HARPERS FERRY – In the nine years since he launched his quest to spend the night in every still-standing slave cabin and every site touched by slavery in the United States, Joseph McGill says he’s seen a growing willingness to accept what he calls “a more complete narrative” of American history.
“Younger people especially – they don’t want the sugar-coated, hoop-skirt, mint julep version of history, they want the real story,” McGill explained Saturday during a talk just outside John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
McGill, a South Carolina resident whose ancestors were enslaved, founded The Slave Dwelling Project in 2010. His Saturday sleepover at the historic Allstadt property in Harpers Ferry gave him his first such stay anywhere in West Virginia.
“West Virginia is now the 24th state where I’ve done a sleepover,” McGill said. Next week, he plans to sleep at a slave dwelling in Louisville, Ky., and add that state to his list.
He’s visited slave dwellings in South Carolina and other states multiple times and has returned to some sites – such as Belle Grove in nearby Frederick County, Va. – again and again. He’s getting close to the 200 mark of total nights spent in buildings that once housed the enslaved.
Some of the dwellings have dirt floors and no electricity or running water, but McGill says he happily settles in for the night whatever the conditions.
“Sleeping is the easy part,” he said. “It’s the conversations we have before we sleep that really matter. That’s where the real content is.”
At every Slave Dwelling stop, McGill and the site’s owners invite interested people to join him in spending the night. He also often holds a lecture so that others in the community can learn more about the location and his project.
Site by site, McGill said, people are increasingly understanding the need to preserve the part of the American story that’s been so long overlooked – the true history of African-Americans’ lives that for generations didn’t make it into the history books or to the lectures given during tours of plantations, McGill said.
“For a long time, if you visited a plantation, you’d hear stories about the enslavers, those folks who took credit for building these big, beautiful homes – but something was missing,” said McGill, a 58-year-old South Carolina native formerly employed with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston, S.C. “You didn’t hear the stories of the enslaved, the people who made the bricks, the people who cut down the trees to frame the home. You didn’t hear about the people whose labor was stolen so that all of this wealth could exist.”
Saturday’s visit took McGill,to Jacob Allstadt’s onetime home and tavern. The property is known as the place where John Cook, a colleague of abolitionist John Brown who would be hanged in Charles Town two weeks after Brown’s execution, took Jacob Allstadt, his son 18-year-old John Thomas “Tom” Allstadt and seven of the family’s enslaved men hostage.
McGill came to this work after many years spending his weekends as a Civil War re-enactor. He portrayed a
member of the 54th Massachusetts, the famed black unit whose story was told in the 1989 film, “Glory,” starring Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick.
The Slave Dwelling Project started off as a quiet effort aimed primarily at sites in South Carolina, but then NPR reported on his work and Tony Horwitz wrote about him for the Smithsonian Magazine. “The genie was out of the bottle,” McGill said Saturday. “It was onward and upward.”
McGill blogs about each of his sleepovers and is looking into compiling the accounts in a book. These days, instead of him approaching the owner of a slave dwelling and persuading the person to grant permission for a sleepover, he now gets requests from historic sites to come visit.
Some of the locations that McGill visits are in the North – but that were nonetheless part of the story of slavery. He’s visited California, for instance, because some of the 49ers who came west to prospect for gold were enslavers who brought enslaved people along.
This fall, McGill will return to the area for another event at Belle Grove in Middletown, Va.
The National Trust Historic Site was built in 1797. Isaac Hite and his wife, Nelly, the sister of President James Madison, were Belle Grove’s initial owners.
Because Belle Grove doesn’t have any separate slave dwellings still standing, McGill spends the night in the lower level of the home where enslaved persons worked and likely often slept, he said.
On Nov. 9, McGill will be part of “Unalienable Rights: Free and Enslaved Blacks Crafting a Life in the Shenandoah Valley,” a special daylong event at Belle Grove.
From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. that Saturday, Belle Grove will be open with no admission charge. McGill and other speakers will share programs on the African-American history of the site.