Follow Friday: Sleep-in to Save History


Tonight, I’m joining Joe McGill and several others in a sleep-in to preserve history at the Greenwich Historical Society in Greenwich, CT.

A Civil War re-enactor and program officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, McGill has slept in 29 slave dwellings in the past two years as part of his mission to preserve these mostly decaying and forgotten monuments of American history. Most recently, he slept in a cabin at Friendfield Plantation in South Carolina where first lady Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather was enslaved. Tonight will be his second time sleeping in a slave dwelling in the North. He’ll sleep in a dwelling in the attic of the historic Bush Holley house, home of the Greenwich Historic Society.Guests have sometimes joined him in his preservation sleepovers, some descendants of slaves like himself, some white. But none ever claimed their intimate connection to the experience as a descendant of a slave owner until now.

Grant Heyter-Menzes, a biographer from Canada will join McGill sleeping inside the cabin. Both Grant’s southern and northern ancestors held slaves. His ancestor, Nathaniel Lynde, who had four slaves, donated the land where Yale University stands today.

I met both men through Coming to the Table, an organization that brings together the descendants of slaves and slave owners to heal from slavery’s historical harms. I’ll be joining them and another CTTT member, Dave Pettee in a panel discussion before the sleep-in.

Check out Joe McGill’s slave dwelling schedule.  And if you’d like to sleep-in to save history, send him a note. I’m sure he’d like the company.

Blogiversary Gift: Sankofa

Slave cabin at Sweet Briar College, Amherst, VA where I visited last fall.

Yesterday marked two years of blogging about my search for my ancestors and their stories.

When I started, I just hoped that this blog would connect me to more family on this same research path and bring some levity to what I feared would be a daunting journey.  Indeed that has happened. Not including my cousin, Monique who encouraged me to start this blog, “Finding Josephine” has connected me with four other distant cousins as well as my “good as cousins” – descendants of the people who enslaved my ancestors. Some of these virtual relationships have remained in the cyber world. Others have resulted in face to face connections and ongoing communications.  From things like letters written by my ancestors to portraits of them, this journey has uncovered an amazing amount of information about my family’s past, our country’s and even about myself.

Discovering that my enslaved ancestor, Tempy Burton went from being property to owning it, inspired me to start looking for our dream house.  My husband and I always had an idea in our minds of the kind of house we wanted but could never figure out how to make it happen. Tempy, with no formal education, figured out how to buy an acre of land and even passed some of it down to my great, great-grandmother, Josephine.  If she could make that dream happen, then why couldn’t I make this one happen?  We just moved into our dream house last week.

Stumbling across my third great-grandfather’s obituary that said he’d studied at Washington College on the Eastern Shore of Maryland made me seek out more information about the school and my ancestor’s time there. That ancestor, William R. Stuart, was a Maryland State Senator and as Senate President, I’m sure he had to give plenty of speeches.  I hope to channel his speaking gene when I speak at Washington College about my ancestry journey  in November. (Let’s hope he wasn’t boring or long winded).

Going back has propelled me forward.  That’s the spirit of the West African word and symbol Sankofa - taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present for  positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.

Speaking of Sankofa, on Saturday, I got a chance to speak with Joseph McGill, Jr. of the National Trust for Historic Preservation about his project to sleep at slave dwellings around the country in order to bring attention to their existence and preserve them. If that isn’t the spirit of Sankofa, then I don’t know what is. The conference call was arranged by “Coming to the Table,” an organization that brings descendants of the enslaved and enslavers together in the spirit of healing.    Speaking to him reminded me that I’d visited a slave cabin last fall, pictured above. The cabin sits on Sweet Briar College in Amherst, VA, the former site of a plantation.

Being inside the one-room dwelling, crammed with original farm equipment and even “slave bracelets” ( not to be confused with any kind of fashion statement) was simply overwhelming.  Their cabin was a stone’s throw from the enormous main house and the image of the two together seemed a perfect visual summation of our country’s history of slavery and the enduring legacy.  I was so relieved that the university was preserving the slave cabin and allowing the public to see it just like the main house.  Maybe McGill will add the cabin to his project. Maybe other Americans will visit it too as part of their “Sankofa” journey.

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