Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Previous slave dwelling sleepovers outnumbered at LA's Evergreen Plantation

"About Our Freedom is once again honored to share the recent news regarding the Slave Dwelling Project and Joseph McGill Jr's recent stay on Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana.  Understanding the economy and history of our ancestors who lived in slave dwellings helps us to appreciate our progenitors, their community, and what freedom meant to them.  The first-hand accounts below of the enriching activities and increased appreciation for the slave dwelling community on the part of participants from both races is simply beautiful. Please keep us updated about the restoration of the slave cabin destroyed by the fallen oak tree, and thank you for helping us to see the significance of slave dwellings!" ---Robin Foster, About Our Freedom

(The following account was submitted by Joseph McGill Jr.)
Fans of the Slave Dwelling Project are beginning to take advantage of its benefits. Such was the case when I stayed at Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana. My purpose for traveling to Louisiana was to participate in the Louisiana Statewide Preservation Conference held by the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation in Leesville April 6 – 8, 2011. 

Evergreen Plantation.  Edgard, Louisiana
I arrived at the New Orleans airport and was picked up by Jane Boddie the Director of Evergreen. My first night stay at Evergreen would be in one of the houses with modern conveniences. The Avenue of Oaks was the most impressive that I had ever seen. I was even more impressed by the 22 slave dwellings still at the site. Unfortunately an oak tree had fallen on one of the dwellings but my mind was put at ease when Jane told me that the dwelling will be restored.

Joseph McGill, Jr. in front of slave dwelling destroyed by oak tree on Evergreen Plantation
Twenty-two slave dwellings line Avenue of Oaks on Evergreen Plantation.

While I was anxious to spend the night in one of the dwellings, I could not neglect the purpose for which I came to Louisiana, to participle in the Louisiana Statewide Preservation Conference. The next day Jane and I traversed the state to get to Leesville. We would return on Friday, April 8, I would stay in the slave dwelling that night. 
Before my stay at Evergreen, the most people to share the experience with me in a slave dwelling was five the weeks before in Texas. Jane did a spectacular job in ensuring that we would surpass that. Twenty people were scheduled to spend the night in the dwellings. They came from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and all points in between. The night started with a bonfire in the front yard of the big house, a spectacular site, and my first time to participate in such an event. 
Bonfire on Friday, April 8th on Evergreen Plantation


The gathering continued with storytelling and ended with drumming. We all proceeded to the two dwellings as a group. A libation ceremony was conducted in front of one of the dwellings followed by listening to recorded excerpts from the Slave Narratives

On my way back to the cabin where I was going to sleep, I and two other guests encountered a member of the local law enforcement agency. He was unaware of the activities that were happening that night. Fortunately, he accepted our explanation. I made it to my assigned spot and slept through the night with only a few interruptions by mosquitoes.

I requested that two members give an account of their sleepover experience at Evergreen Plantation. The following is what they wrote:
Jane Boddie, Director, Evergreen Plantation:
"On April 11, 2011, I stood with Joe McGill and 20 other people preparing to walk down a white shell road through 100 very old Live Oak trees.  We were walking into an empty village, a village that was home to people for 200 years, ten generations. It was dark, the wind had blown out our candles.  It was silent, so were we.   Later, I sat on the steps of one of the slave cabins, listening to the Litany of the Libation to the Ancestors.  

I sat a little apart from the rest, wondering where I fit in all this.  I am white.  Then I began to hear the words of the Libation, over and over again; the Ancestors of all the people of Evergreen Plantation; the Ancestors of ALL the people of Evergreen Plantation, past and present.   

In the night, lying on that hard floor, listening to the night sounds, looking up at the ceiling, I was aware of a profound sense of community.  What had happened to the other people who had lain here, looking at this ceiling, are a part of me.  Without that ceiling, without these buildings, if they had all been destroyed, it would be hard to know where any of us fit, to remember who we are.  We are a community of people.  Past. Present.  Future."             

Jonn E. Hankins, Executive Director, New Orleans African American Museum:
 I fear cycles of the night and things I don’t understand. Like the snake I startled hunting at dusk, blood-sucking mosquitoes satiated by mid-evening and then returning at first light, and the sounds chirping, howling and rustling through the woods, all here before us. Kathe brought recordings of haunting slave narratives from another century. We brought our voices, but our words were inadequate. 
We agreed to be quiet. A cacophony of waif-like female voices cackled from the big house.  Breathlessly still, I strained to discover if they were ghosts.  Sweating through one hot night, I was not free until dawn"

Louisiana was the fourth state to which the Slave Dwelling Project has been expanded. This stay afforded me the opportunity to explore how the Spanish, French and English influenced slavery in Louisiana. It was also a lesson in how the Mighty Mississippi River factored into the institution of slavery. In the case of Louisiana, sugar cane was a very labor intensive crop. The slaves that contributed to that industry have a story that should be told.  

One can say that the reason that the 22 slave dwellings at Evergreen are still with us is because they were built of cypress wood. I attribute their existence to the fact that someone in their past made the conscience decision to preserve the dwellings so that the stories of their inhabitants will not be forgotten. I can recall having the privilege to cruise the Mississippi River on the steamboat Delta Queen before it was decommissioned. We docked at one of the plantations on the famous River Road, unfortunately that presentation lacked any interpretation of the people who labored to make that plantation prosper.

I strongly encourage a visit to Evergreen Plantation if you are interested in hearing the whole story. Jane Boddie and her staff will be happy to accommodate you. They may even throw in a bonus and tell you about the night they spent in one of the slave dwellings.

