the big house, that still exists on some of these properties and they are used for various things: garages, and storage spaces, and pool houses, and little spaces, and offices. Our desire is that not only should they be used as such, these places should be allowed to evolve. I have no problem with the things that some of these places are used for. I just have a problem when there are folks out there that refuse to tell the true history associated with these places.
[NR] So, what do you say to someone who says that, “Well, this is a really uncomfortable piece of our history and we shouldn’t focus on it”? Your response to that seems to be the exact opposite, is that right?
[JM] Yeah. It has to be the exact opposite. And if it’s not the exact opposite we’re going to get into the situation that we’re now currently in with the Confederate monuments. Yeah, those monuments are offensive to some, but I don’t think there should be a total eradication as we have done than doing – there’s folks, under that cover of darkness, taking down these monuments without a full discourse on the subject matter. Just as these Confederate monuments portray a sad part of our history that some don’t want to deal with, so do slave dwellings. That’s the part of our history that some don’t want to deal with, but I don’t want them to go away. I want them to be there for us to remember. We, as a nation – we’re a great nation, yes – but we have some flaws along the way. And these slave dwellings can help us interpret some of that flaw that was attached to that institutional slavery, Just that Confederate Monument could be tools, too, to show us, again, we were a nation that along the way committed some atrocities. So we need to vet these slave dwellings and these monuments accordingly.
[NR] Yeah. And it seems like the slave dwellings, I think largely the preservation community agrees, yeah, there’s no question, these have to be preserved and they have to stay. And they’re sort of rooted in the landscape and they’re important reminders of our country and where we were. There is not total agreement on the Confederate monument issue. There are those who say it’s such a heinous thing that it should be torn down. There are those who sort of say what you say which is they’re an important part of our history and perhaps should be better interpreted but maybe all shouldn’t be removed. Some people say they should go to museums.
Do you find that the slave dwelling project and Joe McGill are being called on to talk about these issues more and more because of the monument issue now?
[JM] Yeah. In fact, in about two weeks from now, I’ll be going to Poplar Forest to serve on a panel about the monuments. The situation of where some of these mayors of these cities are taking these monuments down under the cover of darkness. In New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans is a good example. They each took those monuments down – and there was some public discourse about it – and they went ahead and took the monuments down. But I think one thing that I have the problem with is, while they removed the Confederate monument, they left Andrew Jackson right where he is. And who’s more offensive to the Native American population than Andrew Jackson? So we start these things and I don’t think we think them through because there are a lot of monuments now and statues that are getting caught up in the mix. Right there in Annapolis, Maryland, they took down statue of that Supreme Court judge that ruled in the Dred-Scott decision.
[NR] Right. Roger Taney.
[JM] Yeah. Yeah. Slavery was the law of the land at time, so he ruled accordingly. So why is it that he got caught up in this Confederate monument knee-jerk reaction just to remove monuments? Why are we questioning now the monuments that are now in New York City? You know, Christopher Columbus and a lot of those other monuments that are standing there. You’re getting a little bit caught up in all this. And if we make these decisions today, will some generation in the future look up at Mount Rushmore and say that they’re two slaveholding presidents up there, let’s remove them? Or will they say in Washington D.C., Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slaveholding presidents, so let’s move that obelisk? Let’s remove this monument to the Thomas Jefferson because they were slave-owning presidents. So you’ve got to kind of think of it in that sense. Just as we have the power now to make decisions and change the landscape by removing monuments, our children of the future will have those big decisions to make about monuments that are currently existing now and they’ll have the decision in the future to decide whether they should stay or go.
[NR] Well, I appreciate your opinion on this. It’s interesting to hear you talk about it and obviously, you’re really passionate about it. Why don’t we take a quick break here? And when we come back, we’ll talk more about that Slave Dwelling Project, how it works, maybe some examples of places you’ve stayed and what’s coming up and we’ll do that right when we return here on Preserve Cast.
Preservation Q & A
[Nick Redding] Preservation Q and A. You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Let’s try them out here. Marcus from Reisterstown writes, “Are there other places in Maryland like Community Forklift that we heard about in a previous episode? That’s a little far away for me.” Well, Marcus, let’s try and save you a trip. We don’t want you driving too far. Loading Dock and Second Chance both located in Baltimore. There’s also Brick and Board. That’s run by our friends at Humanim. That’s also in Baltimore. Hopefully, that helps you out and you get out there and get what you need.
Marybeth from Virginia wrote in to ask another question. She was just listening to the episode about moving the Taco Bell and was wondering, what’s the oldest restaurant in Maryland? Well, Mary Beth, we haven’t eaten at it but we’ve done some research and we’d like to. Stephen and I have taken a look at this and we found that Cotton Geatz in Cumberland used to be the oldest operating family-owned restaurant in the state. They opened in 1880 but, unfortunately, you missed them. They closed this year in January. Less of a restaurant, but more of a bar if that’s your flavor is the Horse You Came In On Saloon located in historic Fells Point in Baltimore. Of course, this is also the place that’s remembered as potentially one of the haunts of Edgar Allan Poe. The building and the name go back to 1775 and it was opened before, during, and after Prohibition. You figure that one out.
