PINEVILLE — Sitting around a campfire late Friday, they explained, one by one, why they wanted to do this: Spend the night in the kind of crude cabin that may have housed enslaved people on small farms and large plantations in Mecklenburg County in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
When it was his turn to talk, Frederick Murphy of Charlotte, who is making a film about slavery and civil rights, echoed most of the other African-Americans in the circle. He said he’d come to pay homage to his ancestors, who’d been bought and sold as property and then worked from sunrise to sunset. “If you’re here today,” he said, “it’s because someone didn’t give up.”
Prinny Anderson of Durham, who’s white and claims Thomas Jefferson among her ancestors, said she was doing the sleepover – her 39th – as “a way to honor and memorialize the people my family owned, and show them the respect not shown them in the past.”
Then, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the group of 13 – most of them total strangers before bonding around the bonfire – finally crowded into the one-room, 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin. They rolled their sleeping bags onto the hard floor, said their goodnights, and tried to fall asleep amid the sound of crickets and the faint glow of two lanterns.
At a time when race is again on America’s front-burner – including debates about what to do with Confederate monuments and whether kneeling during the National Anthem is an appropriate way to protest racial inequality – some blacks and whites in the South and elsewhere are coming together to try to give voice and recognition to the stories of enslaved people.
This weekend’s sleepover at the boyhood home of Pineville-born President James K. Polk, whose farm family owned five slaves, was the latest gathering under the auspices of The Slave Dwelling Project.
Joseph McGill, its founder and executive director, led the campfire talk Friday and joined the others overnight on the floor of the cabin. He estimated it was the 100th or so slave dwelling he’s slept in since starting the project in 2010.
“There was this void that I noticed in the telling of history,” McGill explained during a dinnertime speech Friday at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture in uptown.
The buildings that were being preserved were the antebellum mansions, he said, with their grand furnishings, vaulted ceilings, drapes and place settings.
“All that stuff’s nice,” said McGill, an African-American born and raised in Kingstree, S.C. “But they stopped the interpretation (of history) at the back door of these big houses. … There’s been a willful intent to erase that part of our nation’s history.”
What the Slave Dwelling Project seeks to do, he said, is to raise awareness of the lot of those enslaved by these rich planters, whose mansions were often built, paid for and maintained through slavery.
“This Place Matters,” read the flags held up Saturday morning as the Pineville group – ranging in age from 13 to 81 – posed for a group photo in front of the lowly cabin where they had slept.
‘You can feel them here’
Polk, America’s 11th president, was among the eight who owned slaves while living in the White House.
He spent his first 10 years (1795-1806) in Mecklenburg County on a 150-acre farm his parents received as a wedding present.
And Polk’s mother, Jane, received two female slaves as part of her inheritance from her father, who died before Jane’s 1794 marriage to Samuel Polk.
The two slaves were known as Violet and Luce. And later, tax records show, the Polk family purchased two male slaves to work the cotton crop, though those at the President James K. Polk Historic Site in Pineville do not know their names. The fifth slave was a 12-month-old child.
The fact that enslaved people once lived and worked on the site seemed to weigh heavily on those spending the night there Friday.
And the hard floor and crowded conditions led some in the group to imagine what it must have been like for their ancestors and others who, unlike them, could not go home to freedom and comfort after a night of roughing it.
Elliott Willingham, 46, who teaches history and English at a school in Concord, slept close to his son, Elliott III, 13. And he wondered about slaves who were parents and worried that their child might be sold and sent far away from them.
“As a parent today, it makes you want to cling to your family and your children more so,” Willingham said. “We don’t really know (the slaves’) stories, but you can feel them here.”
Barbara Jackson, 81, an African-American who is a retired school counselor from Indian Land, S.C., said she also felt something – a kinship to her ancestors and to those kidnapped from their African homes and sent to a foreign country far from family.
“I thought about (my ancestors) day and night,” she said. “And it gave me a deeper insight into how a newly arrived (woman slave) may have have felt, not knowing any of the people there with her, not knowing what her life may be like or even the sounds she would hear during the night.”
And Jerry Landry, 35, of Davidson, who’s white and hosts two history podcasts, said the experience gave him a greater appreciation of what enslaved people were subjected to – and increased his bewilderment over how slave owners could treat fellow human beings in such a way.
“I can’t fathom doing that to anybody. It was even harder, trying to understand what was going on in their mind,” said Landry, whose great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy in Louisiana. “To so dehumanize other people, and see them as just a number on a ledger. . .”
‘My family . . . my village’
Most of the slave dwellings still standing are in the Carolinas and other Southern states, said McGill, who previously worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston and is now a historical consultant and tour guide at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, also in Charleston.
But he and participants in his project have also found and stayed in one-time slave quarters in non-Confederate states such as New York, Maryland, Delaware, Rhode Island – and even Wisconsin.
In 2017, McGill’s schedule of sleepovers started in February at the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy in Bluffton, S.C. and will end in November at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.
He said he generally spends two weekends of every month sleeping overnight at some slave dwelling.
On some of his free weekends: McGill has been a longtime Civil War reenactor. He wears the uniform of the Union’s 54th Massachusetts regiment, one of the first official African-American units in the United States. Its role in American history has not been forgotten: The regiment’s story was told in the movie “Glory” and on a prominent bronze sculpture in Boston Common.
As for his night with new friends on the Polk site in Pineville, McGill said he was encouraged to see the diversity – not only young and old, “but black and white folks sitting around a campfire at a presidential site, discussing slavery and the legacy it left on this nation.”
Paris Edwards, 46, an African-American who does business analysis for a Charlotte bank, said the experience left him with insights into how the country got to where it is today on race and other related issues.
“We have different current events than then, but the same undertone,” he said. “It feels like a broken record.”
And Dede Madjitey, 37, a senior analyst with Charter Communications, said sleeping was difficult in the cabin. Still, the self-described introvert said she woke up Saturday feeling close to those who had gone through this experience with her.
“For one night, that was my family,” she said. “ . . . my village.”