October 7, 2015

Interpreting The Story Of Slavery Through Antebellum Structures

  • By: Joseph McGill, Jr.

Preserving the built environment that tells the antebellum history of African-Americans is not always easy. Many structures were not built to last. But buildings that tell this important story do exist today. They come in many forms and have been repurposed for many things.

Research, archaeology, and genealogy help us fill the gaps when we lack a full set of historic structures to study. These resources help us interpret the history of those who were once enslaved in this nation.

For the past five years, the focus of the Slave Dwelling Project has been to find extant slave dwellings throughout the United States and utilize the attention garnered by spending nights in them to advocate for the preservation, interpretation, and maintenance of these historic structures.

Along the way, I have also received offers to spend nights in places that did not fit the mold of slave dwellings but could be just as powerful in interpreting the history of those who were once enslaved in this nation.

These are a few stories from my recent excursions.

Old Jail in Charleston, South Carolina

photo by: jprime84, Flickr

The Old Jail in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Old Charleston Jail

The desire to spend time in the Old Charleston Jail came as a result of my time as a Civil War reenactor in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first official African-American units in the Union Army. Some of the men from this unit were imprisoned at the Old Charleston Jail after they were captured during the Assault on Fort Wagner, the same battle that was portrayed in the Hollywood movie Glory, starring Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Matthew Broderick.

Reconstructed slave cabin at Montpelier

photo by: Joseph McGill

Montpelier Slave Cabin

I had the pleasure of participating in a field session at Montpelier in which I helped rebuild a historic slave cabin. That recreated structure now sits on the footprint of the original. This could not have been accomplished without the archaeological work done at the site. I returned to the site during the week that descendants of the enslaved were conducting an archaeological dig there.

Archaeology at Hampton Plantation, South Carolina

photo by: Joseph McGill

Hampton Plantation

Hampton Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina, is in the process of conducting an archaeological dig at the site of what is believed to be a former slave cabin. At one stage in the process, I was allowed to join the archaeologists and other staff members in the excavation. Later we pitched tents for a sleepover at the dig site. Hampton Plantation will use the evidence of this dig to further interpret the stories of those who were enslaved there.

The Old Echange Building Provost Dungeon, Charleston, South Carolina

photo by: Travis, Flickr

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

My coworker Edwin Breeden has been conducting research at the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon in Charleston, South Carolina. Owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the building has an interesting African-American history to tell. From the making of bricks to build the structure to being held there as prisoners and being auctioned to the highest bidder, the African-American history associated with this Charleston landmark is abundant, yet, amazingly, not included in its day-to-day interpretation. Thankfully, Edwin’s research into the African-American involvement with the site will change that.

In the five years that I have been conducting this project, it is the history of the enslaved that keeps me focused. Wherever slave dwellings are not extant, the research, genealogy and archaeology can always help me find ways to make the necessary connection to the ancestors.

Learn more about the Slave Dwelling Project.

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Joseph McGill, Jr., Founder, The Slave Dwelling Project

Joseph McGill, Jr. is the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project and a history consultant for Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC.

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