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Museums and the Elephant in the Room: The Slave Dwelling Project

Category: On-Demand Programs: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion
Screenshot of the video Museums and the Elephant in the Room The Slave Dwelling Project session

This recording is from the Future of Museums Summit held November 1-2, 2023.

Museums and historic sites have the potential to address historical injustices through reparative practices, engaging diverse audiences to promote a more inclusive and authentic understanding of U.S. history. Yet, many of these institutions have fallen short in interpreting crucial facts, such as the roles of indigenous and Black populations and the enslavement of Black people by prominent figures in American history. Explore the evolving challenges in the weaponization of Black history and discover strategies to ensure its proper acknowledgment and contribution to the nation’s narrative.

Speaker: Joseph McGill, Jr., Founder & Executive Director, Slave Dwellings Project, Magnolia Plantation


Joseph McGill: Hello, folks. My name is Joseph McGill, and I am the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. Thank you for this opportunity to present to you at this conference. I must apologize. I did not get an opportunity to take in any of the sessions yesterday. I was traveling here to Louisiana where I am right now. I will be going to a book signing tonight in New Orleans, and I will also be going to Whitney plantation tomorrow to present a living history.

The title for this presentation is called Museums and the Elephant in the Room. I want to talk about how our history is being weaponized for and against us as interpreters, African Americans, folks bringing the stories of our enslaved ancestors, and how this is triggering to some. I had some instances recently that are case studies for what I’m going to present to you today.

So, the Slave Dwelling Project is a very simple concept. About 13 years ago, Mother’s Day of 13 years ago, I woke up in a slave dwelling at Magnolia Plantation and gardens where I’m currently employed full‑time. I woke up there because of a crazy idea that I had, and it was based on my lack of knowledge of real history.

I was employed at that time by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization that’s known for preserving buildings ‑‑ iconic buildings, architecturally significant buildings. A lot of these buildings are antebellum buildings, meaning that there’s slavery attached to the history of those places. But that history that’s attached to those places weren’t being interpreted, you know, in a manner that they should be interpreted. If the enslaved people were being talked about, they were talked about as being happy to be enslaved, the enslavers were interpreted as benevolent people, and that’s what I say taught as a youth, you know, raised in South Carolina. Of course, South Carolina, the cradle of secession, they glamorized the history that was taught to me. They short‑changed me. They lied to me.

Didn’t give me anything to be proud of as a young African American or did not describe anything to me that would make me proud of my enslaved ancestors. I watched on the screen, and I know it’s hard to read, but it’s a Virginia history book of the 1950s. And I’m sure that if it was published in the 1950s, it was used, you know, far beyond the time of its publication. But it talks about good enslavers, happy enslaved people, educated enslaved people.

I encounter often people who I come across, working at Magnolia Plantation and gardens, as a tour guide. And the questions that I get from people, the Number 1 question that I get from people, they want to know if that particular enslaver was a good slave owner. And why is that the Number 1 question? It’s the Number 1 question because a lot of folks when he ask that question are about my age, hovering around, you know, their 50s, 60s, and older, and that’s the information that they operate on, that, you know, enslaved people were happy and enslavers were benevolent.

So, operating on that information, I thought that telling the truth would be needed. And this truth teller came in the form of this crazy idea of the Slave Dwelling Project, you know, finding slave dwellings wherever they are and asking the stewards, the owners of those places, to spend a night in those spaces. And that has evolved. It has evolved immensely. Sleeping in these places is easy ‑‑ easy for me.

I don’t sleep in these places alone anymore. People get in line to join that opportunity to sleep in these places. Before COVID, we had so much momentum and people were so excited about the project that, you know, we would have to take names and numbers for folks to join us at these opportunities to sleep in these slave dwellings.

Now, in our evolution, we not only sleep in slave dwellings anymore. It’s kind of like a bait and switch if you will. Because in this evolution that we’ve gone through, we have these conversations around these campfires about slavery and the legacy that its left on this nation. And in these conversations, we talk about white supremacy, white privilege, racism, confederate monuments, should they stay, or should they go? A hot topic today are weddings on plantations. And of course, the elephant in the room today, now, as we speak, is anti‑CRT and anti‑woke.

