The slave dwelling project

By Jamil Zainaldin

The 21st-century idea of sleeping in a slave cabin from the antebellum era is at first challenging to the mind and the memory. What’s the point? Who would choose to do this? But this is exactly what Joseph McGill Jr., the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, does.

Most slave cabins are now “gone with the wind,” although a number of them still exist, some modestly preserved and used for new purposes, some in ramshackle condition. “Finding, identifying, and authenticating slave dwellings in the South is an emerging trend in historic preservation,” says Jeanne Cyriaque, recently retired from the Historic Preservation Division, in the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Historic preservationist and Civil War reenactor Joseph McGill is on a personal quest to sleep for a night in each of these slave dwellings. To date his journey has taken him to more than 60 such structures in southern and northern states (slavery existed in all of the original thirteen colonies and continued in the northern ones even for a time during their early statehood).

In Georgia, McGill has spent the night at a tabby slave cabin on Ossabaw Island, a wooden slave dwelling at the Wormsloe Historic Site near Savannah, and a circa-1850 wooden slave cabin located at the Sautee Nacoochee Center in northeast Georgia (it was moved from its original site in the Sautee Nacoochee Valley in White County).

Normally, McGill combines his investigations into slave dwellings with programs, demonstrations, and conversations in communities where the dwellings exist. His goals are complex. Not forgetting the past, especially a past that haunts the present (as well as our history), is important, he believes.

Acknowledging the existence of slavery in our past is one thing; remembering the enslaved individual is another. The historical record of the lives of slaves is thin, consisting of few records other than perhaps a bill of sale, a mention in an owner’s diary, will, or correspondence, or a detailed description as a “runaway” in the local paper. The personal identity of most slaves is—and remains—ephemeral, their particular trials and triumphs largely absent from the annals of human history.

Joseph McGill’s quest, in a sense, is our nation’s quest, too, in this 150th anniversary of the Civil War—the awful clash of forces on the land we peacefully live upon today. We may study that past, we may even reenact it as McGill also does (as a member of the famous 54th Massachusetts infantry regiment, one of the first official black units, and the unit portrayed in the film Glory).

But to abide in the dwelling place of a slave, to sleep on the ground and breathe the air in space once occupied by the unfree, is more than a symbolic act of re-joining. It is recognition of the primordial humanity that connects us all. Our dreams are the one thing nobody can take away. They occupy an intimate space that we share with the departed.

The sharing of a resting place is so personal yet so universal. There is something powerful in McGill’s unusual form of acknowledgment, so full of respect and remembrance in the living act that unites us all, and on the very ground, in the very abode where they and we are free to dream dreams, the final place where enslavement could not intrude.

This article appeared in an earlier form as part of “Jamil’s Georgia” on the SaportaReport.

Jamil Zainaldin is the president of Georgia Humanities.