A week ago I slept overnight in the Bellamy Mansion Museum’s slave quarters.
Your reaction might, like others who I told before the overnight stay, range from “What?” to “Why?” to something like, “You don’t hear that everyday.” So, let me provide some context and explain why I decided to sleep overnight in a slave dwelling.
Joseph McGill, an employee of the National Trust, the National Park Service, a consultant to historic sites, and a Civil War reenactor, began a non-profit organization called the Slave Dwelling Project. The project began with the simple act of Mr. McGill sleeping in slave dwellings. He began in South Carolina and has since slept in dwellings all across the South as well as in less-known slave spaces in Northern states including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. The purpose of the overnight stays and the Slave Dwelling Project is to bring awareness to these structures and their need for preservation. Many of these structures are in danger of being demolished or of falling down due to neglect. Slave spaces have historically not been a focus of historic preservationists who have instead worked to save, preserve, and restore architecturally-significant buildings for their aesthetic value rather than historic. Mr. McGill’s efforts have brought attention to these spaces and helped to save several of them.
At many of his stays Mr. McGill has invited others to join him and thus when his visit to the Bellamy Mansion was arranged in concert with UNCW’s Public History Program, students and others were given the opportunity to stay the night as well.
Why did I decide to join the stay? My reasons were both professional and personal. In many ways Mr. McGill’s project and methods are a clear example of public history in action. When sleeping in these spaces and attracting public attention, Mr. McGill is encouraging connections between people and the past. Hopefully, he is inspiring some people to think about the importance of saving structures, objects, and other tangible evidence of the past, even if that past is painful. Hopefully, he is helping people to understand slavery on a more human level, to think about the experiences of those who lived in slave dwellings, and to realize that the stories of some groups of people have been undervalued and underrepresented in the past. These hopes were the basis of my professional interest in the project and the overnight stay. I wanted to know how he carried out the stays and how others reacted to them. I wanted to know if this experiential method was a helpful approach to presenting history to the public. These hopes also were a huge part of my personal interest. It’s hard to separate my professional goals and interests from my personal interest in history and my belief that learning from the past can impact our present and change our future. I wanted to connect with a difficult past, reflect on the lives of enslaved people, and be open to the emotions and ideas that might be sparked by spending the night in a slave dwelling.
My interest in and decision to participate did not, however, remove all doubt, anxiety, or concern for what the experience would be like. I worried about having difficult, uncomfortable, or awkward conversations even as I was prepared for and wanted to have these important discussions. I worried about how others would perceive my interest in participating because of my race. And I worried about other more practical or shallow concerns such as how well I would be able to sleep in a sleeping bag on a hard floor, if I would be warm enough, and if my back would be sore in the morning. Despite these concerns and worries I showed up to the Bellamy Mansion that evening ready to listen to Mr. McGill speak and participate in the overnight stay.
The evening began with Joseph McGill speaking to a public audience at the Bellamy Mansion Museum about his previous stays and the goals of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill spoke about the origins of the project as well as the challenges he has faced in gaining access to some slave dwellings. It was interesting to hear about the slave dwellings that are on private land and the varying attitudes of those private owners toward the project. Some welcome his stays and make efforts to acknowledge the presence of extant slave dwellings while others deny him access.
After the public presentation we ate dinner and moved from the big house to the slave quarters, all gathering in one room of the 2-story building for what I expected to be a deep and interesting discussion led by Mr. McGill. We started informally chatting about a variety of things and McGill did share with us two examples of the responses he gets from the public. One was an angry email asking to be removed from a mailing list and charging the Slave Dwelling Project with “race baiting.” The other reaction was that of a child who participated in the project and wrote Mr. McGill a card admiring his work. These two reactions demonstrate the issue of race in our modern society and how the past is so central to discussions of race today.
Beyond sharing those reactions, Mr. McGill did not structure the discussion that followed as I expected, allowing conversation to flow in any direction. This led to some interesting discussions of other slave quarters he had stayed in and others we students knew about from our work on Still Standing. Also, one of the women staying with us explained why she had wanted to participate in the overnight stay. She discussed her connections to the past and her interests in genealogy. As an African American woman who had found enslaved ancestors and felt so connected to her past through genealogy the overnight stay was another way to connect to her family past. Listening to her speak reminded me of the strong ties some people have to the past and people’s interests in their personal and family history.
