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Archive for April 2012


Back of the Big House - Slave Dwelling Project a Stop on Holly Springs, MS Pilgrimage Tour Tour


Behind the Big House Tour Sign


Slave Dwelling/Kitchen at Burton Place, Holley Springs, MS


Delipadated Slave Dwelling, Holly Springs, MS


Jenifer Eggleston and Chelius Carter


Joseph McGill and Chelius Carter


Mississippi Industrial College


Mississippi Industrial College


Pilgrimage King & Queen


Rowan Oak


Slave Dwelling @ Rowan Oak (William Faulkner Historical Site)
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I met Jenifer Eggleston ten years ago when I started working for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. While she worked in the Washington, DC office, she came to Charleston, SC to fulfill a requirement of her duties. Right after Hurricane Katrina Jenifer was no longer employed with the National Trust but we both worked on matters of preservation in New Orleans. Last year, Jenifer contacted me with an idea that she had about me participating in the 74th Annual Holly Springs Pilgrimage Tour of Historic Homes which is an annual tour of the mansions in the town. Jenifer’s grand idea was to combine the pilgrimage with the Slave Dwelling Project and seek a funder that could help make it happen. Similar to the trip that I took to Missouri, the tentative date that we set for the trip to Mississippi was pending approval of the grant request. Like Missouri the proposal was approved through the state’s Humanities Council.

From the time that I tentatively put this event on my calendar, I was skeptical because the Mississippi history etched in my mind was not pleasant. Medger Evers, Emmitt Till, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner were all killed in the state of Mississippi in pursuit of their happiness. The movie Mississippi Burning as well as two books that I read recently Rising Tide by John M. Barry and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson did not paint a good picture of the treatment of African Americans in the state of Mississippi. I knew that in order for me to carry on with this assignment I had to get past those atrocities by thinking of them as history, Hollywood and books based on past accounts.

Mississippi Industrial College

On Thursday, April 12, 2012, my first scheduled task was to conduct a lecture on the Slave Dwelling Project at Rust, a Historically Black College located in Holly Springs. This would not be a problem because I had spoken on this subject at many colleges and universities before. The group was small but they got the same lecture that a larger group would have gotten. Something on that campus really bothered me. The buildings that were once Mississippi Industrial College from 1905 – 1982 which gave rise to Rust College are all being neglected. It bothered me so much that I insisted on going back the next day to take photographs.

That evening included an open reception at Montrose, the home of the Holly Spring Garden Club. A diverse crowd of influential people of Holly Springs were there and were treated to a presentation from me about the Slave Dwelling Project. They were treated to a bonus when Rhonda K. Peairs, Documentary Projects Coordinator of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation of the University of Mississippi in Oxford spoke to them.

Hugh Craft House Slave Quarters and Kitchen


Jenifer Eggleston and Chelius Carter


Joseph McGill and Chelius Carter
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My first stay was at the Hugh Craft House Slave Quarters and Kitchen which is owned by Jenifer Eggleston and her husband Chelius Carter. I would be alone in the quarters that night which had not occurred since my stay at Cliveden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Additionally, I slept in a bed which had not been done since my stay at Pleasant Hill Plantation in Missouri. The quarters was well researched which provided lots of information that could be used for its interpretation the next day. On three levels it included a basement which included a room for smoking meat; the first level included the kitchen and two separate living spaces; the third level was living space. Research revealed that Hugh Craft owned 9 slaves who serviced the current house that was built on the property in 1851.

Behind the Big House Tour

The next day the people participating in the pilgrimage started to show up for their tour of the dwelling. This was interesting because some people showed up thinking that they were going into the main house which was not the case. Early in the process, a few people - and I stress a few - excused themselves once they found out the subject matter was about slaves who occupied the dwellings behind the big house. Maybe the title “Behind the Big Tour” was a little misleading. Despite that most of the people showed up because of what the title implied and listened intently throughout the presentation and asked meaningful questions afterwards and expressed their appreciation that Holly Springs had taken such a bold step. I as well as my hosts was most impressed by all the African Americans that showed up for the tour. They especially expressed their appreciation for adding this element to the pilgrimage. The only one spirited debate came when one Caucasian female couldn’t accept that chattel slavery was a bad thing.

Rowan Oaks


Rowan Oak


Slave Dwelling @ Rowan Oak (William Faulkner Historical Site)
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Dinner that night included a bonus. Nearby Oxford, Mississippi was our destination. While there I visited Rowan Oak, also known as William Faulkner House. It is a primitive Greek Revival house built in the 1840s by Robert Sheegog. Faulkner purchased the house when it was in disrepair in the 1930s and did many of the renovations himself and lived there until 1962. The bonus was the fact that there is an intact slave dwelling on the property, moreover I got an invitation to spend a night there which will certainly happen in the future. No disrespect to Mr. Faulkner, but unfortunately, while conducting my perfunctory research on Rowan Oak, I have not yet come across any information that mentions the intact slave dwelling, which further justifies this project.

Burton Place

My second night stay would be at the slave dwelling located at Burton Place. The brick dwelling was behind the big house and to the right. It included a kitchen and two separate living spaces all on one level. For the second consecutive night, I slept in the dwelling alone and in a nice comfortable bed in the kitchen. I found the space to be over adorned knowing that anything that was not necessary for cooking would not be located in that space. Unlike the previous day, I was not provided with a lot of researched information on the past inhabitants of that space.

Burton Place, Holly Springs, MS

This worked in my favor because I could draw on all the knowledge that I gained by sleeping in 33 other slave dwellings prior to this one. There was one interpretive sign inside the dwelling that was quite telling, from the 1850 census, it listed eight slaves by gender and age only. I found it interesting that in 1850 they would only have a first name but even that was not put on a census form. That could be very frustrating for someone doing genealogical research.

The 1860 census revealed that the owner, Mary Malvina Shields obtained seventy-two additional slaves for a total of eighty. This increase in the number of slaves was an indication that she was a planter and was taking advantage of the cotton growing opportunities that existed. Throughout the day, a steady flow of people came through the dwelling to hear the interpretive presentation that I gave. Unlike the previous day, the participants had access to the mansion which worked out well because they all got a complete story. As time was winding down, I was feeling a bit dejected because no African Americans had come to the slave dwelling or the big house for that matter. Then it happened. One group of about twenty African Americans came to hear the presentation. The group listened intently and asked lots of questions after the presentation. The group leaders were local but the bulk of the group was from Ohio. The leaders stated that up until this point they never felt welcome at the pilgrimage and were thrilled that this year the Behind the Big House Tour was offered.

Prior to leaving Holly Spring, my host took me on a windshield tour of the other extant former slave dwellings. We looked for the telltale signs for slave dwellings, location, chimneys, windows, etc. For a relatively small town, I was surprised by the number that still exists. Some of the buildings have evolved into storage spaces, garages, pool houses or guest houses and some are just deteriorating.

