Joseph McGill began sleeping in slave cabins in 2010 while working for the National Trust for Historic Preservation to draw attention to endangered buildings, and his efforts have evolved into a platform for dialogue about the consequences of slavery. McGill has reenacted as a USCT soldier since 1989 and was featured in Tony Horwitz’s 1998 Confederates in the Attic. His Slave Dwelling Project, founded in 2010, now holds an annual conference: see slavedwellingproject.org.
CWT: How did you become a Civil War reenactor?
JM: I am from Kingstree, S.C. My relatives were enslaved there in Williamsburg County. I became a Civil War reenactor because I was once a park ranger at Fort Sumter National Monument. I would sometimes encounter Confederate reenactors who had the courage to ask me to be a reenactor, but they wanted me to reenact an enslaved person who would have served the Confederacy. Then came the movie Glory, and that’s when I started delving into the African Americans who served in the Union. That encouraged me to start a unit of 54th Massachusetts reenactors. The movie Glory was that inspiration for me.
CWT: Why did you start spending the night in slave cabins?
JM: The Slave Dwelling Project started as a very simple idea of spending nights in slave dwellings because of what I did not see. We tend to tell the history of this nation through the buildings we preserve, and the buildings we preserve tend to tell the stories of the people who lived in those beautiful, architecturally significant big houses and mansions. But what it leaves out are the stories of the enslaved, and those buildings still exist. Eight years ago, I intended to sleep in slave dwellings in South Carolina for one year and then be done with it. As soon as I started, it was evident that this was a project a lot bigger than myself. News outlets started to cover it—and the genie was out of the bottle.
CWT: Where was your first sleepover?
JM: Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, where I am currently employed on a part-time basis. At that time I slept alone. It took about four nights of sleeping alone at sites before others started joining me. I remember that first night alone, and getting up a few times to make sure that what I heard was wind. That stands out.
CWT: Describe an overnight.
JM: The sleeping portion is the simple part, anybody can sleep. The most powerful part of the program is the conversation that will happen around the campfire. We discuss slavery and the legacy it has left on this nation.
CWT: Are slave dwellings endangered?
JM: They will always be endangered. We don’t have all the answers; and we don’t have the resources to restore these buildings. But at least people are contacting us about what to do. We can point them in the right direction—where to restore these buildings, or at least how to arrest the deterioration by stabilizing them so they can come up with a plan to save them.
CWT: You have also started an annual conference. What is it?
JM: Our fifth annual conference will be in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The conference brings together different players—owners, historians, genealogists, the general public, etc.—interested in preservation and interpreting the property. We meet for three days of conversation about slavery’s legacy, but more important, about preserving, interpreting, and maintaining these buildings.
CWT: What’s been the reaction to your project overall?
JM: I had to convince the stewards of these properties that I came in peace and meant no harm. I was not ghost hunting, I was not treasure hunting, nor was this a call for reparations. That would steer people away from me. I had to convince them this was all about the preservation of the buildings. I got enough people to agree to take me through the first year. The publicity it garnered got others wanting to be a part of it.
CWT: What do you want venues to know about what you do?
JM: We want to engage the public, and we hope descendants of the enslaved community attend and engage them in that uncomfortable conversation about slavery and the legacy it has left on this nation. These sites allow that to happen because these are conversations that one would not normally engage in during everyday conversation with a circle of friends. We want these folks to be ambassadors not only for the Slave Dwelling Project, but for solving the problems of this nation. We are a great nation, no doubt, but we are a nation that committed some atrocities along the way and we’ve got to deal with that and this project helps folks do that.
People are surprised at some of the places where slavery existed.
CWT: What sites are you still hoping to get to?
JM: People are surprised at some of the places where slavery existed. When I start talking about slavery in the Northern states I get pushback because people think the Northern states had the Underground Railroad and sent the Union army down South to get rid of slavery. I have to take people further back to know that those states engaged in the practice of slavery also. And this year I will be adding Florida—and I haven’t been to Kansas, Kentucky, West Virginia. This year we will be adding Minnesota because of Fort Snelling, where Dred Scott was taken into the free state by the Army officer who owned him. Scott used his residence in that state to petition the Supreme Court for his freedom.
CWT: Have you considered sleepovers in the Caribbean?
JM: I certainly have considered that. I want to complete that triangle of trade that brought the 12 million enslaved Africans to this New World. Only 500,000 were brought to the United States. The majority were taken to South America and Caribbean islands. I want to expand to those places, and I want to go to Africa. I really want to go to Africa some day.
CWT: What are other goals?
JM: Our conference next year will also be commemorating the first documented Africans that came into this nation at Jamestown, Va. My ultimate goal is to make this not only what I love to do but also make it a fulltime profession. We are seeking funding to make that happen.
CWT: What’s the most surprising thing about your experience?
JM: In Brenham, Texas, I stood on an actual auction block, and I thought about enslaved people baring their backs to a potential buyer to look for marks—a sign of an enslaved person who is defiant. You don’t want to buy a defiant enslaved person to insert among your already docile and broken enslaved people and give them ideas of freedom. That’s probably the most profound moment. ✯
Interview conducted by Senior Editor Sarah Richardson