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Sleeping With History

For the last six months, Joe McGill has been traveling across the South and sleeping in some unusual places. McGill is staying in cabins that used to house slaves. He's an African American, and through his work with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he's trying to shed light on slave cabins so they can be restored. This weekend, his journey brings him to Historic Brattonsville, a living history museum near Rock Hill. WFAE's Scott Graf spoke with Mr. McGill. Here's a transcript of their converation: SG: How many have you slept in so far? JM: About 10 so far. About eight in the state of South Carolina and about a month ago I went to Alabama. SG: Do you have an idea how many of these still exist across the southern United States? JM: You know, I don't know. I am though becoming a clearing-house, people call me with possibilities that are out there. A lot of them are privately owned. I am getting invitations from private owners to come and stay in their properties. SG: Well I would imagine these were not very fancy structures to begin with and then you add 145 years or so on to them. What kind of shape are they in? JM: Yeah and you stated that question quite nicely. You have to certainly take into account demolition by neglect and just wear and tear. A lot of those that are still with us today are those that could evolve, meaning that they were used, some up until the 1990s. And as they continued to be used, they were added on to. When I went to Alabama, I had two extremes. And that particular structure was made of brick, similar to the one there in Brattonsville. And of course the condition was greater, the physical condition of the building was greater, not just the outside of the house but the inside also. But that next night I had the other extreme: a wooden structure. It has shown its wear. And with that I was kind of skeptical about laying my head in there, but I had to remember why I was doing this, and I built up the courage to do that. So the conditions vary. SG: What do you feel when you step into a slave cabin? JM: Well I feel that I'm honoring the folks who occupied that place. And I also think about: did the slave owner actually honor the family unit? Or was the slave owner attempting to pack as many people into that cabin as possible, you know, with total disregard for biological family makeup? You know, I think about, if it's a full moon, is it a good night for escape? Or would you just want to wait and see what fate you had the next day? You think about the slave owner's desire to, you know, selectively breed the slaves to maximize his product. You think about things like that. SG: The cabin that you'll be sleeping in this week in historic Brattonsville in York County, do you know much about it at this point? JM: I know some about it. I know it's made of brick. Luckily I came there about a month and a half, maybe two months ago, although I had already gotten permission from the staff at Brattonsville, they thought it would be nice if I would come and meet the some of the descendants of the slaves who occupied that space, that plantation. I took them up on that invitation, and I came and I met the folks I asked their blessing, and they gave it to me. And that was a first time I got to do anything like that. SG: What was their reaction? JM: They were quite excited. Some were aware of the project and some were not. But the collective reaction was, "Yes, by all means, we would love to have you come over." You know, they want to be a part of this, as much as possible.