Reflections on Holley Springs


Behind the Big House Tour Sign


Pilgrimage King & Queen
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The success of participating in the Holly Springs Pilgrimage made me think about other established house tours and pilgrimages. Years ago I would volunteer for the Preservation Society of Charleston, SC tour of homes. As I recall, all of the focus was on the mansions and not the outbuildings. For Holly Springs this was their 74th Annual Holly Springs Pilgrimage Tour of Historic Homes, I know that there are several other well established tour of historic homes in urban areas. Several of those homes in the north and south were built while slavery existed in those areas, therefore they may have outbuildings where slaves once lived. Additionally, one should not dismiss the possibility that they may have lived in the attics or basements of mansions. I now wonder how many other established house tours are willing to take the bold step that Holly Springs did and tell the stories of the slaves that lived in the outbuildings associated with the big house.

Since starting the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010, I have had several revelations. In seeking extant former slave dwellings sometimes they are hidden in plain view especially when we factor in urban slavery. Some property owners may own some of these structures and not know their history. Some may know the history but for various reasons choose not to make it known to others. I am often asked how many extant slave dwellings still exist. I respond that factoring in urban slavery makes placing a number on those dwellings difficult. It could be less of a challenge to answer that question if we had more places like Holly Springs, Mississippi that are willing to tell the whole story of their built environment.

Jenifer Eggleston's Reflections

When I first moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi in the fall of 2008, my husband who maintains a private practice in historic restoration gave me the cook’s tour of the town with its impressive collection of historic structures from several time periods. While Holly Springs has an inarguably inspiring architectural inventory, what spoke to me was the considerable number of buildings directly related to slavery. Many towns had lost much if not all of their slave-related structures but Holly Springs had maintained many of these rare surviving buildings.

That so many of Holly Springs’ vital, tangible links to the legacy of slavery had survived is primarily owed to their remaining in continuous use. Their original form had often obscured making it difficult to recognize them for their historic intent and value. In many cases, the original purpose of these culturally significant buildings was either forgotten, due to the passing of living memory or by design or a combination of both. Either way, it was clear that a significant part of the historic narrative was missing. While a number of the silent witnesses – the structures directly related to the slaves’ accommodations were extant--the stories of the people who lived and used these buildings was largely being forgotten. The personal histories of the “Big Houses” had been preserved but what of those personal lives “Behind the Big House?”

Doing what one does in down moments I was searching Facebook one night and stumbled across a former colleague and friend, Joseph McGill’s page. That’s when I learned of his inspiring work with the Slave Dwelling Project and thus began a conversation about how Holly Springs could highlight and interpret these rare surviving buildings by bringing Joseph to our community during our annual Pilgrimage Tour of Historic Homes. Thanks to his support of the idea and some last minute grant writing for a Mississippi Humanities Council grant this idea came alive last week from April 12th through 15th.

Joseph McGill for his part, spent an evening in two of the more intact slaves’ quarters and remained on site the following days to give visitors a first-hand interpretation of what life might have been like “Behind the Big House”. Most of our visitors were on the Pilgrimage tour and this was for many an unexpected view into another side of history, a much-needed addition of a missing historic narrative. Also, many came out just for the “Behind the Big House” tour, which was extremely encouraging for the continuation and development of this program.

Our local historic preservation nonprofit, Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc. hopes to continue this initiative with a goal of not only researching but also documenting and advocating for the preservation of these irreplaceable historic resources. We will be sure to share our future work on this project with Joseph and look forward to hosting Joseph and the Slave Dwelling Project in the future.

Finding it difficult to end this posting I thought it would be best to share what two attendees at our Welcome Reception felt as reported by our local newspaper, The South Reporter. Local community supporter and tourism board chairman, Ralph Howard, “the dialogue is long overdue . . .and will help with the economy and tourism in the city” and artist, Randy Hayes ,“I just told him that I thought what he is doing is art . . . I thought the gathering more truly represented Holly Springs than any social event I can remember.”


Healing Through Heritage

By Robin Foster

Robin Foster Searches City Directories

I just made it home from my first research trip as Co-Director of Lowcountry Africana.

I almost willingly succumbed to sleep, but after retiring, my mind kept wandering through the experiences over this past week. I left home with the purpose of serving and being of some use in the challenge of helping African Americans document ancestors.

Little did I know that I would run into documentation of my own family and meet people who actually knew and respected them. I discovered my great aunt, Virginia Vance Lemon and her husband, Rev. Isaiah Rip Lemon among the names in the 1940 Charleston City Directory while hunting. It always seems like a gift is always waiting to be discovered while helping someone else. I would have been satisfied on the first day of research, but other gifts awaited me.

I have always seen the great power of community in helping African Americans resolve problems and find healing. I am truly grateful for all that Drayton Hall does to include and connect to the descendants of former slaves. I am forever changed by the oral history and stories I heard this week. I realized that the stories do not have to be my own to feel fulfillment and healing.

This is so exciting to me because it means that those who have not been able to rediscover the stories of their ancestors for various reasons, may study the life of a person who perhaps lived in the same time period or location of an ancestor. I have resorted to researching contemporaries on many occasions, and I have found that experience very rewarding. I have also found clues which later led to documentation on my own ancestors.

My experiences this week revealed and instantaneously healed places within me that I did not know warranted intervention. I keep thinking about how much more free I will feel now. I am trying to ascertain how this will affect my decisions and interactions with others in the future. It will take much reflection yet to understand the crevices of my soul which are no longer marred by the heritage of slavery, but I wonder if any of that reflection is even necessary. I do know that I relish in the joy and the teardrops that fall like the first mist of refreshing rain. As my feelings swell within me, I realize that out of all the things that occurred this week, the over-arching theme was “Healing through heritage.”

It is so powerful to walk a plantation and to witness true friendship between the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners.

It is truly powerful to see them hug and hold hands.

It is truly powerful to walk among the graves of a sacred African American cemetery preserved in dignity.

It is truly powerful to see three generations of descendants of former slaves remaining true to their legacy and making a difference today in the community.

Fourth from Left: Rebecca Campbell and family clean the Johnson family plot at Lewis Christian Society Burial Ground, Charleston, SC; Sponsored by Preservation Society of Charleston

This thing we call “Heritage” encompasses our entire community. It did so long ago, and it must do so today to live on.


Slave Dwelling Project Visits Seibels House and Lexington Museum


Joseph McGill at Seibels House, Columbia, SC


Seibels House, Columbia, SC


Historical Marker, Seibels House


Seibels House, Columbia, SC


Terry James, Ruth Rambo and John Sherrer at Seibels House
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There have been times in this journey when it was wise to schedule slave dwelling stays back to back. My trips to Alabama, Missouri, and Texas are perfect examples of that. There has been one trip in South Carolina where that also applied; that was my stays at Laurelwood Plantation in Eastover, SC and the slave dwelling in Cheraw, SC. The stays at Siebels House Kitchen Dependency on Thursday, April 5 and the Lexington County Museum on Friday, April 6 would follow that same formula.

