Sons of former slaves, and sons of former slave owners

It is such a great privilege to make the great accounts Joseph McGill's of the Slave Dwelling stays available to you.  This blog stands as high in significance as each of the others. We are fortunate once again to have the account of other participants.  These accounts will be published in tomorrow's posting on About Our Freedom.  Their accounts are unparalleled.  Read on to learn why....

Thank you once again, Joe!
Robin Foster

By Joseph McGill, Jr. | Field Officer | Charleston Field Office
National Trust for Historic Preservation | William Aiken Housel 456 King Street, 3rd Floor, Charleston, South Carolina 29403 |

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of
former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” –Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr.

The Bush-Holley Historic Site in Greenwich, Connecticut was not the first northern stay for the
Slave Dwelling Project, Cliveden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania holds that distinction. This was not
the first time that I stayed in a dwelling in an urban setting, for I did that in Montgomery, Alabama;
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Lexington, Missouri; Wilmington, North Carolina, Anderson, South
Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina. This was not the first time that I shared the experience
with a Caucasian, for I have done that in Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, Maryland and South Carolina.

It might be the case that some of the Caucasians on some of those prior stays were the descendents
of former slave owners, information for whatever reason they chose not to reveal and I chose not
to ask. The stay at the Bush-Holley house was the first time that I knowingly shared the slave
dwelling experience with the Caucasian descendants of slave owners and get this, one guest was the
descendant of a slave and slave owner.

I can recall that when I became a Civil War reenactor 20 years ago, some Confederate
reenactors would be quick to voluntarily reveal to me that their ancestors did not own
slaves as if to justify to me and themselves that the Civil War was not about slavery. I have
read and have a signed copy of the book titled Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball. None
of that really resonated with me until I recently got involved with the group Coming to
the Table. The Coming to the Table story is about connecting people and the past to the
present and future in a way that is relevant for our nation. Housed at Eastern Mennonite
University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, CTTT was launched when people whose
ancestors were connected through an enslaved/enslaver relationship realized they
had a shared story that remained untold. Today, they and many others believe that the
legacies and aftermath of slavery impact our nation in seen and unseen ways and they are
committed to writing and telling a new story about our nation’s past and the promise of our
collective future.
Left to right: JosephMcGill, Grant Hayter-Menzies, Dionne Ford Kurtti, Reverend David Pettee 

It was through this group that I was introduced to Grant Hayter-Menzies, Reverend David Pettee
and Dionne Ford. They would all share the Slave Dwelling Project experience with me on the
night of Friday, March 30, 2012. I met David and Dionne three weeks prior in Richmond, VA at
the national conference of Coming to the Table. Grant, who was instrumental in making the stay
happen, I only knew through telephone conversations, facebook and emails.

According to its brochure, “the circa-1730 Bush Holley-House, a National Historic Landmark, is the
centerpiece of the Greenwich Historical Society’s site on Cos Cob Harbor. Bush-Holley House is
significant on multiple levels and has been preserved to feature many of the architectural elements
added in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, the landscape and gardens of the historic
buildings are restored to circa 1900, a visual statement that allows visitors to recognize many
artworks created on site. Once you enter the house, you’ll find that your tour offers a glimpse
into two distinct eras that tell a story of dramatic change over time.” In my opinion, this brochure
nor the information that I came across on the website does not do the site justice for all that it is
successfully doing to interpret its slave holding past.
Panelists from left to right: Dale Plummer, Joseph McGill, Dr. Allegra diBonaventura, Grant Hayter-Menzies, Reverend David Pettee, Dionne Ford Kurtti

Prior to the stay, staff at the Bush-Holley House arranged for a panel discussion on the subject
of slavery in the north. In addition to the three people who would join me in the sleepover, the
following people were also included on the panel; Dr. Allegra diBonaventura, Assistant Dean of the
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University; and Dale Plummer, City Historian of Norwich
and Chair of the Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee. The discussion was
given to a standing room only crowd with lots of questions asked afterwards. It was exciting to see
a diverse audience there especially because I knew most of the African Americans who attended.
My uncle was there who I had not seen in 21 years, he was accompanied by his daughter who, by
my recollection, I was meeting for the first time. This mini family reunion was reminiscent of the
first northern stop for the Slave Dwelling Project at Cliveden in Philadelphia, PA in 2011. There two
aunts and my first cousin all of whom I had seen for 20 years met me at Cliveden.

