Joe McGill leads the From Slavery to Freedom cabin tour at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and is the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill has spent the night in over 200 slave dwellings in 26 states, and counting. Last week, we had the chance to sit down with McGill to discuss his work.
I was an employee at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, they had an office here in Charleston at 456 King St. Prior to the Slave Dwelling Project starting, I had already gotten permission from Magnolia Plantation to spend the night there. So I spent my very first night at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens on Mother’s Day 2010.
The National Trust is an organization that helps save spaces. But those spaces are usually associated with white men — historical white men. And when we apply what they do to antebellum spaces, those spaces seem to concentrate on those white men, not necessarily the slavery that they may have been involved with. They, and other organizations like the National Trust, tend to be more interested in the architectural significance of the main buildings. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not the whole story. Being involved with such an organization and seeing that preservation was a thing, but seeing what they were concentrating on and what they were not concentrating on, kind of sparked my interest: knowing that buildings I’m interested in now existed. They existed, but they weren’t getting the attention they needed, and they were deteriorating. And some that were being interpreted were not being interpreted in a manner that’s fair to that population of enslaved people from that period.
Of course, having the DNA that I have and being a Civil War reenactor, still am, those things kind of came together and created this crazy idea in my head. Being a Civil War reenactor, I would go to places — Civil War battlefields — and sometimes spend the night. So the idea of spending the night was already there.
Once upon a time, 10 or 20 years ago, you could go to a plantation and the chances of hearing nothing about enslaved people was great. Or if you heard something about enslaved people, it was from the angle of the enslavers, not the enslaved. Well, that’s changing.
There are more organizations like McLeod [Plantation Historic Site], for instance. They do a beautiful job, they tell the story from the bottom up. There are places like Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, and Montpelier, the home of James Madison, doing a beautiful job of telling the whole story of those who were there.
What’s more important now, what has more substance now are the conversations before the sleepovers. You know, we talk about slavery and the legacy that is left on this nation. And what we’re finding out is that there are more people interested in coming and taking part in that more so than the sleepover, because, you know, the sleepover is asking a lot. Everybody can’t physically do that. But everybody can engage in conversation.
It’s part of our mission, of the Slave Dwelling Project, to get more people thinking in that manner. Getting more of these historic sites thinking in that manner, no matter where these sites are located.
Downtown, slave dwellings look a lot like what we see everyday in Charleston. Sometimes it’s not a separate building. Sometimes it’s the attic or the basement of a nice, beautiful home. Sometimes these places are saved by default because people are concentrating on saving that nice building. And in the process, these spaces where enslaved people inhabited the attic or the basement are also saved, again, by default. These houses now, these slave dwellings, are used for so many things: pool houses, rental spaces, garages, storage spaces. There are some of these places whose use has been uninterrupted.
In Charleston itself, I have slept at a property owned by the College of Charleston on Glebe Street. They use it as a guest house now. I slept in 25 Longitude Ln., the Aiken-Rhett House, and Heywood-Washington House.
When people look around downtown, they should think about what allowed that building to become, to exist, to be placed on the landscape. If it’s an antebellum building and it’s made of wood, who cut down the trees that framed that house? If it’s made of bricks, who made those bricks? Whose labor was stolen for all that to exist?
It’s nice to marvel at that nice, beautiful, architecturally significant house across the street. It’s worthy of being marveled at. But there’s a whole lot more to the story than that place that fronts the street. If you look deeper into that lot, then you can find those places that tell the rest of the story.
You see Charleston getting a lot of prizes because they talk about their hospitality and the historical significance of the city. But in describing this historical significance, they still gloss over or don’t mention the enslavement that made a lot of this possible. I think that if we are more honest about that, I think we can still be number one in a lot of these categories, but at least we’ll be more honest about the real history and all the history.