Outreach Discussions Renewed

Before I could participate in the events planned for the Seibels House Kitchen Dependency on the evening of Thursday, April 5, 2012, I had to take an interesting detour to Florence, SC earlier that morning. Because of the recommendation of a highly respected historian and friend, the TV show History Detectives contacted me about filming a scene for them describing the life of a female slave. My immediate response was yes but then they told me the location. It turned out to be the Hewn–Timber Cabins at Francis Marion University one of the two places that have denied me the opportunity for an overnight stay in its slave dwelling. After making this clear to the History Detective representative, we both concluded that I was still their man.

Upon arrival at the site in Florence, I discovered that the film crew was going to be late. The tardiness of the film crew provided a great opportunity for the property manager/interpreter to justifiably challenge my intent. After convincing him that I came in peace and meant him no harm, we got along admirably from that point forward. The filming of the scene went extremely well but I’ve been on sets enough to know that two hours of filming could mean zero to five or so minutes in the finished product. The piece is scheduled to air sometime this summer. The chance for a future overnight stay at this site looks promising.

A Sad Commentary

Operating on assumptions and not letting my host know exactly what time I would arrive, it was 4:00 pm when I reached the Seibels House Kitchen Dependency. The property appeared to be locked so from a distance I took pictures of the mansion and the kitchen dependency where I was to spend the night. I then went seeking a place to do some shopping for some snacks for the night stay.

While shopping, I got a call from Ruth Rambo who was scheduled to share the slave dwelling experience with me. Ruth told me that she was in the garden area of the house which came as surprise to me because I did not know that one could have unescorted access to the grounds of the mansion. I relayed to Ruth that once I finished my shopping, I would be there to meet her.

When I met her at the site, I told her about my hesitancy about entering the garden. When I stayed at Cliveden in Philadelphia an alarm sounded on the morning when I got up and made an attempt to go the bathroom. Through a phone conversation, the director of Civeden gave me a code to put into the system which did not work. He stated not to worry because he would call the alarm company to alert them to what was happening. My immediate thoughts went to the Rodney King incident so I stated to him that I would just sit there until he or another staff member got there to take charge of the situation. It was that thought and the current Trayvon Martin incident that convinced me to take all of my photographs of the site from a safe distance. A sad commentary, but true in my mind.

Seibels House

According to a promotional brochure, “Purportedly the oldest remaining building in Columbia, a portion of the Seibels House is believed to date to 1796. To the north of the building , attached by a covered breezeway, stands a circa-1830 kitchen house, believed to be the last building of its kind left in Columbia and one of only a very few structures in which enslaved African Americans lived and worked, separate from their owner’s residence. Various owners adapted the house to meet their needs, especially the Seibels family, who acquired the property in 1858. The building’s Colonial Revival style dates to a 1920s renovation designed by architect J Carroll Johnson. Historic Columbia Foundation received the property as a gift in 1988 and uses the building for its administrative headquarters and as rental property.”

The Lecture

Prior to the stay, a Slave Dwelling Project Lecture was scheduled. Two organizations that represented the media were there, which was a great testament because I know at some point in the future of this project, it will not excite the media as it is currently doing, but that will not make this project any less important. At the end of the lecture, I yielded two minutes to Ruth Rambo who would reveal her reason for spending the night. It was then that Ruth revealed that she was a descendant of a slave and slave owner which was news to me and did not go unnoticed because of the work that I am currently doing with the group Coming to the Table.

I also yielded 5 minutes to Robin Foster who is a genealogist and one of the publishers of my blog. I met Robin two years ago when the two of us sat on a panel together at Penn Center on St. Helena Island. The Slave Dwelling Project focuses on the places but it is Robin and others like her who constantly reminds me that it is the formerly enslaved people who are important. The turnout was great and diverse and lots of questions were asked during the question and answer period. I was most impressed that a child got the first and last question for the night.

After the lecture, I got to mingle with some of the audience while some of the others went for a tour of the kitchen dependency. When I finally, made my way to the kitchen dependency and the media left, one of the staff members alerted me that I had promised one of the audience members that she could spend the night with us, an error that had to be immediately corrected.

The Stay

In addition to me spending the night, Old Reliable, Terry James, Ruth Rambo and John Scherer, staff member of Historic Columbia Foundation would also share the experience. It was on a trip last year that John and I took to Richmond, VA to participate in the annual conference of the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) that we devised the plan for what was happening that night. I recall meeting Ruth Rambo at a group meeting that I organized to see the movie Tuskegee Airmen. Ruth reminded me that I met her earlier at an event when I was representing my Civil War reenacting group, Company I, 54th Reenactment Regiment, but how can one forget a name like Ruth Rambo. The opportunity to share the slave dwelling experience is an open invitation pending the permission of the property owner. Ruth did all that was necessary to ensure that her spot was secured.

The conversation among the four of us was very rich. Before we fell asleep and after we woke up, we covered everything from the burning of Columbia during the Civil War; the great migration; the detail of the kitchen dependency; brick making, who snored the loudest; segregation, and lynchings . Ruth, Terry and John left while I utilized a computer in the office to do some quality writing for the project.

The Lexington Museum


Joseph McGill Inside the Slave Dwelling at Lexington Museum


Lexington Museum, Lexington, SC


Slave Dwelling at Lexington Museum
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The Lexington Museum came at this thing from a completely different angle. Most of the buildings including the two slave cabins were moved to the site from other locations. That would make this stay similar to the ones at Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, AL; Roper Mountain in Greenville, SC; and the Price House in Woodruff, SC. Unlike the previous night at the Seibels House Kitchen Dependency, this stay garnered very little fanfare, similar to previous stays at privately owned properties. When I toured the grounds with the site director and saw the slave cabins, I verified that I had been there previously performing living history in the capacity of a Civil War reenactor. The cabin was once used as an office so it had electricity but no lights, central heating and air and replicas of artifacts throughout.

"Deformed and Almost Worthless"

One impressive part of the building was one interpretive sign that listed the first names of the slaves who were once the property of the owner. The most haunting was one interpretive sign that listed the name of one female slave and categorized her as deformed and almost worthless.

I had a conversation with the gentleman that restored the cabin that I was going to sleep in that night. He expressed his fear of ghosts but that did not deter me. I was delivered a bonus when the site director introduced me to a museum neighbor who told me about a plantation that he owns in Fairfield County, SC that has a restored slave cabin. Long story short, Lemmon Hill Plantation in Winnsboro, SC will be on the 2013 calendar of the Slave Dwelling Project. A local newspaper reporter showed up for an interview and was not impressed by my Yankee hat that went with my Yankee uniform. William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops made an impact in this area during the Civil War.

