Organization Seeks To Preserve Slave Dwellings

Nov 4, 2013

There are still plenty of physical reminders of slavery today. Among them: hundreds of former slave cabins across the country.

A group called the Slave Dwelling Project sets out to identify these mostly small, dilapidated structures and bring attention to their preservation by inviting people to sleep in them.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Leoneda Inge of WUNC took part in a recent sleepover at the Stagville historic site in Durham, N.C., and has this report.


  • Leoneda Inge, reporter at WUNC & Here & Now Contributors Network.
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The new movie "12 Years a Slave" is getting a lot of buzz for the Oscars. It's the story of Solomon Northup, a black man born free in early 19th century New York, who lived the life of a respected musician until 1841, when he was lured South by the promise of a job, and then kidnapped and sold as a slave.


CHIWETEL EIJOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) Days ago, I was with my family in my home. Now you're telling me all is lost. Tell no one who I am, that's the way to survive. But I don't want to survive. I want to live.

HOBSON: Well, "12 Years a Slave" it's just the latest to tell a story about American slavery, but some want to go even further in showing people what life was like for slaves. A group called the Slave Dwelling Project invites people to sleep in slave cabins. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WUNC's Leoneda Inge took part in a recent sleepover in Durham, North Carolina.

LEONEDA INGE, BYLINE: The Stagville historic site sits in the middle of what was once one of the largest slave plantations in the South. As many as 900 slaves worked the land owned by the Bennehan and Cameron families. Tour guide Jessie Eustice walks visitors through the spacious 10-room Bennehan House, and then to the slave quarters about a country block away.

JESSIE EUSTICE: So a family would live in one room. And a family would consist of somewhere between five and 12 people.

INGE: The tourists are pretty quiet, taking it all in. Louisa Hirsch(ph) lives in Germany and is visiting friends in Durham.

LOUISA HIRSCH: I've been to plantation homes before, but that was 20 years ago, and they paid practically no attention to the enslaved people. So this is the first time I'm getting an in-depth view of how they lived.

INGE: What do you think about? Would you sleep out here, sleep in one of the quarters, the slave quarters?

HIRSCH: Well, I'd say I wouldn't enjoy it. I could've - I would consider doing it if the weather was tolerable and if I wasn't by myself. I guess that's one thing we may tend to forget that, you know, this is - these people never had a moment to themselves.

INGE: As the tour ended, another small group arrived. We were all about to get very intimate with one specific structure on the historic Stagville grounds. We were preparing to spend the night with Joseph McGill. He has worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is founder of the Slave Dwelling Project.

JOSEPH MCGILL: There has been a tendency not to concentrate on those, not to preserve those. And not preserving those, of course, they deteriorate or are torn down. Sometimes with malicious intent, and that intent is to erase that part of our history.

INGE: McGill has slept in almost 50 former slave dwellings across the country. He loses count. And he says there's no telling what some of these dwellings have become.

MCGILL: Some exist as storage areas. Some exist as guest houses, pool houses, storage spaces. And some are even primary residences for people.

INGE: McGill says sleeping in a slave dwelling is a lot to ask someone to do. And still they do it, like Prinny Anderson of Durham. This was her fifth time sleeping in a slave dwelling.

PRINNY ANDERSON: It was the kind of action I wanted to take to honor the enslaved people that my ancestors had owned and did not honor and have not honored in the meantime.

INGE: Anderson can trace her family back to Thomas Jefferson. Terry James has also traced his family roots all the way back to a plantation in South Carolina. His ancestors were slaves. He slept in nearly 20 slave dwellings, each time with his wrists shackled.

TERRY JAMES: You know, tender here then you try to twist the other way, and the next day, actually, I was sore from trying to sleep. My hips were sore, and my back was sore.

INGE: And you just - you still do it.

JAMES: I still do it. Kind of paying tribute to those people that came over and suffered.

INGE: Three graduate students from North Carolina Central University also joined us for the night. To help ensure a decent night's sleep, Jerome Bias cooked dinner on our camp fire.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is succotash.

Thank you. That's good. I just want to taste it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, yeah. Okra. This is how my grandmother used to make it. She will put shrimp in it...

INGE: Over dinner, much of the conversation centered around race: from the underground railroad to the way slaves are portrayed in films these days. Then it was time to go to bed. It was a chilly North Carolina night. All eight of us agreed to sleep in one room together for warmth, and I'll admit, to ease the nerves.

We covered the old wooden floors with sleeping bags in the 16-by-16-foot room. Most of us tossed and turned all night. Joseph McGill has learned to sleep through the night comfortably, snoring.


INGE: As the sun peeped through an opening that serves as a window and roosters crowed, it was time to pack up and go. McGill wasn't surprised. No one really had a good night's sleep.

MCGILL: Sleeping is just not enough. Now it's time to wake up. And now that the attention has been garnered, now I can deliver the message that these places are important.

INGE: Next week, McGill will sleep in slave dwellings back in his home state of South Carolina, his last sleepovers until spring. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Leoneda Inge in Durham, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.