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Experiencing History: Sleep As a Slave Did

Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, in a restored slave cabin at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, S.C. (Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times)

On August 14, 2015, I read an article in the home-delivered New York Times “A Journey to Enclaves of Slavery in the North.” I cut out the article with the intention of writing a blog on the subject at some point in the future. That time has now arrived and naturally I was unable to find the clipping. Fortunately, there is on-line. That version was entitled “Confronting Slavery at Long Island’s Oldest Estates.”

Joseph McGill, the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, had his first encounter with sleeping in a slave dwelling in 1999. He was participating in a documentary about Civil War re-enactors and the controversy over the Confederate battle flag. The producers asked McGill about adding something special to the production. A slave cabin provided the answer. He recounts the experience of sleeping in it:

The floor was very hard, and the bugs were terrible. I woke up at about 3 a.m. to the sound of dogs barking in the distance. I’m not sure ‘spooky’ is the word, but the thought did run through my head of all those who had tried to escape.

Eleven years later he leveraged that experience into the Slave Dwelling Project. His goal was to fill what he calls “a void in preservation” at Southern plantations and beyond. At the time of this article in 2015, McGill had slept in more than 70 slave dwellings in 14 states since the inauguration in 2010. He had done so alone or in groups as large as 30. At times a group might consist of both the descendants of slaves and slave owners. The article was about his first foray into New York where he would bed down on three historic properties on eastern Long Island. The remainder of the article details the upcoming events at the three sites: JOSEPH LLOYD MANOR, in Lloyd Harbor, SYLVESTER MANOR, in Shelter Island, and THOMAS HALSEY HOMESTEAD, Southampton. Part of the story is the reminder that, yes, there was slavery in the north.

On September 14, 2018, at the Museum Association of New York (MANY) Mid-Hudson Region Re-Visioning Change Workshop held at SUNY New Paltz, Historic Huguenot Street presented on its application of The Slave Dwelling Project. It did so with TMI, a local mental association organization which uses storytelling in its therapy. This presentation was the impetus for me finally writing about this effort.

Their first one in 2016 included descendants of Huguenots and Africans. Kara Graffen, Director of Public Programming at Historic Huguenot Street, noted Africans had arrived here with the Dutch even before the Huguenots had arrived. The average Huguenot family owned one to four slaves. The staff used Sojourner Truth’s journals to reconstruct slave life. The slave cellar would have had a table, furniture, fireplace and sleeping areas. As reported in New York History Blog, “Slave Dwelling Project Shines Light on Northern Slavery”:

Six SUNY New Paltz students and several members of the public will be invited to join McGill and his associate Terry James [a living historian and member of the board of The Slave Dwelling Project] [on September 9, 2016] to share in this symbolic return to a time when even northern households enslaved Africans.

The next night, on September 10th, the Historic Huguenot Street non-profit organization will host a special reception, during which McGill and James will discuss the previous night’s experience in the 300 year-old cellar at Huguenot Street and their mission to preserve historic slave dwellings. Additionally, Historic Huguenot Street will unveil for public viewing a steel slave collar, donated in 2010 by a descendant of the historic site, that was owned by the very same family — the Hardenberghs — that once enslaved renowned abolitionist and former Ulster County resident Sojourner Truth.

Some accommodations had to be made to meet safety requirements. For example LED lights were used so participants finding it necessary to exit the cellar during the night would be able to do so without endangering themselves on the stairs or outdoors. Also it helps to do this on a nice summer day and not in the dead cold of winter. The actual slave experience is re-created only up to a point. Still one should not underestimate the powerful impact of spending a night in the actual space where the slaves did had to those receptive to the experience. It is not a Halloween haunted mansion but an immersion into history (not that Historic Huguenot Street is against revenue-producing haunted mansion experiences either).

For the 2017 program, they decided to revise the experience to include sharing it. After Juneteenth, 2017, six writers participated an immersive program. They slept in the same slave quarters as in 2016. Once again James participated.  The outcome of this experience was shared with the public at the Reformed Church of New Paltz on September 16, 2017. Some of those outcomes were shared at this MANY workshop.

By coincidence, a few days ago, the fifth annual Slave Dwelling Project conference was held at Middle Tennessee State University (October 24-27). The focus of the conference went beyond the slave dwellings themselves to examine the topic of slavery in the United States and its influence on American society and culture. McGill said:

Now that I have the attention of the public by sleeping in extant slave dwellings, it is time to wake up and deliver the message that the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history.

The Slave Dwelling Project Conference was right to expand the scope of the conference. It is important that the overnight experience not simply be a stunt or gimmick to be checked off on a cultural do-gooder bucket list. The dwelling is actually part of a larger story of slavery in the United States.