During dinner at a local Bojangles’ that was located in walking distance from the museum, Old Reliable Terry James called to let me know that he would be there later that night. As darkness descended and a full moon revealed itself, I had quality time inside the cabin alone with my thoughts to do some quality writing about the project. I now realize that based on some of the inquiries that I have gotten thus far there is great potential for the expansion of the Slave Dwelling project in 2013. Ten thirty came and Terry James had not yet shown. Thoughts of the early days of the project and how I would sleep in the dwellings alone danced through my mind. I thought of that reporter who did not like my Yankee hat and the gentleman who restored the cabin when thirty minutes after I laid down, Terry rang my phone stating he was outside. After getting Terry settled into the cabin, there would be very little conversation, his history lesson would have to wait until the next morning.

The next morning Terry took full advantage of his skill as a professional photographer. According to its brochure, “The Lexington County Museum, founded in 1970, offers a rare and unforgettable experience – the chance to see and touch a way of life gone forever. Structure and furnishings focus on the early history of Lexington County and interpret the everyday lives of its residents from ca. 1770 until the momentous changes wrought by the Civil War. The Museum complex, located right off Highway 378, encompasses seven acres of property and features 36 historic buildings.” Terry was like a kid in a candy store taking intricate shots of each building. We both wagered that each of those buildings that were built prior to the Civil War was built using some type of slave labor. And then we parted, I headed home to my family, with Terry still taking pictures of buildings.

Commentary: Ruth Rambo


Seibels House Kitchen Dependency


List of Enslaved Ancestors, Seibels House
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--- April 5, 2012, Seibels House (Kitchen), 1601 Richland Street, Columbia, S C

It’s 11:30 AM the next morning: grey, dank, and dreary. Yet my insides defy the environment; they refuse to reflect the mood of the weather, my insides are flying high. Even my body is behaving jubilantly. These old bones are not predicting rain although a thin layer of heavenly spit sits on my hair. My back shows no evidence of its night long encounter with a bare wooden floor as I had anticipated. The hard pine Cracker Barrel chair feels remarkably comfortable. I surely would have predicted otherwise. No chair no matter the level of padding would have been comfortable for the next few days or so I had forecasted. As instructed by Zora Neale Hurston’s Mom, I have ‘jumped at the sun.’ Didn’t ‘get there but at least I got off the ground.’

I am driving home to Charleston after a sleep-in at the partially restored brick kitchen on the Seibels House, an urban plantation in Columbia S C. It is just one stop on Joe McGill’s National Trust for Historic Preservation Slave Dwelling Project. He is the project creator/coordinator and has slept in slave dwellings around the country on plantations from Texas to Connecticut. Terry James, photographer and civil war reenactor has accompanied Joe, also a reenactor as well as a Field Officer for the Trust, frequently on this mission to highlight the need for preservation of all the antebellum South relics. The party of four of slave dwellers also included John Scherrer, Director of Cultural Resources, Historic Columbia Foundation and me, an African American history dilettante with a lifetime interest in the American system of slavery.

Joe and Terry were already friends and enjoyed a close camaraderie. Both John and I had met Joe but didn’t have any common experience with him and didn’t know Terry at all. Thrown together in a very small space shifting positions or turning over had to be carefully choreographed. John observed that during Middle Passage the spaces were much tighter so movement was virtually impossible. My thoughts traveled from the slaves’ movement restrictions of a narrow space coupled with the inability to restrict normal bodily functions with resulting products. We had access to modern facilities for which I was most grateful. Terry had shackled his hands so when he turned over we heard the clanging of those chains in the night. It was a frightening and sobering reminder of physical and psychological elements of antebellum controls. On the lighter side when we awoke, John our host asked if we wanted coffee. The idea was heartily welcomed. So he left the historic kitchen and returned from the ‘Big House’ carrying a tray of juice, coffee and banana bread. We laughed at the role reversal. A possible descendant of slave owners serving the descendants of slaves.

Joe extends an open invitation to people interested in the topic of slavery to join him by sharing the lodging of a slave cabin overnight. The restoration of the fine plantation homes is a no brainer. Everyone both black and white; from the north and south wants to vicariously experience - if just for fifteen minutes- the life style and luxuries of a southern planter. Yet no one wants to explicitly experience the life style of an enslaved African. Well! Almost nobody.

Last night Joe had three takers: Terry James, John Scherrer, and me, the paternal great granddaughter of Lydia Rambo. Lydia was a slave born c. 1820 who married and was freed by her owner Lt. Gayle Rambo and has frequently informed and guided my life. She has been my personal symbol of strength and endurance. Throughout my life whenever I was feeling mentally defeated or physically ill, I’d conjure up a scenario where my great grandmother Lydia was similarly compelled to push herself to meet exceedingly high expectations…physical goals clearly more difficult to meet than the ones confronting me during my 20th-21st Century life. Just thinking of this slave woman’s survival achievement, has often given me the resolve to push through extreme fear and pain and ‘just do it’. The will to survive is strong. Although I never met her, my G grandmother taught me that.

Of course one cold night, no matter how uncomfortable, in a brick plantation kitchen/slave dwelling does not a slave experience replicate. What it did do is give me time and place and circumstance to think about the real life of a slave. It stimulated me to devote serious thought to America’s gritty public secret – an inhuman, inhumane system of trading in human flesh- slavery.


by Ruth Rambo

And then those men with manes covering their chins

Those men without blood

in too many cloths

Those men making ugly sounds

dancing only with their hands and arms


bringing shining plates where our faces appeared

Bringing bowls of beads that catch the light

and then throw it away

Those silly men traded all those new things for cousin

Those silly men without blood.

Cousin wasn’t Mandinga anyway.

--- Ruth Rambo

The questions flow…the questions with immediate and obvious answers and the numberless questions without probable answers.

The first is the most apparent to me: What would America be like today culturally, politically and economically had there been no talented, creative, abundant African slave labor? What unrecognized role did slavery play in the supremacy of America on the world stage? Who first envisioned slavery as the cost effective method of developing America’s north and south east corridor? Of working the land, of building the dwellings, of expanding the music, of raising the children?

Who were these slaves rendered 3/5th a person? Who were these slaves, the only major group of North American émigrés who did not willingly and purposefully seek the opportunities available on these shores? Yes! The Africans too were huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They were also the wretched refuse of a teeming shore. The Africans were homeless and tempest-tost. Yet here was no welcome for them….no lifted lamp….no open nor golden door.

Who were these enslaved Africans who endured a brutal lifestyle of work from ‘kin to kant’ (can see in the morning to can’t see at night) without becoming chronically depressed? How did any one of them escape becoming suicidal? Who were these slaves enduring lifetimes of hardship and deprivation yet had families, created communities, learned to talk through many languages, danced, laughed and sang. Who were these Africans who taught their children the many skills they had mastered - the most vital of all - how to survive and then manipulate the system without being beaten to death? Who were these slaves?

Who would I be, had I been a slave? Would I have been cheerful and chatty? What skills would I have developed? Would I have run away? Would I have tried to harm my owners? Who would I have been? And who am I now because my G G M, Lydia was chattel.

And why, over 300 years later, does America continue to deny their contribution and the contributions of their descendants?

