Joseph McGill wants to tell you a story. It starts with a single brick, and ends with the gorgeous, centuries-old homes lining the streets of downtown Charleston. Who built these homes, where did they live, and most importantly, how did they live? The ornate staircases and perfectly preserved moulding of the big houses won’t tell you. But beyond the big house, in the kitchens and outbuildings and carriage houses, there are answers, and it’s here, McGill says, “the stories continue.”
McGill, a cultural interpreter with interests in architecture, preservation, and African-American history, is the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project and a reeanactor with the 54th Mass. Regiment.
McGill also has a long history of working with the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF), a nonprofit that for seven decades has made it their mission to preserve and protect Lowcountry history. And for those seven decades, HCF has held a spring Festival of Houses and Gardens. HCF manager of research and education Katherine Pemberton says that HCF has “expertise and connections with knowing the homeowners, getting access … but in the past when people came on tours they only wanted to see the fanciest ballroom, fanciest furniture. And that just didn’t include the back.”
Sat. Sept. 16, HCF will, for the first time in the city of Charleston, and possibly for one of the first times in the country, host a tour, starting at the Nathaniel Russell House and ending at the Aiken-Rhett House, of six peninsular private residences exclusivley focused on the slave dwellings that sit behind the iconic big houses. The tour will not only include the back, it will bring the back front and center.
“It’s only in the past 20 years that the English National Trust started putting upstairs and downstairs living spaces as a major part of the tour,” says Pemberton. Think Downton Abbey type living spaces — “it’s become the most interesting part of those tours,” she adds. “You can now go to the Biltmore and see the kitchens … people now want to see everything. They want to see the workspaces. There is a desire and I hope it continues.”
While HCF holds specific African-American history tours during the Festival of Houses, the Beyond the Big House: Tour and Storytelling project is an entirely different endeavor. “This is a tour of private properties associated with slavery,” says HCF manager of events and marketing Fanio King. “One of the things we want to acknowledge is that as preservationists, if the buildings weren’t there it would be so much more difficult to tell these stories. To tell the stories of the people beyond the big houses. The buildings are such a tangible link to the past.”
McGill, who in the past seven years has slept in nearly 100 different slave dwellings in 19 states around the country as part of his Slave Dwelling Project, urges that preserving these buildings is critical because they tell us so much about the lives of slaves. He says that the upcoming tour and storytelling event will “let folks know that these beautiful places would not exist if not for the people who lived in the slave dwellings. Those were the folks who enabled the homes to function as they did. Those were the ones who provided the wealth for those places to be built. And the physical building, they did the heavy lifting, the crafts involved with those buildings, the bricks the buildings are built with, they cut down the trees that framed those buildings.”
Partnering with HCF allows McGill, and the public, access to places before unseen. “For us to have access to buildings, it takes collaboration,” says McGill. “It takes organizations bold enough to go where some are afraid to go. This subject matter, it’s not pleasant, but it’s a subject that needs to be dealt with nonetheless.”
The private residences that will be featured on this tour are a far cry from our Gone with the Wind ideas of plantation slavery. McGill says the tour is “going to highlight that slavery existed on more than plantations. We’re going to be interpreting urban slavery and how that made this function as a city at the time that slavery existed.”
Pemberton says that the tour is going to help people broaden their perspectives of urban slavery. “People don’t realize that slaves were sailors, like Robert Smalls, or that there were free blacks in the slavery system. It’s a complicated mix. There was the hiring out system, and slaves in the city had to wear slave badges.” Pemberton says when they take children on tours of the Aiken-Rhett House, she will ask them what they think the slaves would have been working on in the outbuildings. “They all say ‘planting crops.’ This is the city!” It’s not just kids, either, urges Pemberton. “Adults are conditioned, too, to think that slavery equals crops and plantations. This is interpreting a whole different side of slavery that people aren’t familiar with.”
And formulating this tour has spurred even more research into these downtown dwellings. McGill says the idea for the tour all started on a local history devotee Facebook page “Charleston History Before 1945.” “I was hanging out on Facebook as I usually do,” says McGill, “and English Purcell made an entry about wanting to tour kitchen spaces in Charleston. I immediately picked up on that, and she and I contacted HCF and for the past how many months we’ve been coordinating this thing.”
At the foundation, Pemberton says that research for the tour has led them to focus in historically on these back buildings and who lived there. They’ve looked at slave schedules and census records and family papers. But it’s usually the buildings, and the archeological artifacts found on the grounds, that offer up the most information. “A lot of times it’s frustrating and Joe knows this, it’s hard to know slave names and to know what exactly someone did when they lived there and the details of their life. But I think we can find out more than we used to.”
As people tour these back buildings, some preserved as they appeared in their original state, some transformed over the years into guest houses, rec rooms, and attached single-family kitchens, McGill wants them, and the owners of these homes, to “not run away from this part of the story. Embrace this part of the story without guilt.” McGill is hopeful that we will keep learning more about our past, about the stories that brought us here, thanks to the valiant preservation efforts of organizations like HCF, and the gracious, enthusiastic stewards of these properties who allow the public into their private realm. “When the places aren’t there we conduct business as usual, and only tell the good parts,” says McGill. “But the buildings are there.”
Beyond the Big House: Tour and Storytelling will be held Sept. 16 starting at 2 p.m. at the Nathaniel Russell House. Tickets are $35 for adults, $10 for ages six-12, and free for children under six. Learn more at historiccharleston.org.
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