Joseph McGill, a descendant of slaves, has devoted his life to ensuring the preservation of these historic sites.

“Now that I have the attention of the public by sleeping in extant slave dwellings, it is time to wake up and deliver the message that the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history.”
– Joseph McGill, Founder of the Slave Dwelling Project

By Tony Horwitz, Smithsonian Magazine

Joseph McGill, Civil War re-enacter, sleeps overnight in slave dwellings to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the artifacts and revisiting the history of enslavement.

Joseph McGill, Civil War re-enacter, sleeps overnight in slave dwellings to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the artifacts and revisiting the history of enslavement. (Smithsonian Magazine)

At a bygone plantation in coastal Georgia, Joseph McGill Jr. creaks open a door to inspect his quarters for the night. He enters a cramped cell with an ancient fireplace and bare walls mortared with oyster shell. There is no furniture, electricity or plumbing.

“I was expecting a dirt floor, so this is nice,” McGill says, lying down to sample the hard pine planks. “Might get a decent sleep tonight.”

Some travelers dream of five-star hotels, others of visiting seven continents. McGill’s mission: to sleep in every former slave dwelling still standing in the United States. Tonight’s stay, in a cabin on Georgia’s Ossabaw Island, will be his 41st such lodging.

McGill is 52, with a desk job and family, and isn’t fond of sleeping rough. A descendant of slaves, he also recognizes that re-inhabiting places of bondage “seems strange and upsetting to some people.” But he embraces the discomfort, both physical and psychological, because he wants to save slave dwellings and the history they hold before it’s too late.

“Americans tend to focus on the ‘big house,’ the mansion and gardens, and neglect the buildings out back,” he says. “If we lose slave dwellings, it’s that much easier to forget the slaves themselves.”

Slave quarters.MBrady 1862.LOC

Slave quarters photographed in 1862 by Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady. (Library of Congress)

A century ago, the whitewashed cabins of former slaves remained as ubiquitous a feature of the Southern landscape as Baptist churches or Confederate monuments. Many of these dwellings were still inhabited by the families of the four million African-Americans who had gained freedom in the Civil War. But as blacks migrated en masse from the South in the 20th century, former slave quarters—most of which were cheaply built from wood—quickly decayed or were torn down. Others were repurposed as toolsheds, garages or guest cottages. Of those that remain, many are now endangered by neglect, and by suburban and resort development in areas like the Georgia and Carolina Low Country, a lush region that once had the densest concentration of plantations and enslaved people in the South.

McGill has witnessed this transformation firsthand as a native South Carolinian who works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston. But it wasn’t his day job that led him to sleep in endangered slave cabins. Rather, it was his weekends as a Civil War re-enactor, wearing the uniform of the 54th Massachusetts, the black unit featured in the movie Glory. Donning a period uniform and camping out, often at antebellum sites, “made the history come alive for me,” he says.

Replica of Slave Quarters: This replica of the interior of a slave cabin displays the squalid living conditions of these forced laborers (Baton Rouge, c. 1999). (Photo Credit: Richard Cummins/CORBIS)

Replica of Slave Quarters: This replica of the interior of a slave cabin displays the squalid living conditions of these forced laborers (Baton Rouge, c. 1999). Generally there was little furniture so as to make enough room on the small floor for everyone to lie down. The insides of these 1-room cabins were used mostly for sleeping and for cooking inside when it rained. (Photo Credit: Richard Cummins/CORBIS)

Re-enacting the 54th has also drawn public attention to the pivotal role of black soldiers in the Civil War. So in 2010, when Magnolia Plantation near Charleston sought to publicize restoration of its neglected slave cabins, McGill proposed sleeping in one of them….

Slave Punishment: Wilson Chinn, a freed slave from Louisiana, poses with equipment used to punish slaves. Such images fueled Northern resolve against slaveholders during the American Civil War (photographed in 1863). (Photo Credit: CORBIS)

Slave Punishment: Wilson Chinn, a freed slave from Louisiana, poses with equipment used to punish slaves. Such images fueled Northern resolve against slaveholders during the American Civil War (photographed in 1863). (Photo Credit: CORBIS)

“I’m not trying to provoke people to anger,” he says. His missions are preservation and education, and he needs the cooperation of the owners and stewards of former slave dwellings who might be put off by a more strident approach. He also feels blacks and whites need to talk openly about this history, rather than retreat into age-old division and distrust. “I want people to respect and restore these places, together, and not be afraid to tell their stories.”

This has happened in gratifying ways during a number of his stays. He tells of two sisters who had avoided any contact with the Virginia plantation where their ancestors were enslaved, despite invitations to visit. After overnighting with him at a slave cabin on the site, and realizing there was genuine interest in their family’s history, one of the women became a volunteer guide at the plantation. Local students, black and white, have joined McGill and written essays about how the experience changed their views of race and slavery. “Suddenly, what I read in textbooks became something I was able to see in my mind’s eye,” wrote one teenager in South Carolina.

Slave Family: A slave family standing next to baskets of recently-picked cotton near Savannah, Georgia in the 1860s. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/CORBIS)
Slave Family: A slave family standing next to baskets of recently-picked cotton near Savannah, Georgia in the 1860s. Once children turned four, they had to begin working alongside their parents. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/CORBIS)

McGill has also found that older white Southerners who own or operate properties with slave dwellings are much more receptive to his project than they might have been just a decade or two ago. In only a few instances have his requests to stay been rebuffed. More often he’s been enthusiastically welcomed, dined with his hosts and even been given the keys to the big house while the owners go off to work. “Sometimes I sense guilt is part of what’s driving people, but whatever it is, having me visit and acknowledge their preservation of these places makes them feel they’re doing the right thing,” he says. “It’s not a cure-all for what happened in the past, but it’s a start.”…

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