Some of these questions might be answerable: others require a Sphinx. What is crystal clear is that this remarkable slave dwelling experience was intellectually provocative and stimulating. You should think about becoming a slave dweller.

Contact Joe McGill. You’ll become the better for it. I believe I did.

--- Ruth ‘Retired’ Rambo

Had I Known

by Ruth Rambo

You left after breakfast at day break

like always

Your skin a smooth butterscotch satin

like always

Your elaborate woven corn rows neatly arranged

like always

You carried the water jug your mother made

Like always

I only glanced at your back for one moment as you departed.

The rhythmic swaying of your bottom enticing

like always

Had I known you would not return

like always

Had I known your body would never again fit into the spoon of mine

Like always. Had I known.

Had I known I would spend my remaining years

Looking, yearning, hoping, begging, dreaming, praying, working, searching

Had I like always would become

never again

Had I known.

If only I had known.

--- Ruth Rambo

Commentary: John Sherrer, Historic Columbia Association

On Thursday, April 5, 2012, history was made within the confines of a circa-1830 brick kitchen house, adjacent to one of Columbia, South Carolina’s most celebrated sites –the circa-1796 Seibels House, a landmark structure most often associated with distinguished architecture and verdant gardens. A cast of four, led by Joseph McGill, a field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a Civil War 54th Regiment re-enactor, crafted an unprecedented Historic Columbia Foundation experienced by virtue of their respect for the power of preservation. As part of Mr. McGill’s on-going effort to heighten public appreciation of and preservation advocacy for sites associated with slavery, this experience was the 31st in his thus-far two-year endeavor. But, for all four of us it was our first shared encounter and one that profoundly affected me as a steward of this extraordinary structure.

Above: Terry James, Ruth Rambo and John Sherrer at Seibels House

Upon first inspection we all looked different – three men, one woman; three South Carolinians, one Ohioan; three black and one white. We shared space recently afforded by the installation of a partial floor within the building’s north chamber, a room determined by archaeology and corroborated through oral history, to have served as a laundry for the main house. Just to our south lay the uncovered floor of the south chamber, a room that during slavery and for generations after was busied by the efforts of cooks preparing meals of great variety. Overhead, bear rafters loomed where formerly a plastered and whitewashed ceiling shielded occupants of both rooms.

Following an evening program in which Mr. McGill shared his first thirty experiences with conducting sleepovers in spaces that once echoed with the sounds of enslaved laborers, we four gathered our modest supplies for the evening. A couple of camp stools and sleeping bags – the items of a veteran to such evenings. A rolled towel for a pillow and a thin and short blanket for myself, gathered hurriedly earlier in the morning but not without some thought – what should I bring that would grant me some measure of comfort meanwhile not stripping me of the essential elements of an evening spent in an unlit, unheated and unfurnished building? Just how comfortable should I make myself?

Thanks to the generosity of Terry James, a co-re-enactor and friend of Mr. McGill’s, I received the benefit of a padded moving blanket that would remove me slightly from the hard pine floor that met us all. True to previous outings, James produced a pair of manacles in which he slept the entire evening, as a physical reminder of the conditions experienced by slaves during the Middle Passage and here in America during sale on the auction block and when punished for various crimes or indiscretions. With each shift during the evening the individual links sang out a metallic clank.

Ruth Rambo, the fourth in our group, represented a reverse migration of sorts – relocating from Ohio to her present home of Charleston. Her presence was important for so many reasons, not the least of which was that this structure was once the realm of women, African-American women, from whose efforts key expectations each day during bondage were met for their owners. Her presence made me consider each task with greater appreciation and how work was divided between enslaved men and women. She also exuded a sage-like presence that was simultaneously disarming and intriguing.

An overcast evening with very low clouds reflected lights beaming throughout the downtown, casting a glow throughout the sky as if someone turned on a 15-watt bulb. Mist persisted where thunderstorms were forecast to have struck and the thermometer dropped considerably with the front that had moved in for the evening. With one of the building’s two doors remaining open until 4:00 a.m., I found sleep elusive. Every 20 minutes I changed positions after the pine floor had numbed hip and shoulder to the point of waking me up. Punctuating bouts of waking up was my contributions to a chorus of snoring among us that surely would have been quite a concert for the very few passersby that we had during the evening. When not met with the sound of trains and sirens, common during certain times of the later hours, I was struck by the quietude of the kitchen – the one place that Mr. McGill believed would have been, at times, a place of solitude for slaves whose daily actions were both driven and monitored by owners. On occasion the only sound discernible was the rustling of palmetto tree fronds in the adjacent garden and along Pickens Street.

The morning began much like the evening had left off – with conversations about history, race, slavery and preserving important sites such as the kitchen house. Most of the time I listened, eager to hear what these three persons felt, what their personal experiences had been and what the future might hold for the fields of history and historic preservation. Here and there I offered what I knew about Columbia history in general, the site specifically and what Historic Columbia Foundation had accomplished in recent years addressing a handful of topics, including that of slavery – ultimately the institution whose legacy brought us temporarily together on an evening before a peaceful Easter weekend full of reflection.

For me, a native Columbian, this experience with three visitors whose roots lie in the town of Kingstree and the cities of Florence and Cincinnati struck a chord that will resonate for some time to come. I was for those brief few hours an ambassador of the city, an interpreter of the historic site and a watchful eye and an attentive ear for things that went bump in the night during their stay. Experiences come in many shapes, sizes and, in some cases, colors, but for me I recall an evening spent with kindred spirits interested in learning more about the past while preserving the tangible elements that make history accessible to contemporary citizens and visitors.


Descendants of Slaveholders, Descendants of Slaves Share Overnight Stay at Bush-Holley House, Greenwich, CT


Bush-Holley House Attic


Bush-Holley House, Greenwich, CT


Bush-Holley House, Greenwich, CT


Joseph McGill, Founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, Outside of Bush-Holley House, Greenwich, CT


Joe McGill at Door of Bush-Holley House


Panelists Dale Plummer, Joseph McGill, Dr. Allegra diBonaventura, Grant Hayter-Menzies, Reverend David Pettee, Dionne Ford


Joseph McGill, Grant Hayter-Menzies, Dionne Ford and Reverend David Pettee
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Bush-Holley House

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Bush-Holley Historic Site in Greenwich, Connecticut was not the first northern stay for the Slave Dwelling Project, Cliveden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania holds that distinction. This was not the first time that I stayed in a dwelling in an urban setting, for I did that in Montgomery, Alabama; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Lexington, Missouri; Wilmington, North Carolina, Anderson, South Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina. This was not the first time that I shared the experience with a Caucasian, for I have done that in Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, Maryland and South Carolina.

It might be the case that some of the Caucasians on some of those prior stays were the descendents of former slave owners, information for whatever reason they chose not to reveal and I chose not to ask. The stay at the Bush-Holley house was the first time that I knowingly shared the slave dwelling experience with the Caucasian descendants of slave owners and get this, one guest was the descendant of a slave and slave owner.

