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.
My Grandma Louise told me her stories while we swam on Hilton Head Island
When I read the New York Times article last week about Michelle Obama’s ancestry, the fact that her family lore had suspected a white relative for years underscored the importance of gathering oral history. For blacks, the paper trail often runs cold since many slave births and deaths weren’t documented. Even my grandmother, born in 1910 never had a birth certificate. This was the case for many poor people (not just blacks) as well as those born in very rural areas around the turn of the century.
It’s easy for family history in general, but the history of African Americans in particular to die with our ancestors. That’s why I’m so grateful for all the story tellers in my life like my grandfather Martin Ford, and my grandmothers, Lillie Mae Ford and Louise Coleman Walton. When Martin and Lillie Mae were alive, they were generous with their stories of their lives in segregated Mississippi and Louisiana, and Louise at 93 continues to regale me with her tales of picking cotton and potatoes as a sharecropper, first in Oklahoma and then in California often with my mother, then just a baby in tow.
I’ve inherited my grandparents’ storytelling genes and for the next two weeks, I have the privilege of spending uninterrupted time spinning tales at a beautiful hilltop artist’s colony in Amherst Virginia. While I’m here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I hope to work on a fictionalized version of my maternal grandparents’ adventures. (No one would believe the true stories). So, I’ll turn this story over to my fourth cousin, Monique and let her tell you how we found each other in our parallel quests for our family’s history.