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Living History: A Night In A Slave Quarters

Joseph McGill of Charleston, S.C., runs the Slave Dwelling Project.
Slave Dwelling Project
Joseph McGill of Charleston, S.C., runs the Slave Dwelling Project.

What would it be like to spend a night seeing life through the eyes of the enslaved? A program this weekend at the President James K. Polk historic site in Pineville will give a few people a chance to stay overnight in slave quarters. It's part of a seven-year quest by Joseph McGill of Charleston, SC. It's called the Slave Dwelling Project, and it aims to preserve slave quarters. McGill talked to WFAE's David Boraks about the project. 

BORAKS: Joseph, can you tell me a little bit more about how this project got started?

McGILL:  This project was an idea that I had because of experiences of visiting places of significance, antebellum buildings, buildings built prior to the Civil War, and seeing those buildings talked about because of their architectural significance, and of the people who lived within those four walls. But never talked about it, or interpreted it, in the sense of those they enslaved.

And some of the buildings where the people who were enslaved lived in still exist. So I came up with this simple act of asking the owners of these places to spend the night in them.

And now that has evolved into seven years later, 19 states later, over 100 sites later, I don't sleep in these places alone anymore. We use them now as opportunities to talk about slavery and the legacy that it has left on this nation. So it's more than preservation now, it's kind of a movement, if you will.

BORAKS: What is it like to stay in one of these places, from kind of a personal level?

McGILL: Well, all different. Initially when I started this thing, it took about four times before anybody would join me. Those four times alone, you think more about the space itself and more about the people who may have occupied those spaces. You think about that space as being their time of serenity within the lives that they lived. Because beyond the door of that space was just time that was not theirs. Time that belonged to the people who owned them, because that's who their work and toil would be benefiting. But now, it's more of people seeking that opportunity to join me in these spaces. Because now, before we even go to our corners where we'll sleep, there's a conversation that we engage in about slavery and the legacy that it has left on this nation. … We are dealing with the residuals of things not dealt with in the past that should've been.

BORAKS: When you first started doing this, it started as the Slave Cabin Project. Now it's the Slave Dwelling Project. How has the kind of places that you've stayed evolved over the years?

McGILL: Yeah, it started out as the Cabin Project because I had a more narrow way of thinking about slavery. You know, slavery, as it was taught to me, it was all plantations. And as I got more and more involved in this journey, I noticed that a lot of these places where the enslaved stayed could not be considered a cabin. You can think now about the northern slavery that existed. Most of those enslaved people there did not live in cabins, some did not even live in buildings that were separated from the folks that enslaved them. Sometimes they lived in the basement, sometimes they lived in the attic. So, I think the word “dwelling” embraces all those places.

BORAKS: And what is your ultimate goal?

McGILL: Well, I would love to stay in the White House. Twelve of our former presidents were slave owners, eight of whom owned slaves while they were in office.  So they were having enslaved people working and, I imagine sleeping in the White House, while they worked there, if they were body servants to whoever enslaved them.

BORAKS: Joseph McGill, thanks so much.

McGILL: You are welcome.

BORAKS: Joseph McGill is the organizer of the Slave Dwelling Project. He'll be staying overnight tonight in a slave quarters at the President James K. Polk historic site in Pineville. This weekend's events include a community dinner tonight co-hosted by the Gantt Center and a hands-on history day Saturday focusing on the lives of those enslaved. Details at JamesKPolk.net.  More about McGill and his work is at SlaveDwellingProject.org