Local Seen: Overnight Historian
Preservationist and Civil War reenactor Joseph McGill sleeps in former slave dwellings to bring attention to the other side of plantation life
In 2010, historian Joseph McGill founded the Slave Dwelling Project to encourage recognition of early black Americans’ contributions to the young nation. To date, he’s slept in 43 former slave homes across the country (mostly in the Southeast), attracting students, media, and descendents of both slaves and slave owners to sojourn with him. On July 19 and 20, in recognition of the sesquicentennial of the African-American 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s assault on Battery Wagner, he’ll sleep in the Old City Jail, where the soldiers taken captive during the battle were imprisoned.
CM: When did you realize your passion for history?
JM: I visited the home in Amsterdam where Anne Frank hid during World War II. That was the first moment that really
connected me with history.
CM: Anne Frank led you to preserving Colonial-era African-American history?
JM: That experience helped steer me to my current career in historic preservation. We work to save these iconic, celebrated places that were often built by African-Americans, but you rarely hear that part of the story. I noticed that void in our history.
CM: What was the first slave dwelling you slept in?
JM: It was at Boone Hall Plantation in 1999 as part of a documentary for the History Channel. The producer was following me around to find out what made me tick as a Civil War reenactor.
CM: You initially stayed in the slave cabins alone, but now you frequently invite students and other guests to join you. How is the experience different?
JM: There’s value in staying alone, but I believe that the more people I can share this with, the more relevance the project has. I’ve had young students spend the night who have written some powerful essays, expressing their experience a lot better than I can. I blog about every stay, but my network only goes so far.
CM: Have you slept in any slave dwellings in downtown Charleston?
JM: To date, within the city limits of Charleston, I have spent the night at the Aiken-Rhett House, the Heyward-Washington House, and McLeod Plantation. My office today is at the William Aiken House, and there’s a slave dwelling just outside my back window. I’m sure there are 50 to 100 within the city limits of Charleston that today are garages or pool houses or storage spaces. They’re still here—they’re just hidden in plain view. My goal is to turn this project into a nonprofit that can fund the stabilization of slave dwellings in need of repair.
Hometown: Kingstree, S.C.
Occupation: Field officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation
Previous Work: U.S. Air Force; security policeman in England and Germany; park ranger at Fort Sumter; director of history and culture at Penn Center on St. Helena Island
Ancestral Inspiration: “When I stay in a slave dwelling, I wear my Civil War reenactor uniform to remind me of what the African-American Union soldiers were fighting to get rid of.”