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In seven years, Joseph McGill, Jr. has slept at 95 slave dwelling sites in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Sometimes he sleeps at the sites with others and sometimes with descendants of those who were enslaved at the sites, but most often he sleeps there alone.
McGill, the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, has a background as a historian with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Civil War reenactor and a descendant of the enslaved. He started The Slave Dwelling Project in 2010 with a mission to “preserve, intervene, maintain and sustain” slave sites throughout the nation.
“There tends to be a focus on the big house,” says McGill about preservation priorities in the United States, “but that just tells the story of those who enslaved, not those who were enslaved.”
Through his work at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he saw firsthand the lack of focus on the slave dwelling sites, and “instead of complaining,” decided to do something about it. And he plans to continue traversing the country to different slave sites until he no longer can. “I will continue as long as my body will allow,” he says. “We can’t [quickly] correct what took us so long to get wrong.”
McGill brings his project to Loudoun the weekend of June 2-4 as he focuses his attentions on four locations: the Leesburg Courthouse, where sales of the enslaved people were orchestrated, a first for McGill; Oatlands Historic House and Gardens; the Settle-Dean Cabin in South Riding, which is one of the few remaining structures from the African-American village of Conklin; and the Arcola Slave Quarters, one of the few Loudoun County slave dwellings that is still standing. Friday and Saturday evening, McGill will sleep at the sites—Friday evening at the courthouse and Saturday evening at Oatlands. Saturday evening he will be joined by descendants of the Oatlands enslaved. “Staying with descendants is always special; it is what I prefer,” McGill says. “We cherish it as much as possible and carry on the same type of conversation [as with other stays]: slavery and what it has left on this nation.”
The weekend events are in partnership with Oatlands Historic House and Gardens, The Friends of the Arcola Slave Quarters, the Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, the Loudoun Freedom Center and the Loudoun County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.
June 2: Joseph McGill will hold a talk and Q&A on the Leesburg Courthouse lawn during Leesburg First Friday. The Black History Committee will display information about the county’s role in slavery. Inside, a presentation sponsored by Clerk of the Circuit Court Gary Clemens entitled “Preserving Loudoun’s Historic Court Papers” will be available for viewing. That evening, McGill and others will sleep on the courthouse lawn.
June 3: A tour of the Settle-Dean Cabin in South Riding will be available from 10-11:30 a.m. McGill will tour the Arcola Slave Quarters in the afternoon. In the evening, Oatlands will host a lantern-light walking tour of the property with talks about the enslaved community. McGill and descendants of those enslaved will sleep at the property that evening.
June 4: Pastor Michelle Thomas, founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center, will lead an outdoor worship service at Oatlands starting at 9 a.m.