From Whence We Come

Thank you so much, Toni, for sharing your insights with us. We appreciate you for all the great photos you uploaded on Facebook to help us share the experience.  We know the ancestors are proud that you helped to bring them to light through your experience on this Slave Dwelling Project stay.

Robin Foster
About Our Freedom

From Whence We Come
Written by: Toni Renee Battle

I met Joseph McGill, Jr. in March of 2012 and he told me about his work through The Slave Dwelling Project. I found within my spirit an immediate response to his work. My steps were being ordered to partake in this ancestral journey. We met at the Coming To the Table (CTTT) national gathering, which brought together descendants of the enslaved, slave owners and slave traders for the purposes of healing from the legacy of slavery, but also doing action work, creating safe spaces for difficult conversations and family history research in today’s times.

Devin Berry, who is also a member of CTTT, and I committed to attending a slave dwelling overnight with Joseph during the same weekend. Through community donations, he and I were able to embark on an incredible experience that will last a lifetime.

We arrived in VA and spent our first day in Surry, VA at school assemblies watching Joseph, dressed as a Black union soldier, provide a historical narrative to the youth, 1st through 12th grades, and also give some background to the previous slave dwellings he had visited in the past. We also had an opportunity to explore Bacon’s Castle plantation together with Joseph, prior to the other guests arriving for that evening’s overnight.

As we drove onto the plantation grounds, Devin and I turned to each other asking the same question, “Did you feel your breathing change and your chest tighten up?” It was as if, our ancestral spirits were responding to the history of the land we had just drove onto. We quickly got out of the car and began taking photos of the “BIG house” and of the incredibly long driveway leading onto the plantation grounds.

After parking, Joseph excitedly asked us if we were ready to visit the slave cabin we would be staying in for the evening. Devin and I immediately said at the same time, “YES!” The three of us walked behind the big house and saw a cabin sitting just beyond a tree. It was white-washed and rustic. The closer we got, the more emotion I felt. Here we were, three Black folks in 2012, descended from the enslaved, two of us Black men, one of us descended from the enslaved, slave master and slave trader, about to walk into our ancestral past; what a moment!

As Joseph opened the cabin doors, Devin and I looked at each other and entered sacred space. If the walls could talk there would be stories of pain, horror, joy and sadness. The wood seemed to scream at me as I ran my hands along its roughness. Immediately I begin singing, “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, there’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place!” You could feel the ancestors’ spirits within this dwelling. I immediately felt a sacredness in the space as the three of us took photos. To see Devin dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt and Joseph in a union uniform was as if the past and present were talking at the same time. As Black men standing there, with one foot in the past and one foot in the present, in a slave cabin was very powerful. The three of us experiencing it together was as if the ancestors were whispering over our shoulders as we looked out the window onto the slave quarters, “From whence we come!”

Later that evening we met the rest of the group that would be staying with us and proceeded over to the slave cabin. During the evening we blessed the cabin, conducted libation, celebrating the ancestors and those who were enslaved on the land and then we gathered together in the two rooms of the cabin. We shared sacred stories of our family histories and we were blessed to hear the Anderson sisters (two women from the Surry, VA area) share with us that their great-great grandmother had been enslaved at Bacon’s Castle Plantation and they were overnighting as a way of paying respects to her memory. I asked one of the sisters what it felt like for her to be in the cabin, on the land her ancestors had been enslaved on; she responded, “I thought I would feel anger, but I feel nothing but my grandmother’s love as if she’s right here with us. I can’t begin to tell you what an amazing experience this is for us! It’s very healing. I’ve drove past this plantation the last 30 years and wanted no parts of it. But The Slave Dwelling Project seemed different. It told OUR story.” We all listened in great appreciation and reflected on our own feelings.

I laid down with Prinny Anderson (another CTTT member) and Devin on purpose, because I wanted to have the experience of us sharing this sacred space together. During the night, Prinny and I heard a woman singing in the distance. We both later smiled, feeling our ancestors were letting us know they were in the space with us. Before dawn, we were awakened by Mr. Joe Jenkins, of Surry, VA. Before dawn he sung the Muslim morning call to prayer. He sung it in honor of the enslaved who were Muslim and forced to convert to Christianity as a means of stripping them of their identities. One of the first things that were done to the enslaved were before boarding the slave ships, they were baptized into Christianity and given “good, Christian” names. They were forbidden to practice anything representative of their previous culture, traditions, religions or language. As Mr. Jenkins’ deep voice travelled the slave cabin, my very soul answered. My body sat straight up and I rose and walked to the other side where he sat singing in the new day. I sat with others, as tears ran down my face in awe of the very reverence of the moment.

The day was filled with the community coming out to learn about the history of Bacon’s Castle, which for the first time included the enslaved narrative in a very authentic way. Many from the Black community in Surry, stated it was the first time many of them had been on the land in decades. They believed The Slave Dwelling Project had provided an opportunity to begin a new chapter of healing from the legacy of slavery. Family members descended from the enslaved of Bacon’s Castle shared oral stories of their ancestors, elders shared experiences of their families sharecropping post slavery and some shared their hopes that the day had birthed a starting point of a new relationship with the plantation’s past. There were tears, sacred storytelling, laughter, cooking of traditional Black and Native food dishes, and lots of hugging and listening to shared pains and joys. I found myself at a tree facing the slave cabin and being brought to tears as I looked around. Wasn’t this what the ancestors had just whispered over Devin, Joseph and my shoulders the previous day? “From whence WE come!”

The Slave Dwelling Project was an opportunity for me to not only pay homage to the ancestors and educate others about the need to preserve these dwellings as part of the historical narrative, but it was also a way for me to begin healing some of the generational grief and wounded history within my ancestral line. This was one of the most sacred experiences of my entire life!

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  1. My God!! that's all i can say.. i could feel every word you spoke, my eyes filled with tears and my soul became anxious to hear more. God bless you for your journey and sharing it with the rest of us.


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