Joseph McGill, creator of the Slave Dwelling Project, will make an overnight stop at Sweet Briar College on Sunday, Oct. 7 and Monday, Oct 8. He will present a public lecture on the project at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Sweet Briar Museum and again at 12:15 p.m. Monday in the Johnson Dining Room at Prothro. The lectures are free and open to the public.
McGill’s overnight accommodations during the visit will be a sleeping bag on the wooden floor of the 19th-century cabin behind Sweet Briar House. The cabin is the former home of both enslaved and freed blacks who worked at Sweet Briar during its days as a plantation and as the College was being established — and it is the object of McGill’s visit.
In 2010 McGill began traveling to antebellum plantations, spending the night in former slave dwellings to bring attention to the importance of preserving and interpreting the historical structures. As a field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he was struck by how few outbuildings and dependencies survive relative to the many antebellum mansions that have been preserved as part of our heritage.
“The reason for the scant existence of these dwellings is debatable,” McGill says. “My solution to the problem is the Slave Dwelling Project.”
In the past two and a half years, he’s slept in dozens of slave quarters, rural and urban, from Connecticut to Texas. In doing so he also calls attention to the efforts of those who are actively working to preserve the sites that do still exist.
Although he began the project sleeping solo, McGill usually has company during his overnight stays and expects that will continue to be the case.
“I want others to share the experience, therefore becoming vested supporters for extant slave dwellings,” he says.
Sweet Briar will be his second stop in Virginia — his first trip to the state and his first stay on a college campus for the project. He will be at Bacon’s Castle in Surry on Oct. 5-6. While on campus, he will discuss with audiences why he carries on with the project and its future, along with a look back at some of the 37 sites he has visited.
The Sweet Briar cabin is the only one remaining of 28 that once stood on the property. Before College founder Indiana Fletcher Williams’ death in 1900, her overseer Logan Anderson occupied the cabin. Campus brick maker Sterling Jones lived there with several of his children during the College’s earliest years. By 1930, updated with running water and electricity, it served as the Sweet Briar Alumnae Association’s first home.
The building has since been used as a classroom, student clubhouse and “farm tool” museum. It is mostly empty now, as work to re-interpret the site gets under way to reflect its history as an African-American dwelling and its role in the development of the College. A grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities is supporting the research.
Although space is limited, members of the community who wish to share the experience of staying in the cabin may contact Tusculum Institute director Lynn Rainville at (434) 381-6432 or [email protected] for more information.