I can recall that when I became a Civil War reenactor 20 years ago, some Confederate reenactors would be quick to voluntarily reveal to me that their ancestors did not own slaves as if to justify to me and themselves that the Civil War was not about slavery. I have read and have a signed copy of the book titled Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball. None of that really resonated with me until I recently got involved with the group Coming to the Table.

The Coming to the Table story is about connecting people and the past to the present and future in a way that is relevant for our nation. Housed at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, CTTT was launched when people whose ancestors were connected through an enslaved/enslaver relationship realized they had a shared story that remained untold. Today, they and many others believe that the legacies and aftermath of slavery impact our nation in seen and unseen ways and they are committed to writing and telling a new story about our nation’s past and the promise of our collective future.

It was through this group that I was introduced to Grant Hayter-Menzies, Reverend David Pettee and Dionne Ford. They would all share the Slave Dwelling Project experience with me on the night of Friday, March 30, 2012. I met David and Dionne three weeks prior in Richmond, VA at the national conference of Coming to the Table. Grant, who was instrumental in making the stay happen, I only knew through telephone conversations, Facebook and emails.

According to its brochure, “the circa-1730 Bush Holley-House, a National Historic Landmark, is the centerpiece of the Greenwich Historical Society’s site on Cos Cob Harbor. Bush-Holley House is significant on multiple levels and has been preserved to feature many of the architectural elements added in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, the landscape and gardens of the historic buildings are restored to circa 1900, a visual statement that allows visitors to recognize many artworks created on site. Once you enter the house, you’ll find that your tour offers a glimpse into two distinct eras that tell a story of dramatic change over time.” In my opinion, this brochure nor the information that I came across on the website does not do the site justice for all that it is successfully doing to interpret its slave holding past.

Prior to the stay, staff at the Bush-Holley House arranged for a panel discussion on the subject of slavery in the north. In addition to the three people who would join me in the sleepover, the following people were also included on the panel; Dr. Allegra diBonaventura, Assistant Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University; and Dale Plummer, City Historian of Norwich and Chair of the Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee. The discussion was given to a standing room only crowd with lots of questions asked afterwards. It was exciting to see a diverse audience there especially because I knew most of the African Americans who attended. My uncle was there who I had not seen in 21 years, he was accompanied by his daughter who, by my recollection, I was meeting for the first time. This mini family reunion was reminiscent of the first northern stop for the Slave Dwelling Project at Cliveden in Philadelphia, PA in 2011. There two aunts and my first cousin all of whom I had not seen for 20 years met me at Cliveden.

Trying to interact with all the people wanting attention after the panel discussion was a challenge but a good problem to have. I eventually ended up in the space where we were to spend the night. It was there that the reporters wanted their interviews.

Maneuvering in the space was a challenge. It was a space that was set up to be seen from an observation area. Allowing us to sleep there was the site’s curator worst nightmare and rightfully so. The space was filled with artifacts and replicas and materials that depicted a space lived in by enslaved people, therefore only Grant and I could sleep in that space. Allowing too many people in to that space could compromise its structural integrity, therefore David and Dionne had to share the space in the observation area. Luckily, we were only separated by 3 feet high plexiglass.

Of my 30 prior stays, this space could be compared to the Russell/Reinhard house and Winsor/Aull Greek Revival mansion both in Lexington, Missouri. The space which was originally separated from the house was eventually attached similar to the slave dwelling at Cliveden in Philadelphia, PA.

Once the reporters left, we all went outside to perform a libation ceremony to the ancestors. Interesting because although we were only four people, the place, our backgrounds, and our reasons for being there made for some heartwarming and tear jerking requests.

Once back inside the space, the publishers of my blog for the second consecutive time, made arrangements for me to communicate live with an audience through Facebook. The questions came fast and furious and I kept up as much as my blackberry would allow all the time being thankful that this project was compelling enough for people to want to engage in a live chat. It also proved that I must improve my capacity to communicate if I want to continue to offer an audience an opportunity to engage in live chats. What I took from that experiment is that the questions asked forced me to think more about the space and the people who occupied it, and for those who participated, I say thank you for reminding me that this project is not about Joseph McGill but about the enslaved people who occupied their assigned space in the Bush-Holley House and other places like it.

After the live chat, I engaged in conversation with Dionne, Grant and David. We talked about how the house was threatened with demolition when I-95 was proposed. With our collective knowledge of how interstates were planned, we concluded this area had to be an African American neighborhood. We talked about the challenges of ten enslaved people sharing a 25 by 20 feet space that also coupled as storage space. We talked about the pushy reporter who tried to provoke us into saying things we might regret once we calmed down. We talked about how the group Coming to the Table brought us all together for this occasion. We talked about genealogical research and my disdain for same and how I am thankful for people like the three of them who have the patience for research. We talked about the three of them being prolific writers and how I will be calling on them for inspiration for the writing I will eventually do for the Slave Dwelling Project. We talked about being the descendant of a slave owner and a slave as is the case of Dionne. And then there was sleep.

By 6:30 am everyone was awake. I was happy to learn that no one accused me of talking in my sleep, snoring yes, but not talking in my sleep. The libation ceremony, the pushy reporter, the live chat, sharing the space with descendants of slave owners, all had the potential of providing ingredients for an interesting sleep conversation. The group conversation did continue from the previous night when I blatantly asked David and Grant the question: “Do you feel like outcasts for revealing the history of the slave owning by your ancestors?” By the answer they both gave, it is apparent that both of these men have drawn a line in the sand and will not retreat despite what ridicule that might come their way. I guess that became clear to me when I was in Richmond three weeks ago with the group Coming to the Table because there were more people there like Grant and David. We all left the space as we came in, with a reporter coming to gather our thoughts about our overnight stay at the Bush-Holley House.

Reflections: Dionne Ford

When I was invited to join Joe McGill in his slave dwelling project, I leapt (or slept) at the opportunity. Over the past two years, I’ve admired Joe’s efforts to bring slave dwellings and their need to be preserved to the attention of the public by sleeping in any slave dwelling that will have him. So when his project brought him North, to the Bush-Holly House in Greenwich, CT I was honored and thrilled to make the hour drive to join him, Grant Hayter Menzes, and Dave Pettee in an overnight stay.

At first, I was struck by the size of the dwelling.  It was larger than I’d expected. In my research in to my family’s history, I’d encountered one other slave dwelling in Virginia, half the width of the attic.  But that cabin was a higher, stand-alone structure, only a stone’s throw away from the big plantation house, but still it provided some measure of autonomy, a place where its inhabitants could speak freely and just be. Not so in the Bush-Holly House. Located in the historic home built by wealthy Dutch farmer Justus Bush, the slave quarter doubled as a storage space and food preparation area.  Among the blankets and pillows are baskets of (fake) vegetables and herbs hang from the exposed wooden beams to give a feel of how it would have been in the late 1700s. Once the reporters and staff members of the Historical Society left and it was just the four of us, we all instinctively spoke in hushed tones, as if to not let other people overhear.  That’s what it would have been like for the enslaved people there – a dwelling, but not much of a sanctuary. What must it have been like to have your only shelter be in the same house with your masters?  When could the enslaved people there ever speak freely?

