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Slave Dwelling Project honors, educates about Loudoun’s past

Joe McGill and Terry James at the Leesburg Courthouse during First Friday. Times-Mirror/Alexander Erkiletian
The Slave Dwelling Project, founded by Joseph McGill and based in South Carolina, partnered last week with Oatlands Historic House and Gardens, The Friends of the Arcola Slave Quarters, the Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch, the Loudoun Freedom Center, and the Loudoun County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services to visit the Leesburg Courthouse, Oatlands Historic House, the Settle-Dean Cabin and the Arcola Slave Quarters.

McGill, joined by Project board members and descendants of Loudoun slaves, slept on the Courthouse Lawn Friday night and in the slave dwellings at Oatlands Saturday night.

Oatlands Historic House and Gardens

Like other tours at Oatlands, attendees first gathered at the Carriage House. While they waited for the tour to begin, attendees enter the historic mansion and see artifacts from the time of slavery on display: a neck collar with long spikes that impeded a slave’s movement and kept them from lying down to sleep as punishment for, say, trying to escape; a branding iron, similar to one used on cattle, to mark a slave as belonging to a particular owner in case the slave tried to escape, or in case another owner tried to steal the slave for themselves; a flyer for a sale of “valuable personal property” listing furniture and livestock like 4 horses, a “very handsome young bull,” a flock of sheep, and a seven-year-old slave girl.

The tour began at 8 p.m., as the sun was going down, on the front lawn of the main house.

“I’ve had people who have said they would join me in these sleepovers, but sometimes when it came down to it, they couldn’t handle it,” McGill told the tour group. “But I am here because somebody thought the stories being told here were not sufficient. And I agree with that. When I was young, the stories I was told about my ancestors did not make me proud, because they were being told from the perspective of those who lived in that house.”

The fundamental mission of the Slave Dwelling Project is to uncover and preserve the stories of those who had been enslaved. But, as McGill explained to the group, while he is a historian and has worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he is also a Civil War reenactor and prefers to be more hands-on. So he founded the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010 and has slept in 95 slave dwellings in 19 states and Washington D.C. over the last 7 years. It’s McGill’s solution to the problem of incomplete histories at houses and sites like Oatlands. He wants to bring people out of their comfort zone and hold history accountable as opposed to sanitizing it.

“You’ve got to be willing to tell the real story,” said McGill, “and take the opportunity to get away from the 'Gone with the Wind,' hoop skirt, mint julep version of the story. Often it’s said those who lived in that house built that house. Well that was a lie. Under that plaster are bricks laid by the enslaved, made from clay that was dug by the enslaved. The timber frame made from trees cut down here—our enslaved ancestors cut down those trees, they framed that house. Their labor built that house. The point is the story has to be the same no matter who the audience is.”

And no matter who is telling it.

The tour moved from the front lawn of the main house to the terraced garden and the “garden dependency”— brick structures, those same bricks made by the enslaved at Oatlands, which housed the enslaved near what was then the kitchen garden, as well as a smokehouse and a laundry. The sun was almost completely set and, in the dark, descendants of Oatlands slaves read aloud a list of names of those who had been enslaved there. It was an incomplete list complied by Lori Kimball, director of programming and education at Oatlands. There are others whose names are not known. The tour ended with a Q&A and a bonfire, before McGill and the others went to sleep in the slave dwellings.

Leesburg Courthouse

On Friday night, McGill and Slave Dwelling Project board member Terry James were at the Leesburg Courthouse during Leesburg’s First Friday, dressed in their reenactment uniforms. They later camped out on the courthouse front lawn with others who are descendants of Loudoun slaves.

The courthouse was a place where sales of enslaved people took place. It has more recently been at the center of controversy regarding a monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers. Similar to cities like New Orleans and Charlottesville, people have debated whether this sort of monument should be removed or moved elsewhere.

McGill and James say “no.”

“This interprets a part of our history that’s not pleasant, but it’s still an element of our history,” they explained in an interview with the Times-Mirror. “To remove this is like trying to take the N-word out of 'Huckleberry Finn.' That’s letting them off easy. This is a slippery slope that we’re on. We have the power here to alter history if we remove this and sanitize history. So you keep it there and use it to tell the whole story of what the Confederacy was about.”

When asked about what it means to have a memorial like this at a courthouse, where citizens are supposed to get a fair trial before a judge, they said, “Well, tell us how this man and men like him impeded the pursuit of happiness for our ancestors, and represent that here too. That’s fair.”

He continued, “We have to have a serious conversation about what went wrong. No hiding, no yelling. Imagine we’re in a boat, and we’re shooting holes in the boat, what’s going to happen? It’s going to sink. Same thing here. If we keep going after each other, America is going to sink, its integrity is going to sink. So we can’t take these monuments down and alter history. Add to them. Add the truth.”

Alexander Erkiletian contributed to this story. Contact the writer at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or on Twitter @MsSophieDesmond


To the “Heritage not Hate” contingent:  The reverence for the Confederate flag and the erection of statues to the fallen heroes of the South started in earnest several decades after the end of the hostilities.  They were part of glorifying the “Lost Cause” and the whole enterprise was fueled by the notions of white supremacy that went hand in hand with the Lost Cause narrative.  Virginia has the dubious honor of giving a home to more of these things than any other state.

Take it from this liberal snowflake, I prefer history over hokum and see these vestiges of a racist past for what they are.  Defenders of these markers may want to rewrite history so they feel better about themselves but that’s for losers.

Using the logic of liberals, we must ask these gentlemen to make no mention of our history as it may offend all of our precious snowflakes. We don’t want any micro aggressions triggering our liberal citizens. That aside, I love that these guys are doing a living history exhibition, it educates everyone and should be embraced fully.

Loudoun4Trump comment is another example of Trumpsters who do not read.  Trump is quoted “I’m looking at a book..” when asked about what he reads.  “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” -Thomas Jefferson Unfortunately, too many folks are counting on the media to become “educated” today.  Understanding all major news outlets are in the entertainment biz is a good first step.

I agree with Lawman.

Since Oatlands was a slave plantation, where are the liberals demanding that Oatlands be leveled to the ground?

If a Confederate Statue is such an issue, surely a slave plantation in 1000x worse.

Hey Loudoun4Trump. Next time try reading the article in addition to the heading. You might be happily surprised.

Yes tear it down and put it at the Balls Bluff cemetery where the soldiers are interned.

So does the statue behind these two gentleman that the NAACP wants to tear down…

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