Honoring Slaves By Sleeping In Their Cabins Joseph McGill of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been spending the night in slave quarters to bring attention to the sites and to honor the memory of the people who lived in the cabins.
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Honoring Slaves By Sleeping In Their Cabins

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Honoring Slaves By Sleeping In Their Cabins

Honoring Slaves By Sleeping In Their Cabins

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Our next guest happens to be a Civil War re-enactor. He plays part of the 54th Massachusetts, a black Union regiment. We're going to talk to him about how he's casting some fresh light on another bit of American history.

Joe McGill works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He's making his way around the Eastern United States, sleeping in former slave cabins. And he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOSEPH McGILL (Program Officer, National Trust for Historic Preservation): Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Now, you called this the Slave Cabin Project. Explain exactly what you're doing. You actually spend the night in a different slave cabin week after week.

Mr. McGILL: Yeah. Since I started this thing back in May, I've slept in five, all throughout the state, from the coast to the capital of Columbia. And this coming weekend, I will be going to Anderson, South Carolina.

NORRIS: When you sleep in these cabins, are you sleeping on a dirt floor, on a sleeping bag? What are the sleeping accommodations like?

Mr. McGILL: I take a sleeping bag, a pillow, a whistle and a club.

NORRIS: A club?

Mr. McGILL: Yeah. You know?

NORRIS: Just in case?

Mr. McGILL: Yeah, just in case. There could be some critters out there that try to invade my space and, you know, I can fend them off with the club.

NORRIS: Why did you decide to sleep in the slave cabins, not just to identify them and study them but to actually spend the night inside the cabin?

Mr. McGILL: About 10 years ago, I had the privilege to be a part of a documentary called "The Unfinished Civil War" and told the producer about my idea of sleeping in a slave cabin. And we all agreed that would add some great content to the documentary. And I, indeed, stayed in a slave cabin, Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. That was quite an experience. But I thought that project had relevance beyond just that documentary. Because for so long, folks have been visiting the plantation and going into the big house, and without those structures, the big house could not have existed.

NORRIS: Tell me about these structures. What do the slave cabins look like all these years later?

Mr. McGILL: Most of them are built of wood. They're very strong. In fact, I was lying in my bed and noticing that my bedroom was about twice the size of those slave cabins. And you get inside these walls and you think about that time of slavery and wonder what went through these people's mind because within these walls was probably the easiest time of their lives. We know that beyond those walls, there was a lot of hard work and toil.

NORRIS: What does go through your mind when you put your head down and sleep in one of these cabins? And what do you learn about slaves and living as slaves that you didn't understand before you spent a night at the cabin?

Mr. McGILL: Well, you think about the makeup of the family and - or was this more of a dormitory type setup where the slave master was trying to maximize that space and put as many people in that space with no regard for are those people, you know, were related to each other or not? You think about, well, if there's a full moon tonight, is there opportunity here to seek your freedom?

NORRIS: This must be quite an adventure. And I wonder what it's like when you're sleeping at night and the sounds you must hear, because a lot of these cabins are fairly isolated. They're at some distance from, as you said, the big house.

Mr. McGILL: Yeah. I did this in May at Magnolia Plantation. It's a little hard. It was a challenge getting to sleep because of the sounds, that was a very windy night. And there was a tree right beside the cabin that had limbs that were resting on the top of the cabin. I would hear the limbs hitting the top of the cabin. Finally, I had to convince myself that what I was hearing was nature.

But even more interesting than that, that next day, I got up and I took a walk and came upon a cemetery. And that made me know that what I was doing was the right thing to do because it was going to give those folks a voice. This is the way that we can get this part of our history to the mainstream and make it a part of not only African-American history, but American history.

NORRIS: Well, good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Mr. McGILL: All right. You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's Joe McGill. He's a program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and he has been spending the summer sleeping in slave cabins throughout the southeast.

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And, Michele, we should tell everyone at this point that while we'll be hearing from you on the program on Friday and on many other days in the coming weeks, you're about to take a prolonged leave of absence.

NORRIS: I am. I am. I took some time off to write a book. I was trying to explore the hidden conversation about race in America. And when I listened to the hidden conversation in my own family, I wound up writing an accidental memoir. And I'm going to take some time off to go on a book tour and travel the country. And they call it the book tour, but I actually call it the listening tour. I'll be hearing from lots of people in lots of different places.

SIEGEL: You'll be back for a while in late October.

NORRIS: Yes, around midterm election.

SIEGEL: And then for keeps, you'll return to us when?

NORRIS: In January.

SIEGEL: In January.

NORRIS: Can't get rid of me.

SIEGEL: Well, good luck on the book tour. And may our temporary loss be a big gain for the best sellers list around the country.

NORRIS: Hear, hear.

SIEGEL: Okay. Take care now.

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NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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