I am descended from both a slave and a slaveholder, but when I went searching for my family’s roots, I was really only interested in my enslaved ancestors’ story.  I didn’t want to know about the people who had enslaved them even though their blood courses through me. Because slaves were property, the details of their lives exist almost entirely in the documents of the people who owned them like the will where my great, great-grandmother was bequeathed along with cattle and farm equipment. It quickly became apparent that I could not learn anything about my enslaved ancestors without learning about the people who enslaved them. It stands to reason that the opposite is true.  If we want to fully understand how the historic towns that we now call home were established, we have to look at the lives of all the people who had a hand in planting those roots from those whose names live on in town halls to their slaves whose names are largely forgotten, but whose sweat and blood tilled the soil. The Greenwich Historical Society understands this. Coming across that slave cabin in Virginia was like finding a spring in the dessert, so rare was it for me to encounter an existing monument to the life of enslaved people, my people, who have mostly been eradicated from our minds and thoughts, which in turn eradicates me, makes me feel invisible. Having the chance to   sleep in the Bush-Holley slave quarters was the equivalent of diving in to that spring, quenching my thirst to know more about slavery and how it informed the foundation of our country. These slave dwellings are sacred places and an opportunity to encounter them is a pilgrimage.

Before I went to sleep, I used my phone to send a good night email to my family and noticed a message from one of my genealogy buddies whose ancestors are from the same town as mine, Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Our enslaved ancestors are buried in the same Mississippi cemetery and we think we may even be distant cousins.  She asked that I please touch the wall of the Bush-Holley cabin and whisper her ancestor’s name.  I said, “Johanna” into the still Connecticut air, “Tempe” and “Eliza,” my own enslaved ancestors, “59” the number of souls my great, great-grandfather enslaved before selling them and “Candace” who had inhabited that attic.

Silent in the attic, completely in the dark, I could hear rain on the roof as I closed my eyes to go to sleep.   I rested well, a feat for me, because it usually takes me a long time to still my mind enough to go to sleep. Maybe it’s because I knew that by being there with my friends in preservation solidarity, the lives of the slaves in that attic would no longer be silent or completely in the dark.

Grant Hayter-Menzes

I’ve been fascinated by Joe McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project since first talking to him on a Coming To The Table conference call last year. The timing was fortuitous. Shortly before this call, I had uncovered information which, in my ignorance, I first could hardly believe: that, just like my Deep South ancestors, who had enslaved black people from the first years of the nineteenth century until Emancipation, my New England ancestors of a century earlier had also been enslavers. One unique case, that of Guy Drock of Norwich, slave of my ancestor Captain Benajah Bushnell, who was sold in 1752 by Bushnell to the white woman who wanted to marry Drock, was only uncovered through years of research not only by Drock descendants but by the diligence and personal passion of Norwich historian Dale Plummer. (Please see this link to my March 29th meeting with Plummer and the Drock descendants:

Through this line of enquiry, I read that the Greenwich Historical Society owns and operates the 1730 Bush-Holley House, one of the few houses in New England with extant slave quarters. It is also one of the few which candidly interprets the lives of Connecticut slaves from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries. That slavery is an issue many Southerners would rather not talk about made some strange sense to me; I know from experience that compartmentalization is a fact of life in Southern families. But the people of New England, that crucible of the Abolitionist movement?

Could they face this part of their past? I was to discover that, no, not all are able to do so. And so I took the first of two big risks. I told Joe during our conference call that I would contact the Greenwich Historical Society and ask them if he might bring the Slave Dwelling Project to the attic room over the Bush-Holley House kitchen. I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. To my surprise and delight, GHS President Debra Mecky was all for it, and a panel discussion was suggested for the evening of Joe’s stay in the quarters. I was asked to be one of the panelists and to suggest who else might be a good fit.

I did this. Then I decided to take my next risky step. I asked Joe if he would be interested in having me join him in the attic. I had no reason to suppose he would be happy about the idea. Joe has had people share the Slave Dwelling Project experience before—black people and white people—but had never knowingly shared it with a descendant of enslavers.

Was that something he wanted to do? Would he wonder why I wanted to do it—whether I was swamped with “white guilt”, eager to do my penance on the hard floor of the quarters, to put myself in the place of those of whom my ancestors required labor, and sometimes love, beyond price and never once paid for? I know I didn’t want him to think that, because while I am ashamed of what my ancestors did, like my Southern grandmother, who was as passionate about the subject of equality as my mother, my siblings and I am, I realize that I am not here to expiate sins that I could not possibly hope to wipe away or make better.

I thought of one of the most heartfelt and articulate of the fugitive slave narratives published by Bostonian Benjamin Drew in 1856. How could my forebears, I said to myself, echoing John Little, “who know they are abusing others all day, lie down and sleep quietly at night…when they know that men feel revengeful, and might burn their property, or even kill them?” What John Little was asking was what I ask, every time I look at the names of Juba and Rose, Ginette and Warren, India and Satin: how in the name of God did my ancestors have the conscience to sleep at night, enjoy their silver sugar tongs and their embroidered chairs and the leisure free labor brought them like the flip of a light switch, while these unpaid laborers lived and worked alongside them every day, often in the kind of substandard housing that is falling apart now?

To see a little house where an enslaved person or family lived, while working from light to dark, knowing that those four walls were all that consisted of privacy for them (though not always safety) in the brief interval of night, when they could be whipped for wandering outside their dwelling after curfew, and realize that these cabins were the powerful human engines that made possible the big houses where their masters seem to have been able to sleep at night, and to see them in decay because the master’s house is prettier or draws more tourist dollars, and nobody wants to be reminded of what they stand for, seems to me to signify a second enslavement, a multiple crime against the dignity of the people who were born, lived, married, worked and died there. And a crime against their amazing strength of character and will. It is this that makes slave dwellings beautiful to me. I didn’t want to enter such a place wearing sackcloth and ashes, apologies on my lips. I wanted to enter and acknowledge the hearts and souls and dreams of people who despite centuries of enslavement, still knew the beauty of being free. I wanted to honor them, remember them.

I didn’t have to worry quite so much. Joe replied to my request by warmly welcoming me to share the experience. And we were in turn joined by Rev. David Pettee, descendant of dozens of New England enslavers (one of whom we share in common in the Leffingwell family of Norwich), and Dionne Ford Kurtti, a descendant of people enslaved and of those who enslaved them.

I inherited from my mother and grandmother a compassion that has in it no small amount of anger—anger at the abuse of the helpless and the powerless, which in my grandmother burned bright for the victims of the Great Depression (of which she had had painful personal experience), for the farm workers of California’s Central Valley who rallied around Cesar Chavez, and always for black people she had seen mistreated in her Southern girlhood and long after she left the South for the west. She had a calm way of outrage; mine is a storm from which I can rarely collect much that is coherent. During the panel discussion Friday night, my emotions flooded me, and I wondered what would happen when Joe, Dionne, Dave and I ascended to the room over the kitchen, unrolled our sleeping bags and lay down in that spare, chilly, creaking space, the shingles just overhead rattling under rain showers all night.