So, we talk about these things around the campfire. So, what you see on your screen there are sites associated with Presidents on the United States, 12 of our former Presidents were slave owners, something that I was not taught coming up through the years. I did not know that 25 signers of our Constitution enslaved people. I did not know 41 signers of our Declaration of Independence enslaved people.

I often ask the question, when I’m at Magnolia working as a tour guide, you know, who is visiting a plantation for the first time? And a lot of those folks in the audience will raise their hand, and then I reveal to them that that’s a trick question. And I tell them, I’m going to ask the same question, just differently. And then I ask: Well, who of you have visited Mt. Vernon? Hands will raise.

Who of you have visited the hermitage? Hands will raise.

Who of you have visited Monticello or Montpelier or the James competent Polk site? Hands will raise.

And I reveal the trick. I said, look, well, then, you visited a plantation.

Why is it that one can visit these homes of these Presidents and not know that the they visited a plantation? Therein lies the way we interpret our history. We interpret our history through the buildings that we choose to preserve. But those buildings that we choose to preserve want to tell that story that keeps people in that comfortable place. They want to make not only the buildings iconic but our founding fathers iconic. And these men had flaws.

So, we’ve gone to various sites that are associated with Presidents and, you know, we spend nights at these places, and we have these conversations. I recall one conversation at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, where we were there with the descendants of Sally Hemings and others who were enslaved there.

The conversation got quite intense. The conversation was about, you know, Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, consensual or non‑consensual. And it got so heated that the participants almost came to blows. So, these are the kinds of conversations that we have as the Slave Dwelling Project and others travel around this nation to let folks know that, you know, we are a great nation, but along the way, we committed some atrocities. And the Slave Dwelling Project is that opportunity to keep us honest, to ask those questions that ‑‑ you know, fill in those blanks and tell that element of history that some folks would choose to avoid.

The little woman who wrote the book that started this great war. Some of your may be familiar with Harry beaches and the quote by Abraham linking about her having a say in starting the Civil War. I kind of attribute that to the book, you know, 1619 and all of the attention that she’s been getting because of the 1619 Project.

When I go to Fort Monroe ‑‑ and I want to learn about those first Africans that came in, here into this nation. And a lot of folks get upset because we want to talk about these things, we want to talk about how this country was rooted in that institution of slavery and the fact that a lot is owed to not only our enslaved ancestors, to tell their story, or stories, but it also dances around that word that a lot of people are afraid of ‑‑ you know, reparations.

We talk about reparations and people go to their corners and they start yelling at each other. You know, everybody has their take on reparations. So, again, I gave Nicole Hannah Jones for starting this conversation that we’re so engaged in right now, this opportunity to trigger people in a sense that, you know, it’s not the history that our grandparents studied or the people before them. It’s a history now that’s more inclusive of other voices that were not there when these historians, usually white male, were controlling the narrative and telling the stories of the victors and leaving out the stories of those who ‑‑ whose voices are not there and being told in a manner that, you know, it’s just not correct.

I don’t want young children of today, you know, coming up like I came up. You know, we have, you know, re‑evaluated our history. Columbus is not all that he used to be. When I was young, Columbus was a hero. Now, we’ve incorporated the indigenous population and all that they encountered because of Columbus. You know, I hear the term often that our original sin was enslaving people. Well, I disagree with that. I think our original sin was purging natives. So, you know, they earned their ‑‑ they deserve their respect also. And I’m sure there’s probably somebody out there, just as I have taken on this project, I live and breathe, you know, the Slave Dwelling Project, I’m sure there’s somebody out there that does something similar for the Native American story.

You know, if there’s not, I think there’s ‑‑ someone should take all that on. So, you know, I appreciate all that Nicole Hannah Jones has done to ensure that this element of history is indeed interpreted, and the narrative is inclusive of all of our enslaved ancestors.

