October 21, 2016

The Slave Dwelling Project: A New Perspective on the Octagon House

I’ll start with a confession: I’ve been a fan of the Slave Dwelling Project almost since before it existed. Joe McGill started it while we were colleagues at the National Trust, and I had the good fortune to be the person editing the blog posts about his earliest overnight stays. I was intrigued from the get-go; I thought Joe had found the most interesting way possible to bring attention to history that was critically endangered while hiding in plain sight.

I’ve watched and read along with great interest as the project expanded from cabins on South Carolina’s plantations and posts on the National Trust blog to visits in more than 15 states and stories in the New York Times and Smithsonian magazine. The genius of the Slave Dwelling project is how accessible it is; sleep is possibly the most relatable human need, and by laying his head where his enslaved ancestors would have, Joe connects the past and present in a way everyone can understand.

A couple of weeks ago, the Slave Dwelling Project—and Joe—arrived in Washington, D.C. for a night at the Octagon House, and I reached out to see if I could join the group for their sleepover. Joe, ever welcoming, said yes. I had been to the Octagon before, but the only story I remembered was that it was the home where James and Dolley Madison stayed after the British burned the White House during the War of 1812, and the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, was signed there. I knew nothing of the family that owned it, and less than that of the enslaved men and women who lived there.

Teresa Martinez, the manager of the Octagon, joined us for the overnight, and filled us in on the Tayloe family, for whom the house was their city residence—their plantation, Mount Airy, was nearby in Virginia. They split up the year between the two locations, and a small number of their enslaved workers made the journey back and forth with them.

As a city house, the Octagon did not have a separate slave dwelling, which I learned meant the enslaved slept, for the most part, where they worked. So, cooks in the kitchen, ladies’ maids on the floor outside the door of their mistress, etc. Not only were they deprived of their freedom, they weren’t even afforded the dignity of having the modest amount of privacy that living in an outbuilding might have provided.

Most of our group opted to sleep where the cooks would have—in the kitchen, on the brick floor of the basement.

I won’t lie, it was not a great night’s sleep. I am, in general, fairly bad at sleeping in unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or loud places, and the kitchen of the Octagon was all three. I brought ear plugs with me, but once I got settled in, I decided not to use them. It felt like a violation of the spirit of what we were trying to do. An enslaved woman on that floor would not have had ear plugs to shut out the snores of her neighbors—and therefore, neither would I.

When I wasn’t dozing fitfully, I was thinking about what it would have been like for my discomfort, my sleeplessness to have been there every night, not for just one night, and for it to carry with it an endless threat of violence—for a bad night’s sleep leads to a bad day’s work. In my everyday life that means little more than frustration or a few more hours at the office; were I an enslaved person at the Octagon, it could have likely meant, at best, a beating.

One of the things my mom always said to me when I was growing up is, “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Well, I don’t think one night on a hard kitchen floor is a mile, but it is the first few steps… not towards judgement, but towards greater empathy.

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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