For the first half hour, lying there in the dark on ungiving boards, I had a period of panic. For a split second, I who have never been a slave understood something of what life in that space had been like for slaves—the lack of privacy from the master and mistress, the sense of being controlled, unable to change one’s situation, to endure heat up there in the summer and cold in the winter (or spring, as was the case with us) without a murmur, to work every day knowing that if you stopped, the repercussions could involve not a warning letter from a supervisor but degrading threats to your dignity or personal safety.

Despite my three friends in the room with me, I felt extraordinarily alone. That’s when I thought back to an hour earlier, when we four had stood beneath a budding tree in the garden just outside the kitchen wing. In the damp darkness we took each other’s hands and poured libation to honor the people who had lived, worked and died here and in all the slave quarters up and down the eastern seaboard and across the South, those abandoned and gone and those still, by some miracle, standing, waiting for Joe.

I had brought with me into the quarters some special things: a letter written by my great-great-grandmother, the daughter of a Southerner who crossed over to fight for the North, and a letter from my grandmother, through which her voice emerged especially clear. And I had intended to speak to the memory of Candice Bush, the last slave emancipated in Greenwich, whose home we would be dwelling in that night. Instead, what came to me was the memory of a slave named Rose Jackson. According to her tombstone in Old Saybrook’s Cypress Cemetery, which I visited the day before, Rose was born in 1778 and died in 1866. She had served five generations of children of the family of General William Hart, whose tidy white house still stands down the street from the cemetery. “Faithful Ever in All Things” was engraved on her marble headstone. The love that this black woman shared with her white family seemed not to have died with her but to radiate from the marble, as if it had stood a long time in the summer sun. I saw that Rose was my grandmother, your grandmother, the grandmother of us all, and the good she did is still going on, like the tides at Saybrook and the sweet incense of age and intimacy that pervades the Bush-Holley House quarters. I spoke to her and my respect for her under the flowering tree, and said “ashe” with the others. And as I went to sleep later, I said “ashe” to my white grandmother, too. These two knew that the greatest of all things is love. And this is what, for me, took a cold, dark room and made it and places like it sacred, and me a better person for the privilege of sleeping and dreaming there.

Reverend David Pettee

Here in the North, we have inherited a powerful historical amnesia when it comes to the memory of slavery. But don’t worry. We haven’t forgotten our history. We still worship the stories of the Sons of Liberty. We still teach “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” to our school kids. “Listen my children and you shall hear…” Every third Monday in April is Patriot’s Day, when we commemorate again that first shot fired on Lexington Green that was heard ‘round the world.

I live In Massachusetts. Our license plates remind us that we are the ‘Spirit of America.’ We are the good guys.

In 1754, the Crown requested that every city and town in Massachusetts report the number of slaves over the age of sixteen. 114 communities responded to the census. 109 recorded at least one slave. The town fathers of Boston dutifully recorded 989 slaves, representing nearly 9% of the population.

989 slaves? In Boston? How come I had to discover this fact by accident?

Within walking distance of where I work in downtown Boston, there are numerous buildings and sites that pay homage to Boston’s storied colonial past. Every day on my way to work, I pass the Robert Gould Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial on Beacon St. Directly across the street from the memorial is the Massachusetts State House, built on property once owned by John Hancock. We all know John Hancock. Or do we? The plaque that mentions where his house once stood conveniently neglects to mention that Hancock was also a slaveholder.

Today, Bay Staters are very proud of our abolitionist past. We forget that in 1835, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, was nearly murdered by an angry mob on the streets of Boston. In the 1960’s, in the name of urban renewal, the office where the newspaper was published fell unceremoniously to the wrecking ball.

At the base of Beacon Hill in the Boston Public Gardens stands a statue of Charles Sumner, widely considered the most radical abolitionist in the United State Senate before the Civil War. In 1856, after Sumner was nearly caned to death in the Senate chambers by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, hundreds of people sent money to Brooks so he could buy a new cane. It is quite understandable that many Massachusetts citizens were outraged! Few, however, questioned Sumner’s outlandish claim made two years before, when he thundered on the Senate floor that, "No person was ever born a slave on the soil of Massachusetts."

I can still vividly remember the first time I recovered the forgotten story of slavery in my own family. In 2006, I innocently upgraded my subscription and was stunned to find the 1774 Rhode Island census that indicated that my ancestor Edward Simmons owned four slaves in Newport, RI. I drove to Newport the following day to get to the bottom what was obviously some mistake. It wasn’t.

Instead, I found eleven more Newport ancestors who enslaved Africans. Fast forward to 2012, I have since discovered thirty additional slaveholding ancestors and one ancestor who was a captain of at least five voyages in the transatlantic slave trade. Get this— all these people lived only in New England.

So much for slavery as a Southern institution…

I first heard about the work of Joe McGill last year when I was in South Carolina co-representing Coming to the Table at the annual meeting of the National Genealogical Society. I was struck by Joe’s vision of wanting to preserve the few existing slave quarters that are still standing in this country. Lifting up the history of any building forces us to reckon with the meaning of this structure. It is so easy to forget that slavery helped build the North because it is so hard to see that legacy any more.

When the invitation came to spend a night in the slave quarters at the Bush-Holley House in Greenwich, CT with Joe, Grant Hayter-Menzies and Dionne Ford, I jumped at the prospect. I wanted to try to better understand what enslaved people must have experienced every night. I wanted to honor those who were forced to live here.

Even with a Thermarest pad under my sleeping bag, the floor felt so hard and was unforgiving. While the attic offered some privacy, it was easy to hear noises from the floor below, and the creaking, as people walked up and down the stairs. The people who lived in that attic through bitterly cold winters and oppressively hot summers must have spoken in a whisper, hoping to maintain as much dignity as they could—dignity that was constantly undermined by people just like my ancestors.

As I lay awake, I thought about Joe and Dionne, asleep on either side of me, and wondered what this experience must be like for them, sharing this space with two descendants of slaveholders. The rain that pitter-pattered on the roof was a timeless noise that helped me finally fall asleep. Startled by snoring, I awoke quite suddenly at 4am, all twisted in my sleeping bag, feeling hot, clammy and disoriented. Back in 1750, the people who lived in that attic were probably already in the kitchen baking bread by 4am, preparing breakfast for their masters.

Despite the enjoyable company, it was most certainly not a restful night. --- Rev. David Pettee

About the Slave Dwelling Project

For more information, please contact Joseph McGill

Joseph McGill, Jr. | Program Officer, Southern Office
National Trust for Historic Preservation | William Aiken House, 456 King Street, 3rd Floor, Charleston, SC 29403
Phone: 843.722.8552 | Fax: 843.722.8652 | Email: |

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