Trying to interact with all the people wanting attention after the panel discussion was a challenge
but a good problem to have. I eventually ended up in the space where we were to spend the night.
It was there that the reporters wanted their interviews. Maneuvering in the space was a challenge.
It was a space that was set up to be seen from an observation area. Allowing us to sleep there was
the site’s curator worst nightmare and rightfully so. The space was filled with artifacts and replicas
and materials that depicted a space lived in by enslaved people, therefore only Grant and I could
sleep in that space. Allowing too many people in to that space could compromise its structural
integrity, therefore David and Dionne had to share the space in the observation area. Luckily, we
were only separated by 3 feet high plexiglass. Of my 30 prior stays, this space could be compared
to the Russell/Reinhard house and Winsor/Aull Greek Revival mansion both in Lexington, Missouri.
The space which was originally separated from the house was eventually attached similar to the
slave dwelling at Cliveden in Philadelphia, PA.

Once the reporters left, we all went outside to perform a libation ceremony to the ancestors.
Interesting because although we were only four people, the place, our backgrounds, and our
reasons for being there made for some heartwarming and tear jerking requests.

Once back inside the space, the publishers of my blog for the second consecutive time, made
arrangements for me to communicate live with an audience through Facebook. The questions
came fast and furious and I kept up as much as my blackberry would allow all the time being
thankful that this project was compelling enough for people to want to engage in a live chat. It also
proved that I must improve my capacity to communicate if I want to continue to offer an audience
an opportunity to engage in live chats. What I took from that experiment is that the questions
asked forced me to think more about the space and the people who occupied it, and for those who
participated, I say thank you for reminding me that this project is not about Joseph McGill but about
the enslaved people who occupied their assigned space in the Bush-Holley House and other places
like it.

After the live chat, I engaged in conversation with Dionne, Grant and David. We talked about
how the house was threatened with demolition when I-95 was proposed. With our collective
knowledge of how interstates were planned, we concluded this area had to be an African American
neighborhood. We talked about the challenges of ten enslaved people sharing a 25 by 20 feet space
that also coupled as storage space. We talked about the pushy reporter who tried to provoke us
into saying things we might regret once we calmed down. We talked about how the group Coming
to the Table brought us all together for this occasion. We talked about genealogical research and
my disdain for same and how I am thankful for people like the three of them who have the patience
for research. We talked about the three of them being prolific writers and how I will be calling on
them for inspiration for the writing I will eventually do for the Slave Dwelling Project. We talked
about being the descendant of a slave owner and a slave as is the case of Dionne. And then there
was sleep.

By 6:30 am everyone was awake. I was happy to learn that no one accused me of talking in my
sleep, snoring yes, but not talking in my sleep. The libation ceremony, the pushy reporter, the
live chat, sharing the space with descendants of slave owners, all had the potential of providing
ingredients for an interesting sleep conversation. The group conversation did continue from the
previous night when I blatantly asked David and Grant the question: “Do you feel like outcasts for
revealing the history of the slave owning by your ancestors?” By the answer they both gave, it is
apparent that both of these men have drawn a line in the sand and will not retreat despite what
ridicule that might come their way. I guess that became clear to me when I was in Richmond three
weeks ago with the group Coming to the Table because there were more people there like Grant
and David. We all left the space as we came in, with a reporter coming to gather our thoughts about
our overnight stay at the Bush-Holley House.

Next post:  Slave Dwelling Project accounts from the attic (The accounts by Dionne Ford Kurtti, David Pette, and Grant Hayter-Menzies).

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  1. Dear Joe,

    Thank you for undertaking this Slave Dwelling Project, to connect the past with the present in concrete and undeniable ways. The past always inhabits the present, I think, and I completely agree with your group that the legacy and aftermath of slavery deeply affects our politics and society today.

    I am the descendant of slaveholders in SC, and ironically I live just a few towns away from Greenwich in CT. Ten years ago I learned about my ancestors, and I researched and wrote a family memoir trying to understand what my ancestors could possible have been thinking as slave owners. Edward Ball's book was very important for me. I've tried to ask the hard questions about morality and moral psychology. (I've just published the book and my book blog is on twitter @MariannSRegan.) Now I am searching for my mixed-race relatives who I assume are second and third cousins. Robin Foster is helping me with her generous spirit and her amazing knowledge of genealogical sources.

    Thank you again for making us confront the past. It is the only way we can ever bring any healing or honesty to our nation today.


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