Living History

Historic preservationist Joseph McGill believes in the value of experience when it comes to gaining an understanding of the past. History, says McGill, is best understood through a lens of personal experience and whenever possible, one should put oneself in the position of the subject being examined.

          To that end, McGill is studying the lives of slaves in the American South by spending time in the cabins they once called home. McGill has been traveling throughout the South to spend nights sleeping in slave cabins, a journey he began on May 8 when he bunked down in one of the recently renovated cabins at Magnolia Plantation. The purpose of his journey is both personal growth and an increased appreciation of the role these structures can have in telling the story of slavery in America.

          McGill, a preservationist and program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Southern Regional Office, arrived at the plantation with only a sleeping bag, a pillow, a flashlight, a replica of a period candle holder he could utilize in making notes, and a club, “to fight the critters off.”

          Shortly after he arrived at his home for the night, he was visited by several reporters eager to cover the beginning of his journey. After getting their interviews, the media eventually said their goodbyes, but a wedding that was being held across the plantation grounds served as another reminder of the present day. Only when the wedding came to a close and the band put down their instruments did McGill find the solitude he’d been hoping for.

          Magnolia Plantation staff had built a fire in the hearth in anticipation of his visit, but only then did McGill have the opportunity to enjoy it.The reminders of modern day life having finally receded, the sights and sounds provided by Nature set in, but they were anything but comforting for McGill.

“I had to convince myself that the noises that I heard were just Nature,” says McGill with a chuckle. “The wind blowing, the limbs of the trees catching the wind and brushing up against the sides of the cabin, acorns falling on the cabin… it tested my will and my desire.”

          His will tested and his nerves finally settled, McGill finally managed to get some sleep. He woke with a renewed sense of purpose, which he satisfied with a long walk. On that walk, McGill encountered a burial ground, which brought an added sense of gravity to his experience.“That was quite moving because that brought home for me why I was doing what I was doing: to give those people a voice and to help tell their story and to help commemorate all that they endured,” he says.

          That Sunday morning was moving to McGill for another reason. It was Mother’s Day. This Mother’s Day was atypical for him, however, as McGill spent some time that morning reflecting on more than his own mother.

“It made me think back to the Moms that inhabited those cabins historically, and all those Moms had to endure. Yeah, they were mothers, but there were times in their lifetimes that their kids could have been snatched away from them and they would have had no say,” McGill says.

          McGill did all he could on his visit to Magnolia Plantation to empathize with the slaves and former slaves he is paying tribute to. McGill, a Civil War re-enactor, says he’s learned that to truly understand a piece of history one must use all at one’s disposal to place oneself in the past. He decided one way to put himself in their shoes was to don his replica Massachusetts 54th volunteer infantry uniform, a copy of those worn by the first all-black unit to fight for the Union in the Civil War. The reasons behind that decision were many.

“One of the reasons I purposely wore my Civil War uniform was to bring home to me what those men were actually fighting for. They were fighting to relieve those folks of those conditions that I experienced that night. So it was quite meaningful for me in that sense,” says McGill.

“When I became a Civil War re-enactor back in 1991, and doing the research required to be a true re-enactor and obtaining the knowledge and background I needed to interpret that aspect of African-American history, I learned then you can only get so much stuff from books. To get out there and try to recreate what those folks went through is also a learning experience,”

          McGill’s journey traveling around the state and the region staying in former slave quarters is motivated by a desire to preserve the structures in both spirit and action. McGill says Magnolia Plantation is an example of preservation done right.

“I have to applaud Magnolia for letting me do what I did and I also have to applaud them for what they’ve done with those cabins, for putting the resources into them to bring them up to the standards they are in now,”he says.“I am hoping as I travel throughout the state doing this I can help them do that, to bring the existing buildings up to good conditions.”

          McGill has plans to hit several other historic properties over the summer, including slave cabins in Bluffton, James Island’s McLeod Plantation, and Goodwill Plantation in Columbia. McGill is working on other commitments to add to this list, and eventually he wants to journey to North Carolina and Georgia plantations. With support from both the NTHP and the South Carolina Department of Archives, he hopes his list will soon expand.Though his timeline is as yet not fully clear, McGill notes, “This thing has no expiration date.”

To keep up on McGill’s experiences, go to www.preservationnation.org.

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