Michael Groth, a history professor at Wells College in central New York, grew up Dutchess County and wrote a book Slavery and Freedom in the Mid-Hudson Valley (SUNY Press 2017). In an article “Slavery’s Hidden History in the Mid-Hudson Valley Coming to Light,” (Poughkeepsie Journal, April 25, 2018), by reporter John Barry, he turned to Groth and his book as a source for background information on a current dilemma in New Paltz.

State University of New York at New Paltz is examining its connection to the region’s troubled past. At the heart of the ongoing debate is the Huguenot history and the families that helped settle the area and launch the college. At question is whether the college is honoring local history through buildings named for founding families from the area, or ignoring the slave-owning history of these settlers.

College officials are conducting a review of campus buildings named for Huguenot families that owned slaves. Since he launched the initiative last year, SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian said he has heard from students of color who are uncomfortable eating in a dining hall and sleeping in a residence hall named for families that once included slave owners. “Many people are surprised to learn that slavery was such a prominent feature of the Hudson Valley,” Christian said.

 This limited understanding “contributes to the ability of some people to overlook that history.”

“People of color, particularly African Americans, feel like it’s a piece of their history that much of the rest of society is not acknowledging,” Christian said. “And many white people, perhaps especially of younger generations, share that perspective. These are reasons that this entire history should be told fully and honestly.”

A few months earlier, more than 60 people had turned out for a night meeting at the college that focused on an issue that had been brewing for years before it evolved into a formal review last year. The nearly 90-minute discussion was framed by impassioned arguments on both sides of the issue. Christian said:

This is the kind of respectful, open dialogue where different views are aired to inform our collective understanding of a really complex situation that bridges history and contemporary issues and concerns. This is very much what I had in mind as developing. I’m heartened by what transpired here.

Regardless of the final results of SUNY New Paltz’s examination into its slave past, the larger point is the overnight sleeping in the slave quarters should only be part of the experience of connecting people in the present to the historical reality of slavery in the past including in the north.


Confronting Slavery at Long Island’s Oldest Estates

Slave Dwelling Project Shines Light on Northern Slavery

SUNY New Paltz: Buildings named for slave owners spark debate

Slavery’s hidden history in the mid-Hudson Valley coming to light

Slave Dwelling Project Conference
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History Storytelling: Examples from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network Conference

Kathy Wright and some guy at the GHHN Conference, Bear Mountain

The last month has been a busy time for conferences. In this post and subsequent ones, I wish to present information from these conferences to people who were unable to attend them but may be interested in the sessions. My particular focus will be on examples of storytelling. I am interested in how history organizations are reaching out into their communities including sectors of the community which may not have a longstanding record of involvement in such organizations.

The Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN) conference Flipping the Narrative: Voices Unheard, Stories Untold  (9/25/18) consisted of two major components. One part was “Awards for Excellence” while the other was presentations. I apologize in advance for not including everybody in this blog. The full slate of information can be found at the GHHN website.

Some awards and presentations involved active storytelling or performances.

“In Her Words: A Women’s History Lecture and Performance”
Historic Huguenot Street
New Paltz (Ulster)

This education award is in recognition of “In Her Words: A Women’s History Lecture and Performance” at Historic Huguenot Street. On March 10, 2018, Historic Huguenot Street held a performance telling the stories of eight influential women who helped shape local history over the last four centuries. Through monologues and music derived from historical research and in collaboration with local historians and scholars, the audience was given a glimpse these women’s dreams, fears, flaws, and challenges during momentous times in the region’s history.

According to the program brochure I picked up from the display table, the figures ranged from the 1600s to the 1900s. Combined, they covered much of the history of the community until recent times. The research into the individual figures in the performance included contacting the Stockbridge-Munsee Historical Committee and Library/Museum. When I wrote about the Stockbridge-Munsee conference earlier this year, I noted the dramatic presentation of the words of the Stockbridge Indians by the actual descendants or the original authors. In many communities there always is the possibility that descendants of the people portrayed still live there.

Life Downstairs at Staatsburgh
Maria Reynolds, PhD, Staatsburgh State Historic Site

Staatsburgh State Historic Site is currently in the process of bringing the story of the mansion’s servants from the margins to the center. New research has uncovered photos and details previously unknown about the lives of many servants working at Staatsburgh for the Mills family. This research has informed existing programming: tours with a focus on the similarities between the mansion and Downton Abbey and a participation tour that includes a table setting activity and a ‘hiring a servant’ exercise. The research is also the impetus for a new exhibit with interactive elements, a new tour and other programming – a continued effort to bring these lives to the forefront, both expanding and enriching interpretation at Staatsburgh.

Staging History
Michelle Mavigliano, Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site

In an effort to narrate historical events from the perspective of the enslaved black population living in 18th century Albany, Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site has developed two programs that give voice and agency to men and women usually denied both. This presentation will explore the research and contrivance behind creating “The Accused” and “To Be So Confin’d,” two programs that use museum theatre and first–person narration as the interpretive tools to tell these stories.