So, they call themselves patriots. I’ve gone to places along the way, and stayed in some places, that help tell the stories of our enslaved ancestors. When we look at Bacon’s Castle in surrey county, Virginia, and we looked at the place where race entered this thing ‑‑ or racism or the term race, you know, entered this element of our history where the have‑not were all banned together against the haves. And all that the went down at Bacon’s Castle, Bacon’s rebellion. So, I’ve had the opportunity to spend nights there and really delve into the stories of ‑‑ or the story of what really went on to bring this rebellion about.

I recall one time I had an opportunity to bring a group of students there, from Wisconsin, and before we did the sleep over, we went on a tour Nat Turner and his exploits, all that Nat Turner was about in that rebellion that he took part in. And the questions went a little like this.

You know, if you were of that period, if you lived in that period, would you ever joined Nat Turner? Well, my answer was yes. Well, it surprised one of the instructors. You know, this was a class of Jesuits out of Wisconsin. And he got a little upset at my answer.

He said but he was killing women and children. And my explanation to him was, if, indeed, one was suffering from cancer, and a doctor went in to remove that cancer, you want that doctor to remove all that cancer, you know, not just leave remnants of that cancer there in your body.

My point was, slavery is not only are you enslaved, but your children and your children’s children will be enslaved. That goes on forever.

And, you know, to leave women and children behind, just as they would be the ones to inherit that and continue to carry on that system of chattel. So, I stood by my desire or my answer that I would indeed be in Nat Turner’s camp and would have been one of those, going from the plantation to plantation, you know, taking out those enslavers and all that would benefit in the future from you know that institution of slavery.

I also have on the screen there Cliveden.I get a lot of pushback from folks when I tell them about the Slave Dwelling Project and what I do.I get a whole a lot of pushback from northerners when I tell them that I go around this nation and I spend nights in these ‑‑ in these slave dwellings.And the pushback comes because, just as I was miseducated or lied to, I think northerners were too in receiving their education.

I come across a lot of northerners that want to keep slavery in the south. And I can see why they want to do that. They’re proud of the fact that they had a revolutionary war prominence. They sent this army down south to rid us of this institution of slavery. They had the underground railroad, and all associated with that underground railroad.

But I have to often remind them that, you know, even before your revolutionary war and the fact that right after that revolutionary war, those northern states began to abolish slavery legislatively, they were still complicit. Because a lot of this ending of slavery was gradual. You take ‑‑ you take New Jersey for example. You know, New Jersey abolished slavery in 1804 on paper, but at the beginning of the Civil War, people were still enslaved in New Jersey.

Take New York. New York slavery ended in New York on paper in 1799. But the last person freed in New York was 1827. And in 1703, 43 percent of New Yorkers were slave owners. And when South Carolina seceded from the union on December 20, 1860, for a brief moment, New York considered seceding also. So, when I pass this information on to folks, especially northerners, they push back.

In fact, about three days ago, on my job at Magnolia, after I finished my presentation, I got confronted by this guy. And since I’ve been an interpreter for all the years that I have been an interpreter, I’ve only had two previous occasions where I almost had to fight a tourist. But it was just between me and the tourist, you know, we kind of said our ‑‑ we agreed to disagree, and we went our separate ways.

Well, this particular tourist came, and he said well, you know, I was not taught in Massachusetts that slavery was a good thing or that enslavers were good. I said, oh, that’s all well and good. That’s fine. I said, but were you taught that, prior to the revolution, Massachusetts was a slave holding state or a colony? And he didn’t want to accept that fact. I mean, he got loud. Called my presentation bullshit. I mean, he got loud, and then a crowd gathered. And then, you know, I knew the crowd was with me. They gathered to defend me had it come to blows, but it did not come to that. So that’s that elephant in the room, guys. That’s those people taking in this information about, you know, anti‑woke and anti‑CRT and not wanting to teach this element of history to our youth.

So that’s what we’re dealing with now in these United States. I also have on the screen Stenton. That’s also in Philadelphia. And I got into a little confrontation with them. They created an exhibit. Beautiful exhibit. And they talked about the ‑‑ an enslaved woman there who stopped the British from burning down this nice, beautiful home.

