May 18, 2022

How "A Simple Act of Sleeping" Grounds The Slave Dwelling Project

This Preservation Month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is celebrating People Saving Places, a national high-five to everyone doing the great work of preserving historic places—in ways big and small—and inspiring others to do the same. Throughout the month we are featuring various organizations and individuals who have been tirelessly doing the work of preservation, particularly in the last two and a half years. We wanted to provide space, a victory lap so to speak, for them to share their successes, challenges, and hopes for the future.

In this story Joseph McGill, the executive director of the Slave Dwelling Project, describes the ways in which he continued to build connections and do the essential work of telling the full American story even as the world changed around him.

Since May of 2010, the Slave Dwelling Project has been bringing much-needed attention to slave dwellings by performing the simple act of sleeping in them. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, what started as a solo act of me sleeping in these places alone had evolved into people anxiously awaiting their turn to join me in this endeavor.

By 2020, we had amassed more than 150 sleepovers at various sites in 25 states and the District of Columbia. These sleepovers would be preceded by campfire discussions about slavery and the legacy it left on this nation. These conversations would include Confederate monuments, white privilege, white supremacy, historical trauma, weddings on plantations, and other subject matters not usually discussed among people of different races.

However, because of the pandemic, 2020 became a year that many would like to forget. Gathering at sites to sleep with people you do not know is a hard sell even in normal times. The rules of social distancing made this act impossible. Some of the historic sites that shut down because of COVID-19 are still not open to the public, two years later.

A group of people of all ages sitting around  a campfire.

photo by: Slave Dwelling Project

A group gathered around a campfire at Kennedy Farm in Sharpsburg, Maryland, in June 2019.

A Desire to Succeed in Challenging Times

In March 2020, I was disappointed when I had to cancel my sleepover at the Van Cortlandt House Museum in Bronx, New York City, when everything changed overnight due to fears around the emerging virus. That cancellation initiated a domino effect of postponements and delays of sleepovers at historic sites, some of which still have not yet been rescheduled. This cancellation also deprived me of the opportunity to visit New York City for the first time in my life.

Having a temporary hospital set up in Van Cortlandt Park to deal with COVID-19 victims helped me to realize that the threat to human lives was real. It also made me realize this pandemic threatened the continued existence of the Slave Dwelling Project, because we relied heavily on close contact with people.

This harsh reality presented a challenge to the Slave Dwelling Project, but like the enslaved ancestors, the desire to overcome prevailed.

The solution was to go back to the basics—sleeping in historic spaces alone. To make sure I still had access to these sites that were in COVID-19 shut down mode, I had to abandon the fee-for-service concept.

Because the Project was born and raised at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (my current employer) in Charleston, South Carolina, I had access to the restored slave cabins—technology would take care of rest. I scheduled a series of Facebook Live and Zoom sessions from the slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation. Because the Project had established a reputation for honoring the enslaved ancestors and acknowledging the sites that were doing the same, the Aiken Rhett House and Heyward Washington House, both in Charleston, also granted me access to sleep at their sites and conduct live broadcasts.

These live broadcasts were blessings in disguise because it grew the Project’s audience immensely. Facebook Live virtual tours from Magnolia Plantation and Gardens also became more abundant.

However, with the pandemic still raging in 2020 and before the COVID vaccines came into existence, there were some sites still willing to take the risk of conducting onsite events. I and members of the living history troupe got on airplanes to bring modified programs to the Point of Honor Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia, Prince George County, Maryland and Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown, Virginia.

How We Sustained Our Work

The biggest challenge of course was our financials. Like so many, the plans for the 2020 conference were nixed. Our major sponsor, the 1772 Foundation, gave us a reprieve and allowed us to use the funding for the 2021 conference which was all virtual and highly successful.

I was particularly lucky that Magnolia Plantation came through with its usual and substantial monetary donation, and Zoom sessions from my home office (for a fee, and in partnership with a historic site) became routine. These paid Zoom sessions helped to maintain the cash flow necessary to continue to pay the bills. One of our loyal funders contributed an unsolicited $10,000 to help us through the hard times, and our loyal followers continued to contribute funds through our online campaigns and purchasing t-shirts and hoodies.

It wasn’t easy but because supporters and organizations believed in our mission, we were able to find a way to continue.

A man taking a selfie in front of a historic home wearing a gray hoodie.

photo by: Slave Dwelling Project

Joseph McGill at Liberia House in Manassas, Virginia in November 2020.

A Path Forward

2021 showed promise. We scheduled more onsite visits. The COVID-19 vaccine boosted our confidence that the pandemic would be behind us within months, though breakthrough cases and other variants brought us back to reality. Despite it all, we continued to prosper by conducting hybrid programs that included onsite visits and live broadcasts.

Fast forward to 2022 and the future of the Slave Dwelling Project is bright. In March, I finally had that sleepover at the Van Cortlandt House Museum in the Bronx. If anything has come out of this challenging period is that the conversations around the campfire have gotten more robust. They now include the death of George Floyd, cancel culture, and anti-critical race theory.

On Mother's Day of 2010, I woke up alone in a slave cabin at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. This was the first sleepover for the Slave Dwelling Project. On May 7, 2022—just before Mother’s Day again— to commemorate the 12th anniversary of the Slave Dwelling Project and Preservation Month, I returned, along with other invited guests, to Magnolia Plantation where I was joined by world-renowned Chef Benjamin Dennis who honored us with a meal cooked over the open fire.

And as we have done many times before, we gathered together to engage in our campfire conversation followed by our sleepover in the restored slave cabins—once again sharing the histories that are important to share.

Joseph McGill, Jr. is the executive director and founder of the Slave Dwelling Project.

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By: Joseph McGill, Jr.

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