In this enlightening personal account, one man tells the story of his groundbreaking project to sleep overnight in former slave dwellings that still stand across the country—revealing the fascinating history behind these sites and shedding light on larger issues of race in America.Joseph McGill Jr., a historic preservationist and Civil War reenactor, founded the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010 based on an idea that was sparked and first developed in 1999. Since founding the project, McGill has been touring the country, spending the night in former slave dwellings—throughout the South, but also the North and the West, where people are often surprised to learn that such structures exist. Events and gatherings are arranged around these overnight stays, and it provides a unique way to understand the often otherwise obscured and distorted history of slavery. The project has inspired difficult conversations about race in communities from South Carolina to Alabama to Texas to Minnesota to New York, and all over the United States.
Sleeping with the Ancestors focuses on all of the key sites McGill has visited in his ongoing project and digs deeper into the actual history of each location, using McGill’s own experience and conversations with the community to enhance those original stories. Altogether, McGill and coauthor Herb Frazier give readers an important unexpected emersion into the history of slavery, and especially the obscured and ignored aspects of that history.
About the Author
Joseph McGill Jr. is a history consultant for Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, and the founder and director of The Slave Dwelling Project. Previously, as a field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Mr. McGill worked to revitalize the Sweet Auburn commercial district in Atlanta, Georgia, and to develop a management plan for the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. He is a former executive director of the African American Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a former director of history and culture at Penn Center, St. Helena Island, South Carolina. He has also served as a National Park Service park ranger at Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston.Herb Frazier is the special project editor at the Charleston City Paper. He is the author of Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories, co-author of We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel with Marjory Wentworth and Dr. Bernard Powers Jr., and co-editor of Ukwell: Searching for Healing and Truth, South Carolina Writers and Poets Explore American Racism, with the late Horace Mungin. Frazier edited and reported for five daily newspapers in the South, including his hometown newspaper, the Post and Courier in Charleston. He has led journalism workshops in Sierra Leone, Zambia, Ghana, Suriname, Guyana, and The Gambia. He was a visiting lecturer at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Frazier is also the former marketing director at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston.
“Thought-provoking… [Sleeping with the Ancestors] searingly describes dirt-floored cabins besieged by mosquitoes and creaky, airless attics, and it delves into the biographies of the properties’ past inhabitants. As Mr. McGill’s teams spent largely sleepless hours in these quarters, they grew hyper-observant…. Mr. McGill has paid particular attention to brickwork; the clay, he writes, remains textured with ‘finger-shaped impressions’ from enslaved brick makers.”—The New York Times
“In this gripping personal account, Joseph McGill Jr., and Herb Frazier seek to deepen and broaden our understanding of the horrors our African American ancestors endured for generations by chronicling McGill’s experiences sleeping in former slave dwellings. I firmly believe that our history must be told and should be understood if we are to avoid repeating our worst mistakes. Sleeping with the Ancestors will further that goal by serving as a tremendous historical reference from which all can learn.”—Congressman James E. Clyburn
“Scripture teaches to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8). Joe McGill walks the walk, and his hands-on, day-and-night journey inspires—one dwelling at a time. Few have done more than this determined South Carolinian to heal the scars of enslavement and lead us back—all of us—to the generations of ancestors whose unpaid labor shaped America. I feel lucky to have slept on some hard floors, seeing him stir the embers, share the meal, and invite the conversations that we all need to have.”—Peter H. Wood, Duke University historian, author of Black Majority and Strange New Land
"A soul-stirring memoir by a modern-day crusader who confronts our Nation's original sin to save forgotten national historic treasures in tribute to our enslaved ancestors who dwelled in them." —Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black, Carnegie Mellon University historian and author of Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom During the Civil War
“Joseph McGill Jr. tells a fascinating, necessary story of his direct engagement with truths many Americans would rather ignore….An informative and engrossing book…. [McGill’s] book will help counter the toxicity of these times. With carefully researched fact, he refutes countless Gone With the Wind-like fictions, tales that comfort white supremacists. He confronts racist fantasy head on, through vivid first-hand reportage and thoughtful scholarship. Briefly living as our forebears did, he challenges nostalgia for a nation that never was. Amid rightwing book bans and anti-woke laws, this is a book long overdue…. Joseph McGill Jr. points out what folly it is to ignore things.”—The Guardian
“This book serves to further wash away that sugarcoating and awaken us to what it might have been like to work the fields all day then sleep on the floor at night, with a family of 10 crammed into one room. As McGill discovers, the realities were harsh and the comforts few, but in these pages, his dream of bringing those realities into the limelight are realized.”—Charleston Magazine
“Sleeping with the Ancestors… reveals forgotten stories of the enslaved and stimulates difficult conversations. [It] explores Joe McGill’s personal experiences and his initiative, The Slave Dwelling Project, which aims to raise awareness about the preservation of slave cabins across the United States.”—WCSC5 (TV)
“Writing with veteran journalist Frazier, McGill is deeply empathetic both in addressing the plight of the ancestors and attempting to engage with Southerners (among them fellow reenactors) who profess the view that they’re simply honoring their heritage by wanting to preserve monuments and flags. That may be so, he notes, but he is vigorous about countering their false narrative that the Civil War was all about states’ rights and not about slavery…. A thoughtful, deeply humane addition to African American history.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A far-ranging and vibrant account (coauthored with journalist Frazier) that effortlessly shifts between personal recollections of McGill’s own life, including time spent as a Civil War reenactor that helped develop his appreciation for historic buildings and detailed descriptions of his overnight visits; focused micro-histories of the far-flung regions of the U.S. that are the sites of these dwellings; and the intimate stories of the enslaved people who lived in them…. This highly readable chronicle emphasizes that slavery was truly a national phenomenon in antebellum America (slave accommodations were located not only on Southern plantations but in all major cities) and reclaims the meaning of these “sacred spaces” of African American history. The result is both an enthralling narrative and a powerful educational tool.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)