Guest authored by Joseph McGill, Jr., program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston and founder of the Slave Dwelling Project.
March 29th through April 2nd found me in the State of Texas to spend nights in former slave dwellings at Egypt Plantation, Egypt, TX and Seward Plantation, Independence, TX and be the keynote speaker at the Texas Historical Commission’s Annual Preservation Conference. Texas would be the farthest west I had traveled to sleep in former slave dwellings. Here the Slave Dwelling Project experienced several firsts; the first time I slept in a former slave dwelling with a female other than my wife or daughter; the first time I slept in a dwelling with a Caucasian; the first time I slept in a dwelling with more than four people. I asked those folks to share their experiences in one hundred words or less. The following is what they submitted:
Ted Ellis: Artist
I was moved at how one person can make a difference. That is what Joseph McGill Jr. is doing with his desire to visit historical landmarks where slaves slept and lived their entire lives, for the most part as chattel. His visitations remind us of how slavery was wrong and how we must all heal from its deep wounds. His visitation and sleepover in a 150 year old slave cabin at Egypt Plantation with several people in the community was impactful. The discussions were meaningful, the 35 plus students who attended learned of slavery facts, saw and read historical documents and touched tools and artifacts that slavery created. Mr. McGill Jr. is a healing force and we will become the better because of him.
Bryan McAuley: Site Manager for the Texas Historical Commission (read Bryan’s full account here)
Approaching the sleepover I carried a mix of thoughts and emotions: excited, nervous, intrigued and, ultimately – inspired. The preservation community shares the responsibility of always expanding our collective dialogue about the past. Joe brings a spark to the communities he visits. Inevitably the staging and the response are unique to each site, but the end result must be the same – deeper appreciation for the depth of our past. Too often we allow issues of race and culture to divide us. Events like this, filled with celebration and reflection, move us closer to being the society we strive to be. Staying at the cabin with Joe served to remind me that preservation is only partly about buildings – it’s mostly about people. Some of them lived long ago and some of them share these stories today.
Geneva Richardson Flora (“Candi”): Videographer / Performer
As I lay curled up in front of the fireplace, the wind was whistling and carrying the sounds of a pack of howling wild dogs in the distance. Wondering of the days that so many slaves were met with resistance and seeing that freedom lay way off in the distance reminds me of a poem:
When Will My Freedom Come?
From slave ship to being ripped
From your mother’s hip;
Sold to the man with the big whip.
Horses are fed and laying on hay beds,
Yet here I lie chained, cold,
And half starved dead,
Praying and looking for the day to come;
Wondering when will my freedom come?
(Naomi had the added responsibility of accompanying me throughout the trip, picking me up at the airport in Houston and delivering me to the hotel in Austin)
Egypt Plantation Slave Cabin Memoir
I lay awake drinking in the sound of the wind
Howling yesterday’s mysteries;
It was a night of a blue norther.
Inside the tiny cabin was a warm intimate destiny with yesterday;
A journey come full circle with our enslaved ancestors;
A link in the chain of memories’ connecting us to both the past and to the future.
How be it that history has so twisted the truth
That we have forgotten ourselves?
But we shall know when the appointed time has come
When we are one with the spirit of yesterday and tomorrow.
The Texas stays certainly did not disappoint. It is always extra special when I find that private owners have spent the time and resources to restore the outbuildings on their properties especially the former slave dwellings. Thank you Bud Northington of Egypt Plantation for letting me stay and inviting the local community and one local school to interact with me. Thank you Hank and Peggy Ward of Seward Plantation for giving me the opportunity to have dinner with a descendant of the owner and a descendant of the enslaved.
For those of you who have been following these blog posts, you know that there is often something that moves even me, as in the time my colleague Terry James decided to sleep in shackles. Knowing its emotional impact, Hank Ward of Seward Plantation decided to show us a slave auction block just as we were about to leave the plantation sending Naomi and me into another emotional outburst. That was a profound reminder of why this project must continue.
Read more about Slave Cabins in Texas in the Introduction and Part 1 stories. This article is cross-posted on About our Freedom, where you can follow Joe’s journey as he visits and sleeps in slave cabins across the southern U.S.