And they did, again, a good exhibit. Well, when I was thanking them, I said something along the lines of I think this is great, but let’s not just pull out the nuggets. Let’s tell the whole story, of all of the enslaved people who were there. And I know that all those stories that you have the potential to tell does not have a happy ending as what you’re selling your audience. Well, they took offense to that. They thought I was just, you know, poopooing the whole thing, and I wasn’t. I was praising what they did. I just wanted them to do more, be more inclusive.

Because there are those sites out there, they’ll pull out those feel‑good stories of the enslaved people there, and that’s what they’ll ‑‑ that’s what they’ll push to their public, again, trying to keep them in that comfortable place, or trying to tell their audience, mostly white audience, that, yeah, there was slavery here, but these particular enslavers were the good ones; they weren’t like all the other ones.

So, you know, we’re dealing with that Slave Dwelling Project deals with that often.

The threat. I talked about anti‑critical race theory. I talked about anti‑woke. Right there on the left, that is Montpelier. That’s the home of James Madison, you know, the father of our Constitution, “we the people.” I think that should be, we the people, comma, in this room. Because if you weren’t there, it didn’t mean anything to you. So, we ‑‑ I’ve spent a lot of time there, at that particular site, and they’re doing a beautiful job, right now, as we speak. But they went through an episode here about maybe two ‑‑ a year or two ago where they had said out loud that we’re going to allow the descendants of those who were enslaved there to help us govern this place.

It sounded good, but when they started implementing this thing, you know, that racism, that white supremacy reared its ugly head, and it played itself out publicly. And it was not pretty.

Now they’ve come around. They are now doing what they said that they would do, but it’s because we put it out there on Front Street that they had to do the right thing, you know, by this site.

The site there to the right, that is of course Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Years ago, one could go there, prior to the DNA proving that Jefferson indeed fathered six children by Sally Hemings, and even to this day there’s still pushback. There’s still those who want to stay in that comfortable place and not admit that, that that is indeed the case.

But they’re doing a better job there now. I wanted to put that particular slide in there because I visited a place a few weeks ago. I went to Patrick Henry’s site. You know, give me liberty, or give me death. And I spent the weekend there. Had a beautiful time. Well, on my way back to the airport, I stopped at Appomattox, and for the most part I had a great experience at Appomattox. But then I went, and I saw the slave dwelling or what I’ve sense learned was a replica of the slave dwelling. But they were being used as bathrooms.

And I say that to say this. Once upon a time, if you were to go to Monticello, maybe three or four years ago, the bathroom that was being used was once the space where Sally Hemings stayed, had very close access to, you know, President Thomas Jefferson, by design.

So, there are places out there that think that of our history, that it’s more appropriate to use our places that we inhabited as bathrooms.So, you know, that’s another one.And that’s that elephant in the room, guys.That’s those things.That’s that evidence of what’s there.That’s that evidence of how they feel about us and our history.

So, you know, the Slave Dwelling Project is in place to ensure all that is taken care of. Let me go on to this last slide, and I think we may be opening this up for question. I’ll yield to my host to help figure that out.

So, for the last 13 years ‑‑ and this is the last slide, guys.So, for the last 13 years, the Slave Dwelling Project has been going around to these sites, and we’ve been ‑‑ we’ve been telling it the real story, helping these sites tell the real stories of what happened there.As I said, I’m in Louisiana right now.

Tomorrow, I go to Whitney plantation. And I also ‑‑ I always speak so highly of Whitney plantation, because when people ask me, well, what’s the site that you recommend that we go to hear the real story, it’s always Whitney plantation because, you know, they came online with the intent of telling the real story, from the bottom up.

We can go to many sites and hear about the nice, beautifully architecturally significant house. We can go to many sites that lean into weddings, you know, more so than the stories of the enslaved people. But Whitney plantation is that place that really gets deeply into you know what these sites were. So, I’m happy that I will be a part of that.

And in closing, I want to read this, because I only got it yesterday. You know, I don’t know if this is a bought or a real person, but here is what they sent me. Now, there’s some typographical errors. I want to try to read it as best I can. So, this is dated November 1st, 2023, 19:41 p.m. subject, it says: Mr. Joseph, why can’t you people of creatures can’t stop your race baiting and slave baiting and glorifying past slavery? You people aren’t tired slave baiting?

