It’s a good thing Joe McGill doesn’t believe in ghosts. Some people would say he spends an awful lot of time around them.
McGill travels the country sleeping in some of the darkest corners of American history — the places where slaves once lived. On Friday night, he slept in his 56th slave dwelling, at the Ben Lomond Historic Site in Prince William County.
He has slept in slave huts as far north as Connecticut and all across the South, in dwellings located in urban centers and on rural plantations, in some that are all but crumbling and in some that have been converted into high-end homes.
“I think that this project, what it’s doing, is helping African Americans to identify with places,” said McGill, 52. “When I first started this project, I was thinking plantations, especially Southern plantations. I wasn’t thinking urban slavery. I wasn’t thinking Northern slavery. But it’s all part of the story.”
By sleeping in slave dwellings so often over the past four years, McGill has learned to glean facts about the slaves who lived in them, sometimes just by looking at the structure — one of the only testaments to their experiences. At Ben Lomond Historic Site, he pointed out the fixed ladder to the attic. A permanent ladder, rather than a moveable one, meant that somebody probably slept in the loft, McGill said.
The hut, with two rooms that probably housed one family each, was a well-made stone structure that house servants would have lived in, McGill said. Slaves who worked in the fields would have lived in rougher wooden structures, but house servants’ dwellings were designed to reflect the prosperity of the slave-owning family.
Little else is known about the slaves on this particular plantation, according to Bill Backus, a historic interpreter for the county. Census documents indicate that from 1770 to 1860, there were 10 to 20 slaves at a time working in the house. More would have worked in the fields, which the owners of the house leased to other farmers. The names of the slaves are unknown.
The county and the Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation each paid $400 to sponsor McGill’s travel and supplies for the commemorative night, Backus said. The day after his overnight stay in the hut, he gave presentations on Civil War history to members of the community.
McGill, who works as a tour guide at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, S.C., and reenacts Civil War history when he is not traveling the country to visit slave dwellings, said that many people incorrectly assume that his goal is to feel closer to the spirits of the people who lived and suffered in the places he sleeps.
Instead, he said, he tries not to think much at all about the slaves who came to the place before him.
“I resist that connection, trying to make that connection. I don’t need to talk to them. I don’t need them talking to me,” he said. “I get mad.”
He wants to maintain a positive focus so that he can work with current property owners on the upkeep of the buildings. “I have to convince people with this project that I come in peace,” he said. A former employee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, McGill hopes that his camp-outs will inspire private owners who have slave buildings on their property to pay attention to the buildings’ condition.
“For every building that’s well-preserved like this one, there are just as many out there that may not be here at the end of this year if they’re not stabilized,” he said. When McGill comes to sleep in a building, that sends a powerful message to its owner that people care about the place. “This project prompts them to take these buildings off the back burner.”
In September, he plans to host a conference that will teach property owners how to best preserve such buildings.
“We’ve got to allow these buildings to evolve and let these private owners use them as they want to use them, because it’s their property,” he said, mentioning some slave dwellings that have become bed-and-breakfasts or even restrooms. “All I ask is that they interpret it.”
One property owner invited him to sleep in a hut, McGill said, but he found the building unsafe. The owner renovated it, and McGill has since taken school groups to sleep there.
He slept alone in the hut at Ben Lomond, but he often has companions for his overnight stays. By paying the $100 membership fee to join the organization that McGill started, anyone can join him for one night or more. Descendants of slaves and of slave owners have come to talk about their relationship with history. One man has spent 25 nights with McGill, and has chosen to sleep in shackles for 24 of them.
McGill has no problem using modern technology like cell phones and flashlights during these overnights, but his needs for the camp-outs are simple. “A sleeping bag, padding, a pillow, a club,” he said. A club? “For the snakes and critters.”