Dwelling on the Past

Country Roads Magazine - Alexandra Kennon

Addressing the Legacy of Slavery

Joseph McGill, who founded and took on the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010, is not content with slavery being treated as a mere footnote in American history—not when it was the harsh reality for nearly four million individuals prior to the Civil War. “We know well about the nice, beautiful big house,” McGill explained. “What’s missing from that story are the lives of the people who enabled all that.”

As a means of filling in the often-neglected details of what actual life was like for the enslaved, through the Slave Dwelling Project McGill steps through the doors of the historic cabins, outbuildings, attics, and other places where American slaves lived their lives, and he spends the night there. In the process, he’s realized that many of the places that enslaved people once lived are no longer still standing, or have been converted to garages, storage spaces, man caves, and the like. As a result, he’s had to expand his criteria a bit, and has also incorporated preserving these less-than-grand historic structures into the Slave Dwelling Project’s mission. “Eleven years and twenty-five states later and the District of Columbia, I'm still at it,” McGill said, expressing no intent to stop or slow down until his body mandates it. “Because I can't correct in my lifetime what it took over one hundred years to get wrong.”

Natchez's Efforts to Present Its History of Enslavement

I spoke to McGill, along with Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation Carter Burns, ahead of McGill’s visit to the slave quarters at Melrose, which is part of the Natchez Historic Park, on April 17. Natchez is a town known for its “big beautiful houses” and extensive plantation legacy, which drives much of its tourism. Conversations about better representing the Bluff City’s full history—namely, by including accounts of slavery’s role in that legacy—have become increasingly urgent in recent years, particularly in the wake of bestselling travel writer Richard Grant’s book The Deepest South of All and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

When I spoke with Burns and McGill in early March, Natchez was preparing for its annual Spring Pilgrimage beginning the following week—which included installing interpretive panels on enslavement at Longwood and Stanton Hall ahead of the events. Natchez’s antebellum roots being thicker than a live oak’s, organizations like The Historic Natchez Foundation and Visit Natchez have been working diligently to provide the infrastructure and tools necessary for historic property owners to better incorporate the history of slavery into their tours and other offerings.


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