We are a storytelling species so it behooves history organizations to tell stories and not just point to objects (unless there is a story associated with them). Every community has stories to tell. My recommendation is for history organizations to identify the stories that define the community and to perform them. Here is an excellent opportunity to involve the local high school drama club and to connect the students with their own community. There needs to be more than an elementary school field trip to bring local history and students together. On a national level, we have seen the impact of Hamilton, the Musical. What are the stories of your community?

Another area of expression involves people and peoples whose voices have not always been heard or have been heard in a distorted manner.

“When Slavery Died Hard: The Forgotten History of Ulster County and the Shawangunk Mountain Region”
Cragsmoor Historical Society
Cragsmoor (Ulster)

This education award is in recognition of the documentary “Where Slavery Died Hard…” grows from their community’s efforts to reconsider its history and the history of the Shawangunk Region. While researching for The Cragsmoor Historical Journal, archaeologists/historic preservation consultants Wendy E. Harris and Arnold Pickman discovered that in 1820, one of Cragsmoor’s early families contained an enslaved child. The phrase “where slavery died hard,” was bestowed upon Ulster County as a result of its resistance to abolition during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This documentary hopes to contribute to a body of knowledge that will verify the significance of the African-American presence in this region.

According to a handout at the display table, the Cragsmoor Historical Society intends to distribute the video gratis to schools and other cultural and education organizations. It also will be posted to the Society’s website. The public debut of the video is today, October 20.

Serving Their Country: African Americans and America’s Wars
Matthew Thorenz, Moffat Library of Washingtonville

From before the Revolutionary War to World War One, African Americans have played a vital role in serving in our nation’s armed forces. Bringing the service of those who served under extreme prejudice during these conflicts can help us better understand the complex political, social, and cultural worlds in which they lived, while highlighting a group of individuals who have been marginalized to a degree in public programming. Learn how original research contributed to two thought provoking analysis of African American service members in the Hudson Valley at New Windsor Cantonment, 1782-1783, and on the Western Front of World War One in 1918.

Considering Native American Stereotypes in the 21st Century
Colette Lemmon, Iroquois Indian Museum

This presentation will focus on the impetus, development, and elements of the Iroquois Museum’s current exhibition, “Tonto, Teepees, & Totem Poles: Considering Native American Stereotypes in the 21st Century”. The exhibit includes materials from popular culture and the media as well as provocative responses by Indigenous artists around the issue of stereotyping. The presentation will also highlight the participatory activities that were developed to engage our visitors with this topic and their (sometimes surprising) outcomes.

The participating artists were mainly Mohawk and secondarily Haudenosaunee except for the Tuscarora. It is a pity that all the museums of these Indian nations across the center of the state do not collaborate in creating programs. At least the individual artists from the various Indian Nations can work together.

New Voices from Old Schenectady
Michael G. Diana, Schenectady County Historical Society

Built in 1705 and continuously occupied until 2001, the Mabee Farm is uniquely able to provide a broad historical cross-section of the Mohawk River Valley. Until recently, the general tour focused primarily on the architecture of the farm house as well as Jan Mabee, the patriarch who built it. A new narrative is grounded in characters and stories that have long been overlooked. Prominently featured are Mabee women, such as Annetje and Catrina, whose Mohawk and Dutch heritage gave them considerable influence in Schenectady’s colonial society. The stories of Jack and Cato, drawn from original documents, tell how two of the enslaved people who lived at the farm exercised their agency in bold and surprising ways. By restoring and restaging the house, Schenectady County Historical Society seeks to tell the story of everyone who lived there and, by extension, the story of so many generations of farmers and travelers who made the Mohawk Valley their home.

The Dutch legacy in New York was addressed in several of the conferences I attended over the past few weeks. What is important to note is that back then the Dutch were Dutch and the Mohawk were Mohawk – they had not yet lost their individuality and become subsumed into the politically correct designations in vogue today.

A final type of reaching out is directly to the schools themselves.

“Museum Studies Partnership for Learning”
Hudson River Museum
Yonkers (Westchester)

This project award is in recognition of the interdisciplinary educational curriculum, “Museum Studies Partnership for Learning” that included workshops, museum visits, and classroom lessons as part of an in-depth collaborative relationship with Yonkers Public Schools’ Museum School 25. The curriculum seeks to exercise students’ creativity while engaging them in projects that would enhance critical thinking skills and help them make connections between art, science, and history.

Since this partnership was an award and not a presentation, the program itself was not described at the conference. According to the brochure, 9 pre-k to 2nd grade classes participated. The curriculum drew on the river itself and concluded with an exhibition at the Museum of the student’s work. Landscape very much is part of human history. Nature sets the stage, human write the stories…and alter the landscape.

A fitting conclusion to the conference would be for all the participants to break bread together. For that, we will have to wait for

Interpreting Reher’s Bakery: Multicultural Rondout Then and Now
Sarah Litvin, Reher Center/Jewish Federation of Ulster County

to be fully operational.