Joseph McGill Jr.
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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Monday, April 25, 2011

Save the Date: Honoring Company I, 54th Massachusetts Regiment

REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
DIGITAL ID: (color film copy transparency) cph 3b52016 (b&w film copy neg.) cph 3a52015 (color film copy slide) cph 3b49772

Save the Date
Monday, July 18, 2011

On Monday, July 18, 2011, Civil War re-enactors will commemorate the 148th anniversary of the Assault on Battery Wagner. Volunteer re-enactors from Company I, 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment will honor the men that participated in that historic battle on July 18, 1863. The event will occur on Morris Island, SC and the public is invited to attend.
The boat for the one-hour event will leave from the Charleston Maritime Center (10 Wharfside Street, downtown Charleston) at 3:00 pm, and return at 5:00 pm. Make your reservations by calling Joseph McGill at (843) 408-7727. Participants should arrive thirty minutes before their reserved time. The cost of the boat ride and visit to the island is $25.00.
The event is sponsored by Company I, 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment.
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Blacks, Confederates, and Europeans united around Tuskegee

Cover of "Up From Slavery"Cover of Up From SlaveryI hope everyone has a chance to read Up From Slavery, by Booker Taliaferro Washington.  In this autobiography, Washington masterfully illustrates the struggles faced by the 1st generation freedmen.  He also puts into effect principles of work and faith and community with people of all races.

I cannot help but think how fortunate we would be in the world today if we would remember in all cases to apply those same principles.  Washington was able to inspire former Confederate soldiers as well supporters from the North and abroad to embrace his efforts to establish and support Tuskegee.  Up From Slavery helped me to learn more about what life was like for the emancipated slave in the South.

"I think that the whole future of my race hinges on the question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value that the people in the town and the state where we reside will feel that our presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community. No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward. This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified." See Europe, Up From Slavery.

 Born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia,  Washington was not sure if he was born in 1858 or 1859.  His mother was the cook for the entire plantation.  They had no floor in the cabin, and they slept on the ground with rags to protect them from exposure to the dirt floor.  Booker T. Washington was raised without his natural father.  Even though he had a very meager upbringing, he was able to raise himself and countless others to a very high station in life.

He did not let any obstacle keep him from getting an education.  He first gained the desire to do so after seeing white students seated together in a class during a time when negro children were not afforded that opportunity.  After overhearing fellow workers talk about Hampton Institute while working in a coal mine, Washington vowed he would do what he had to to attend school there.

He worked to get enough money to travel to Richmond by train. After he arrived, he was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as the other passengers.  That night he slept outside under a sidewalk.  He was able to find a job which provided him enough for food.  He continued to sleep under the sidewalk until he presented himself to be enrolled at Hampton.

As hard as times were in the South, they did not make Booker T. Washington hard.  He worked to pay for his schooling and was not able to visit his frail mother during the first two years.  He met every challenge with the attitude that they were opportunities to prove himself.  He found the good in everyone and looked upon those who mistreated him because of his race as the real victims.Booker T. Washington's house at TuskegeeBooker T. Washington Home at Tuskegee Image via Wikipedia 

He said that those who treated his race poorly would have a far worse time of recovering than the blacks who would be blessed to overcome their offenses far sooner than their offenders.  Booker T. Washington graduated  from Hampton and went on to establish Tuskegee Institute.  He was successful in garnering support from the community (white and black).  Mrs. Margaret James Murray Washington, his wife, secured many contributions for Tuskegee from people near and far.

Margaret Murray Washington in 1917; HeadshotMrs. Margaret James Murray Washington Image via Wikipedia
After many years, they took a three month vacation to Europe where they were treated with great dignity.  It was wonderful to read about Washington's account of his vacation and the American and European dignitaries they socialized with while traveling.

The book closes with Booker T. Washington receiving an honorary degree from Harvard University on the same occasion as Alexander Graham Bell.  Even with all his success, Washington's teachings and methods were criticized by W. E. B. Dubois.  To be fair, I will read Souls of Black Folk and weigh in at a later time.

As for now,  I am contemplating the qualities which I feel brought a former slave to the halls of Harvard on commencement day.

Please take the opportunity to read Up From Slavery if you have not, or read it again and share your thoughts on About Our Freedom Facebook community page.  These are a few of my own observations:

1.  He faced great trials and adversity, but he never lost sight of basic principles of work, self-reliance, and education. These principles served him well.

History class at Tuskegee, 1902
History Class at Tuskegee 1902.  Image Wikipedia.
2.  He helped to unite the members of the community (white and black), and he helped them to feel a part of Tuskegee.

3.  Being clean, polite, and exercising good manners was just important as education and practicing a livelihood.

4.  He helped the students take ownership of the school by providing them the opportunities to construct its buildings, plant its crops, and develop skills in other industries.

5.  He never took offense.  He often said that he was not the victim.  He never gave anyone that power.
History Class at Tuskegee.  Image via Wikipedia
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Slave Dwellings of Texas, Healing, and the Stirrings Within

About Our Freedom is once again honored to inform our followers about the recent efforts and extraordinary work of:

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: |
Egypt Plantation Slave Dwelling

Joseph McGill Jr.
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 to be the keynote speaker at the Texas Historical Commission’s Annual Preservation Meeting.  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.    

Welcome Joe McGill at Egypt Plantation

The following is what they submitted:
Artwork by Ted Ellis

Artist: Ted Ellis
"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 made a great impact. 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:   Texas Historical Commission
"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:"

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 Carrier at the Seward Plantation Slave Dwelling

Naomi Mitchell Carrier:  Texas Center for African American Living History (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.
Naomi Carrier at the Seward Plantation Slave Dwelling 
Joseph McGill Jr.
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.
Naomi Standing on Auction Block
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.
Are you a National Trust member?  Have you visited one of our historic sites, stayed in one of our historic hotels or taken one of our study tours?  Learn more at

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