Zach from Chicago writes: I just started listening to this podcast. (Editor’s note: Thanks, Zach.) I’ve always liked history but I’m just getting into understanding preservation. What does a site have to do to become a landmark? That’s actually a really great question, Zach, and it depends on what you’re talking about. The National Register of Historic Places is something that you get on by filing a form and doing your research through your state historic preservation office, which then gets passed on to the National Park Service. And you can file to become a national register. You could file to have an entire area, a district, created. Or you could go for the big daddy of preservation, the National Historic Landmark Designation, which is reserved for, really, the crème de la crème of historic places and sites. But there’s also local landmarking processes and in Chicago, of course, there is a local landmarking effort as well. So it depends on what you want to do, how you want to do it and who’d you like to talk to.
Gilbert from Walkerville writes in: “Can we please get a PreserveCast episode surrounding ghost stories or sightings or maybe even unsolved mysteries in Maryland for Halloween in October?” Hold your horses, Gilbert. October is coming up and without giving too much away we might have something up our PreserveCast sleeve for you.
[Nick Redding] Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast, you’ve thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try an answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined by Joe McGill who is the history consultant for the Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina and also the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. And we’ve been hearing from Joe about why these places matter and his thoughts on recent decisions to remove Confederate monuments and beyond. But why don’t we talk – zero in on the Slave Dwelling Project? What happens? So you show up at a site, maybe give us an example site or a place that’s been really powerful. Who do you sleep with? How do they get to the site? How does the night unfold?
[JM] Well, they’re all different. My most recent sleepover was this past weekend. I went to [inaudible] in Warsaw, Virginia. And it’s unique because there’s no slave dwellings there. In fact, the big house, the mansion, is in ruins. But they’re putting forth that effort to give access to the ruins through some very special means of placing plexiglass and a series of other items or ways to give the visiting public access to those ruins. We slept at the place where the slave dwellings would’ve been located on the property. We all pitched tents and we all slept there.
A lot of these places, the original slave dwellings are there. So, we sleep there, in those spaces. We have spaces also like Monticello and Montpelier, where the dwellings have been recreated. So, we sleep in places like those also. Now, as far as getting the people to join me, I don’t sleep in these places alone anymore. People do stand in line and I’m trying to take their numbers and they wait their turns. That’s how popular the program has gotten. It’s more than just a sleepover. A part of the process is that we have a conversation, a conversation about slavery and the legacy that it has left on this nation. And these properties that give us access, they’re the perfect setting to have those conversations. And the people that join us, the demographics, is a wide spectrum. We get Blacks, we get Whites, we get seniors, we get youth. Some folks form themselves and they get an exclusive. Some groups are just a mixture of people who come together specifically for that purpose of coming to that place, to have that conversation, to have that sleeping experience at this site. So the popularity of this program is increasing.
[NR] So, how many sites have you actually slept at? Have you kept track? I mean, seven years of this, and you’re pretty busy. I mean, how often have you done this? Do you know the total number at this point?
[JM] Yeah. As far as sites are concerned, we’re approaching 100. We may have reached that number, 100, already. Now, as far as sleepovers, the number of sleepovers exceeds 100 because some of the places I’ve gone to twice. Like Holly Springs, Mississippi, I think my longest tenure out of state is there. I think we’ve gone there six consecutive years. Now, as far as the site that I’ve slept at the most, is the place I’m currently employed at on a part-time basis, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. I’ve slept in the slave dwelling there seven times. In October 7th and 8th, it’s going to be eight and ninth for that site. That site has allowed us to use it as a classroom as I want to do at a lot of these places. I want a lot of these dwellings to live and breathe. I want folks to come in and, above and beyond having the opportunity to tour these places during the daytime, I want them to have that opportunity. When the dust settles, when the crowd has gone away from these places, I want them to have that opportunity to come and interact with these spaces and get more in-depth into the way of life of the enslaved on these properties. And the project now is giving folks those opportunities. We’re taking it to a new level.
Last year, the South Carolina Humanities Council gave us a grant that allowed us to implement a program called Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. Where living historians come in the night before. We sleep in the slave dwellings and we get up that next morning, we don our period outfits, and we have demonstrations: cooking demonstrations, blacksmithing demonstrations. And then we intersperse that with lectures and storytelling.
[NR] And so you mentioned you’re taking it to the next level, what’s next for The Slave Dwelling Project? I mean, right now, from what I understand – correct me if I’m wrong – you’re the individual who’s staying overnight in all of these places. Do you think it’ll go beyond Joe McGill in that there will be people, maybe more people from The Slave Dwelling Project, more staff, or people sort of organically doing this across the country? What’s next?
