The Slave Dwelling Project: Preservation and the African American Past

This weekend, Historic St. Mary’s City will host Joseph McGill, Program Officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who has become the face of the preservation of former slave quarters throughout the South. His vehicle for raising awareness has been the Slave Dwelling Project, where he visits and spends the night in former quarters (you can read about his overnights on his blog at Lowcountry Africana). Sunday night, McGill will take up residence in the duplex quarter behind the Inn at Brome-Howard, along with some local community members, some HSMC staff, and myself. McGill’s work has been a critical component to raising awareness about the African American past, and a sharp reminder about the importance of place and space to the history and memory of all those who lived in the past.

Sotterley plantation 048

Historic preservation has a history of remembering and protecting the “important” places in American history. For many, this is reflected in the preserved homes of America’s elite. I spent this weekend, for example, touring historic mansions in Richmond, Virginia. While the tour guides did take pains to comment on the separation of slaves and servants from the white elite who lived in these homes, these spaces were still “off limits”. Servant stairs were still used the way they were designed, only now it was to keep the museum staff hidden from visitors as opposed to the enslaved laborers, and the stairs were off limits to the visitors. While the story of African Americans and slavery is more visible then it ever has before, McGill’s efforts remind us that what is “important” to some may not be important to others, and that when we consider the value of preservation, and the importance of these spaces to understanding our shared past, we need to consider the value of each existing structure for those people who lived in them, for those who lived long after them, and the impact that their lives had on our history.

Quarter 1973egin emphasizing the story of the African Americans who lived in the duplex quarter, both during and after slavery. Our efforts at preserving the duplex have waxed and wained throughout the years: when the Museum was first purchased by the State of Maryland, the duplex quarter underwent a preservation effort to return it to its period of enslavement. Since then, the building, along with the manor home, was relocated to a new area in order to focus on the interpretation of the 17th century landscape. While this hurt the building’s historical value, it has also opened an opportunity for us to examine and interpret the 19th century buildings in a confined context. This work is beginning now, as we recently received funding from the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture to preserve and interpret the duplex.

Despite our recent efforts to begin focusing on the duplex, the real credit for the preservation of the building during the 20th century goes to the people who lived and worked in it. We are very excited to be working on this project with the descendants of the Milburn family, who moved into the duplex in the 1920s and lived there through the 1960s. Without this family, it is quite likely that this building would have fallen into ruin, as the other former slave quarters on the property did. While McGill’s project focuses on the value of these structures as former slave quarters, it is important for us to also remember that the only reason McGill can spend the night in so many of these buildings is not because they have been protected by preservationists, but because they have been lived in by families, often African Americans. Preserving these buildings not only brings awareness to the experiences of enslaved African Americans, but it sheds light on the post-Emancipation experience for African Americans throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This is why our preservation efforts, and our interpretation, will examine this building’s entire history.

Please join us for Mr. McGill’s visit. This is our first official public activity ever held at the duplex quarter, and it begins at 3:00 pm on Sunday September 22nd, with a tour and discussion about the history of the building. You can meet Mr. McGill and learn about the Slave Dwelling Project, and how to get involved in raising awareness about these important buildings. McGill, myself, and others will spend the night in the structure. You are welcome to join us. On Monday, Joseph McGill will also give a talk about the Slave Dwelling Project at the Visitor Center Auditorium. Admission for all the activities are free of charge.

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