One Man’s Epic Quest to Visit Every Former Slave Dwelling in the United States

Joseph McGill, a descendant of slaves, has devoted his life to ensuring the preservation of these historic sites

It was his weekends as a Civil War re-enactor that urged Joseph McGill to campaign for the conservation of slave cabins. (Alan Hawes)
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Ossabaw, a low-lying island ringed by tidal marsh, has swarms of gnats and mosquitoes, as well as chiggers. But this early summer night turns out to be uncharacteristically free of insects, apart from blinking fireflies. McGill is also reasonably comfortable, having brought a pillow and a cotton pad to put under his bedroll—while noting that slaves would have had only simple bedding stuffed with straw, corn husks or Spanish moss. In the dark, his thoughts are likewise focused on practical matters, rather than mystical communion with the enslaved who once slept here. He speculates, for instance, about the opportunity and challenge for slaves seeking to escape an island like Ossabaw rather than a mainland plantation. “I’ll need to research that,” he says, before drifting off to sleep, leaving me to toss and turn on the hard wood floor to the sound of his snores.

In the morning we awake to birdsong and sun streaming through the cabin’s open window. “It’s almost 7. We slept in,” McGill says, checking his watch. “The slaves who lived here would have been in the fields for more than an hour already.”

McGill often shares his experiences with school groups and other visitors to antebellum sites like Ossabaw. When doing so, he speaks plainly about the cruelties of slavery. But he strives to keep pain and outrage in check. “I’m not trying to provoke people to anger,” he says. His missions are preservation and education, and he needs the cooperation of the owners and stewards of former slave dwellings who might be put off by a more strident approach. He also feels blacks and whites need to talk openly about this history, rather than retreat into age-old division and distrust. “I want people to respect and restore these places, together, and not be afraid to tell their stories.”

This has happened in gratifying ways during a number of his stays. He tells of two sisters who had avoided any contact with the Virginia plantation where their ancestors were enslaved, despite invitations to visit. After overnighting with him at a slave cabin on the site, and realizing there was genuine interest in their family’s history, one of the women became a volunteer guide at the plantation. Local students, black and white, have joined McGill and written essays about how the experience changed their views of race and slavery. “Suddenly, what I read in textbooks became something I was able to see in my mind’s eye,” wrote one teenager in South Carolina.

McGill has also found that older white Southerners who own or operate properties with slave dwellings are much more receptive to his project than they might have been just a decade or two ago. In only a few instances have his requests to stay been rebuffed. More often he’s been enthusiastically welcomed, dined with his hosts and even been given the keys to the big house while the owners go off to work. “Sometimes I sense guilt is part of what’s driving people, but whatever it is, having me visit and acknowledge their preservation of these places makes them feel they’re doing the right thing,” he says. “It’s not a cure-all for what happened in the past, but it’s a start.”

McGill’s trip to Georgia is a case in point. En route to Ossabaw, he gives a talk at a museum in Pin Point, the coastal community where descendants of the island’s slaves now reside. As soon as he finishes, he’s approached by Craig Barrow, a 71-year-old stockbroker whose family has owned a neighboring plantation called Wormsloe for nine generations, and by Sarah Ross, who heads a research institute on the site. They invite McGill to stay the next night at a slave cabin on the 1,238-acre property, which has an avenue of moss-draped oaks more than a mile long and a columned mansion so large that the family removed 18 rooms in the 20th century to make it more livable.

Barrow, who lives there with his wife, says he grew up giving little thought to the surviving slave cabin and cemetery on the property, or to the generations of African-Americans who lived and labored there. But over time, he says, “I’ve come to an appreciation of what those people did. My people sat around having big dinner parties—they weren’t doing the work. The people who lived in those cabins sweated in the fields and built everything—they made it all happen.” Barrow also regrets his youthful opposition to integrating the University of Georgia. “I was wrong, that’s why I’m doing this,” he says of his invitation to McGill and support of the Wormsloe Institute’s research into slave life on the plantation.

The work being done on Ossabaw Island and at Wormsloe reflects a trend across the South. On Edisto Island in South Carolina, the Smithsonian Institution recently dismantled a former slave cabin that will be rebuilt for display at the Museum of African American History and Culture, due to open on the National Mall in 2015. Nancy Bercaw, the project’s curator, says the Edisto cabin is critical because it speaks to the everyday experience of many African-Americans, before and after slavery, rather than being a relic associated with a specific famous individual such as Harriet Tubman. While watching workers carefully dismantle the perilously decayed cabin, made of wood planks and crudely insulated with newspaper, she was also struck by how easily these rare structures can be lost.

This danger has influenced McGill in a different way. He applauds the Smithsonian’s painstaking reconstruction of the simple cabin, but is open-minded about dwellings that have been saved in less pristine ways. He once stayed at a slave dwelling that’s now a “man cave,” with a lounge chair, gas fireplace and refrigerator filled with beer. His quarters at Wormsloe in Georgia are likewise comfortable, as the surviving cabin is now a guest cottage with beds, a bathroom, coffee machine and other amenities.

“This is definitely the luxury end of the slave-dwelling universe,” he says, settling on a couch at the cottage after touring the plantation on a golf cart. “Sometimes these places have to evolve to continue to exist.”


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