Joe McGill has slept in more than 100 slave dwellings in 17 states and the nation’s capital.
“These places should be used, just as nice beautiful buildings – places people strive to go visit,” McGill said Sunday. “I think these slave dwellings should be equally sought out to visit for the lessons they could teach us.”
Now, the 55-year-old historian is the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, which is set to kick off its third annual conference Monday in Columbia. The goal of the project, according to its website, is to “identify and assist property owners, government agencies and organizations to preserve extant slave dwellings.”
“I want folks to realize that we tend to operate on an incomplete narrative when we interpret the history of this nation,” McGill told The State newspaper. “We tend to associate our history with those who enslaved, not those who they enslaved.”
The first time he ever slept in a slave dwelling was about 17 years ago, McGill said – at the Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant as part of a History Channel documentary.
“The thing that stands out the most was ... waking up to the sounds of dogs barking in the background, and thinking about enslaved people trying to escape and being chased by dogs,” he said.
At first, McGill said, it was challenging to get property owners to let him sleep in the slave dwellings. He had to convince them he wasn’t treasure hunting or looking for ghosts, he said.
But now, people seek him out – and he invites guests to spend the night with him. Sometimes, those guests include descendents of former slaves – or even the descendents of former slave owners.
“The conversations are quite rich,” McGill said. “We engage in conversations that a lot of times are taboo among a normal circle of friends.”
His mission isn’t just about the past, either. McGill said the lessons that can be learned from slave dwellings are helpful in understanding what’s going on now.
“A lot of the strife we’re dealing with today, a lot of the racial tensions we’re dealing with today, this stuff didn’t happen in our lifetime,” he said. “This stuff has a legacy.”
Anyone interested in attending the conference, which is sponsored by the Richland County Conservation Commission and the Historic Columbia Foundation, can purchase tickets at www.slavedwellingproject.org.
IF YOU GO
What: The third annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference in Columbia
When: 9 a.m. Monday, 8 a.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. Wednesday
Where: Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center on Lincoln Street