[JM] Well, right now, I am that constant. There are some folks within the organization, some board members, that have gone to other sites and they have been that point person representing the Slave Dwelling Project, carrying out our cohesive mission. Now, there are a few sites like Brattonsville that they have done this thing on their own. They interact with the descendant community, descendants of the slave community, and they have done this thing without me. There are sites considering doing that. But what I recommend to the site is that, if indeed, they want to take on an idea like this at least bring us in for the first one to three years so that we can do it together before they attempt to try to do something similar on their own. Because we can certainly – we’ve been at this thing, we know how it works, we know the potentials of success, and we know the potential of failure. We want to come in and we want to work with these sites. But, eventually, we want these sites to be able to do this thing on their own.
[NR] Right. And to grow the movement of doing this because it feels like the more people who are doing it the better because the conversations that you’re talking about are important. And, you know, you hear a lot of people nowadays say, “Well, we should have a discourse, we should have a discussion about these issues’,” and I sometimes wonder “where does that happen”? And I feel like a discourse on race and slavery, what better place to do that than in one of these places that’s rooted in that history with someone like yourself to lead that conversation?
[JM] Yes, and you are correct. And every time we sleep in one of these places we write blogs. When I say we, I write a blog. But I ask the participants to contribute to that blog. So if anyone were to go to the website, SlaveDwellingProject.org, they can pull up all those accounts of all the past days. And not only can they read my thoughts, but that can read about those that contributed to the blog because it’s all there.
[NR] And speaking of people getting more involved, here in Maryland you’ve got a project coming up this fall in Dorchester County. What’s going to be taking place there and how can people get involved in that one?
[JM] Yeah, Maryland is helping us taking this thing to the next level because you will encounter our program Inalienable Rights: Living History Through Eyes of the Enslaved. It’s going to be one of those rare times where we’ve taken it out of the state, bringing it to where the people are and we want to try to do more than that. So in Dorchester County, Maryland – I think the second weekend in Dorchester County, Maryland – I will be traveling there and visiting some sites associated with Harriet Tubman and that will be a time that is available for others to come and join us. Now, just last week I was at St. Mary’s College in Maryland to do an event there. So this project has touched Maryland quite often. Sotterley Plantation is another site where we spent the night.
[NR] We talked a lot about the South. But there is a legacy of slavery in the north, particularly prior to the Revolution, have you been north of the Mason-Dixon?
[JM] Yes, I have. Nineteen states so far in the portfolio. Seven of those states have been northern states.
[JM] I usually get the most pushback when I talk about this project from Northerners because but I’m more than risk because they certainly are aware of all that went down in the south that’s associated with slavery. Of course, slavery in the south lasted a lot longer than it did in the North but it did happen in the North. And we also have to think about when after the Revolution those northern states started to abolish slavery we got a still factor in the complexity involved. The fact that they still own the insurance companies, the banks, the ships, they were building the ships in those northern states and they had the factories that were adding value to the cotton that was picked in the South. So we still have to factor all that in when we think about the indulgent of all those Northern States in that institution slavery.
[NR] Right. There’s definitely a legacy there to tell as well. Well, Joe, it’s been a pleasure. If people want to get in touch with you or they want to learn more about the Slave Dwelling Project, where would you send them?
[NR] Okay, perfect. And we don’t let anyone leave PreserveCast without answering the most difficult question for any preservationist which is, what is your favorite building or place? And for a guy who’s traveled to nineteen states visiting places of extreme importance, this is probably even more difficult. But we ask the tough questions here, Joe. We want to know what your answer is.
[JM] Well, I guess one would have to think it out be thinking about a slave dwelling. And, of course, they’re all special to me. But I talked about going into that place where Anne Frank hid from the Germans that’s near and dear to me because that was my “aha” moment for making me a preservationist. But I’ve also visited the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee and I think that’s the place that made me so emotional. It made me have to man up and to step into that spot where this great man, Dr. Martin Luther King was – where his life was snuffed out. I think that’s the spot that has done it for me the most. That’s the one that stays with me the most. That has to me on my very short list. And on that very short list, right now is it’s my number one.
[NR] Joe, it’s been a pleasure. I hope to see you when you’re up in Maryland. And thank you for all the good work that you’re doing on a project of extreme importance. You’re doing great work and we appreciate it. Thank you.
[JM] All right. You are welcome.
[Nick Redding] Wait just a second. Before you leave us today, I’d like to talk to you about something very important. You see Preservation Maryland is a non-profit. And that’s the organization that produces PreserveCast. We do all of this by stitching together grants, membership donations, and donations from private foundations. But it’s never enough. And like all non-profits, we work hard to raise more dollars to support this program and many more. We do things on the ground. We do things in Annapolis and we do a lot of work around the state. If you’ve enjoyed PreserveCast and you’ve been a listener, we would love to have your support. You can go to PreservationMaryland.org and click on become a member or click on donate or go PreserveMD.org/join and join. Either way, you’ll be helping support not only PreserveCast but the preservation of important places across the state of Maryland. Thanks!
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!
In addition to the Slave Dwelling Project, Joe McGill has gathered professional educators from throughout the Southeast to create the Inalienable Rights living history group of African American living history. This project was funded by South Carolina Humanities and has assisted many historic sites in increasing and improving their interpretation of the lives of enslaved people.