It goes on to say: Slavery, slavery, every day, every day or else race, race, every day. When will it stop? What glory do you people get from constantly digging up the past, slavery? Is this what the now and the next African American generations has to listen to every morning or days of the week? How is the next generations going to move forward by listening to you going backwards? Every day about slavery. Mr. Joseph McGill, you are weakening the minds of this and next generation to come. Needs to stop. You no different from the African ancestors who was complicit in enslaving them own people, still happening today on the African continent. Living in the UK and on the planet. You people needs to stop deliberately referring and identifying and labeling and describing the African people and the their communities as black.

Africans are not a color. Africans are Africans with land and culture and history. Same as Asians are Asians and not a color. So, I just got that yesterday. So, I wanted to read that, just to let you guys know what we’re dealing with here. There are those who want us not to talk about that history. There are those who want to characterize our history as something that’s irrelevant. There are those who legislate against teaching this history to our youth.

And, you know, that’s why I’m proud that, in 2024, I’ll be going to the state of Florida. I’ve already got the state of Arkansas on the schedule. I’m trying to get Texas. All of those states where it has been legislated that they don’t want this history taught to our youth. We meet this head on. We do what we need to do to ensure that, you know, the history of our enslaved ancestors are taught in the manner that it should be taught. They were not happy to be enslaved. Their enslavers were not benevolent. And, you know, we do what we do to make sure that the world knows that. And these he means that I get like this, these messages, these people who want to physically fight about the truth, then, you know, I’m here. That’s what I do.

I honor my enslaved ancestors in the manner that I do, and I’m going to continue to do that. I don’t know how many more sleep overs I have left in this body. I probably have more behind me than I have in front of me, but we are a nonprofit organization and, you know, we do what we do. I’ve got younger members in the organizations, and they’re great people. And one more thing I want to leave you with.

We’ve had seven conferences so far, and they’ve all been in southern states. Our next conference will be in a northern state to be named. So, if you guys have any ideas of any northern states that can handle this, that wants to be a part of this, we’ve been partnering with institutions of higher learning to have these conferences. So, again, if you want to have this conversation with me, I’m more than happy to do that.

So, I’ll put a period right there and yield to my host to see where we go from here.

Tiffany Gilbert: Would you like me to read a couple questions from your chat?

Joseph McGill: That would be great, yes.

Tiffany Gilbert: One was: Were you met with any friction from these historical sites like Magnolia house?Have they made changes to their tours, interpretations to address the historical injustice?

Joseph McGill: Yeah. There’s been a lot of pushback, and there still is pushback from places. There’s one site in particular in South Carolina in Aiken, Hammond, the Hammond House ‑‑ red cliff. I’m sorry, Red Cliff Plantation. They were my first no. They said, no, we don’t want what you do. They came back around two years later into the project; saw I was legit and above board. And I have since stayed there. There are organizations calling on the Slave Dwelling Project now for consulting. They want to do the right thing. They don’t know exactly how to do it. But I’ve got a great board members that can help them figure it out. So, we’re working on some consulting contracts right now.

Tiffany Gilbert: Thank you. And we have just under 30 seconds left.

Can you share what Whitney foundation does to effectively tell a story of the plantation?And if you can’t answer, you can send me the response and I’ll send to the attendees.

Joseph McGill: Quick answer, they tell the story from the bottom up. They don’t start with the slave owner and maybe somehow trickle down to that element of the story. They start with that element of the story. And for the big house that’s on the site, they give people an option. You can go in there if you want. Our focus is here. So that’s Whitney in a nutshell.

Tiffany Gilbert: Thank you so much.This was such an amazing presentation.Like I said, I’ll send all of the chat questions to you and the attendees.Hopefully we’ll get those responses out to all of you from.Thank you.

Joseph McGill: Yes, and you have my permission to share all of this with all of the recipients.

Tiffany Gilbert: Will do.Thank you so much.

Joseph McGill: You are so welcome.

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