While some parts of the discussion were interesting, engaging, or fruitful, others meandered off topic. The overall experience was not what I had expected, with no one asking tough questions and no attempts at helping those staying for the first time to harness the power of the place. The power of place lies in context and in a person’s knowledge of the importance of where he or she is standing. Those moments when I felt connected or awed by the power of place were when I separated myself from the discussion going on and thought about the enslaved people who lived in the building. As we were gathered in one room, I thought about the prior residents’ gatherings in that dwelling, for work, for meals, for worship, rest, or fellowship. I tried to imagine the range of emotions they might have felt toward the big house and its occupants. From the window of the quarters I could see the big house. A usually very beautiful structure, in the dark and from the vantage point of the slave quarters I thought the mansion looked ominous, looming over the space. After our discussion ended and several of us students went upstairs to sleep, I thought about the sleeping arrangements of those who lived here when it was first built. I thought of the cold, of the luxury of my modern sleeping bag made for cold weather, of the electric heat that was temporarily placed in the dwelling. Throughout the night as I tossed and turned on the hard floor and woke up periodically, I looked forward to the morning when I could leave, go home, and take a warm shower. But then I thought of those previous inhabitants and how at the end of a night they could not leave. As I stood up and stretched sore muscles and stiff limbs, I thought of those rising from uncomfortable nights’ rests to perform a variety of manual tasks all day. It was these inner thoughts that were most powerful. I think that the Slave Dwelling Project could more effectively harness the power of place by encouraging these thoughts and reflections in those who choose to participate in the overnight stays. Had I not known a little about the history of slavery and the Bellamy Mansion, the experience might not have been as powerful. Mr. McGill could make his overnight stays more educational and more meaningful if he gently encouraged the free-flowing discussion in certain directions.
However, I understand why he does not. Mr. McGill’s mission with the Slave Dwelling Project is to raise awareness of the need to preserve slave dwellings. He does not extend this mission to include educating the public about the value of slave dwellings and the stories they can tell. But perhaps he should. If the power of place was harnessed to help people better understand slavery and the lives of those who lived in slave quarters, cabins, and numerous other kinds of slave spaces then the need to preserve those spaces would be even clearer.
The day following the night in the quarters, UNCW hosted a panel of speakers including Joseph McGill, Dr. Jan Davidson of the Cape Fear Museum, Dr. Nana Amponsah, African historian in UNCW’s history department, and Dr. Donyell Roseboro from the Watson School of Education. These speakers highlighted some of the important themes surrounding discussions of race, slavery, memory, preservation, and education. Most interesting to me was Dr. Roseboro’s discussion of the need to consider the agency of enslaved people rather than merely assuming they were passive victims. While enslaved African Americans were subjected to many things, they remained human beings and resisted slavery in many ways, namely by surviving it and forming communities, families, and other relationships despite their enslaved status. The panel encouraged further thought and reflection on the Slave Dwelling Project and my overnight stay and was a very valuable experience in its own right.
Overall, my night in the slave quarters was enlightening and meaningful, sparking a great deal of personal and professional reflection on slavery’s history, how we tell that history today, and what bearings that history has on our present. However, I think the experience could have been deeper if the context of slavery at the Bellamy Mansion had been discussed, if I knew more about the lives of those who resided in those quarters, if not only their work and negative living conditions were considered, but also their fellowship, family life and resistance, and if I had been confronted with more challenging questions of race and the influence of the past today. I think if the Slave Dwelling Project shifted its focus from awareness and preservation to education its programs could resonate deeper, if not wider, with those who join Mr. McGill for his overnight stays.
For more information on the Slave Dwelling Project: http://slavedwellingproject.org/ and specifically to see Mr. McGill’s reflections on this overnight stay alongside the reflection of my classmates: http://slavedwellingproject.org/slave-dwellings-as-classrooms/
Some local news coverage of our group’s stay at the Bellamy slave quarters: http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20150201/ARTICLES/150139984?p=1&tc=pg