The slave dwelling project

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

This week, we’re sharing an important column from 2014 about the Slave Dwelling Project, which shares the stories of extant slave cabins and the experiences of those who occupied them.

By Jamil Zainaldin

Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, is on a quest to sleep in former slave dwellings around the country. Credit: Associated Press

Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, is on a quest to sleep in former slave dwellings around the country. (Associated Press)

The 21st-century idea of sleeping in a slave cabin from the antebellum era is at first challenging to the mind and the memory. What’s the point? Who would choose to do this? But this is exactly what Joseph McGill Jr., the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, does.

Most slave cabins are now “gone with the wind,” although a number of them still exist, some modestly preserved and used for new purposes, some in ramshackle condition. “Finding, identifying, and authenticating slave dwellings in the South is an emerging trend in historic preservation,” says Jeanne Cyriaque of the Historic Preservation Division, in the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Historic preservationist and Civil War reenactor Joseph McGill is on a personal quest to sleep for a night in each of these slave dwellings. To date his journey has taken him to more than 60 such structures in southern and northern states (slavery existed in all of the original thirteen colonies and continued in the northern ones even for a time during their early statehood).

This circa 1850 slave dwelling was used by house servants for the E. P. Williams family in the Nacoochee Valley. Today, it is the African American Heritage Site at the Sautee Nacoochee Center in northeast Georgia. Credit: Jeanne Cyriaque

This circa 1850 slave dwelling was used by house servants for the E. P. Williams family in the Nacoochee Valley. Today, it is the African American Heritage Site at the Sautee Nacoochee Center in northeast Georgia. (Jeanne Cyriaque)

In Georgia, McGill has spent the night at a tabby slave cabin on Ossabaw Island, a wooden slave dwelling at the Wormsloe Historic Site near Savannah, and a circa-1850 wooden slave cabin located at the Sautee Nacoochee Center in northeast Georgia (it was moved from its original site in the Sautee Nacoochee Valley in White County).

Normally, McGill combines his investigations into slave dwellings with programs, demonstrations, and conversations in communities where the dwellings exist. His goals are complex. Not forgetting the past, especially a past that haunts the present (as well as our history), is important, he believes.

Acknowledging the existence of slavery in our past is one thing; remembering the enslaved individual is another. The historical record of the lives of slaves is thin, consisting of few records other than perhaps a bill of sale, a mention in an owner’s diary, will, or correspondence, or a detailed description as a “runaway” in the local paper. The personal identity of most slaves is — and remains — ephemeral, their particular trials and triumphs largely absent from the annals of human history.

Joseph McGill’s quest, in a sense, is our nation’s quest, too, in this 150th anniversary of the Civil War — the awful clash of forces on the land we peacefully live upon today. We may study that past, we may even reenact it as McGill also does (as a member of the famous 54th Massachusetts infantry regiment, one of the first official black units, and the unit portrayed in the film Glory).

Tabby slave dwelling on Ossabaw Island. Credit: Lowcountry Africana.com

Tabby slave dwelling on Ossabaw Island (Lowcountry Africana.com)

But to abide in the dwelling place of a slave, to sleep on the ground and breathe the air in space once occupied by the unfree, is more than a symbolic act of re-joining. It is recognition of the primordial humanity that connects us all. Our dreams are the one thing nobody can take away. They occupy an intimate space that we share with the departed.

The sharing of a resting place is so personal yet so universal. There is something powerful in McGill’s unusual form of acknowledgment, so full of respect and remembrance in the living act that unites us all, and on the very ground, in the very abode where they and we are free to dream dreams, the final place where enslavement could not intrude.

Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

1 reply
  1. Carroll Price says:

    Large numbers of tenant houses located on farms in the southeast from 1865-1960 and which were occupied by white and black families alike, were in far poorer conditions than the average slave cabin found on the typical southern plantation, with both volume and quality of food being much better on southern plantations than the typical tenant farm.Report

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