NEWBERRY — Thursday afternoon third, fourth and fifth grade students at Boundary Street Elementary welcomed Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, and Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, to learn about preserving historic buildings and the history of slaves.
“A lot of you have already established that the subject matter is going to be about slavery. We’re in a time in our history that is supposed to be equal rights for everyone. As you continue to study beyond that period of slavery you may find out otherwise that there were still struggles,” McGill said.
McGill, who was dressed as a Union soldier, said that the reason he puts on the uniform is to honor the 200,000 African Americans that fought for the Union during the Civil War, and to honor African American history.
He also shared with the students that over the last seven years he has spent his time spending the night on plantations in slave cabins.
“I take information and I find where these slave cabins are and I ask the owners if I can spend the night in the building. When I first started spending the night in slave cabins people thought I was crazy and some folks still think I’m a little crazy,” McGill said.
One slave cabin that McGill spent the night was in Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, who was a slave owner.
“Twelve of our former presidents were slave owners and eight of them owned slaves while they were in office, I’ve stayed at four of those sites so far, President Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson,” McGill said.
McGill has also stayed on the Clemson University campus where slave cabins were.
He said that Clemson University was never a plantation, but the land that it was built on is a former plantation.
McGill has not stayed at the University of South Carolina campus.
“I go to these institutions of higher learning and I spend the night on these campuses. I’ve spent the night at Furman University and the College of Charleston because they had slave dwellings in these places,” he said. “When we think about slavery we think about both southern and northern states. The Revolutionary War came, we got our independence from England and those northern states that used to be colonies, once upon a time they had slaves too. The Revolutionary War came and then they started freeing their enslaved people.”
McGill added that after the Revolution the northern states that used to be slave owners started to free their people.
“In finding these places to sleep, I’ve been to 19 states so far and the District of Columbia. Seven of those states have been northern states,” McGill said. “I get to go around to schools like this and let folks know that when we tell a story, tell our history, we need to talk about everything, we need to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. Slavery was certainly not a good part of our history, but it is part of our history that we need to interpret.”
Bedenbaugh spoke with the students about slavery and the importance of saving old buildings.
“This nation was founded on the ability for people to make money. People came from Europe to make money off of things here. We all know the Native Americans were pushed aside so that people could own the land and grow crops. In 1700, the best way to grow crops and make money was to bring in labor,” Bedenbaugh said.
He added that folks from Africa were brought over because they were able to withstand the heat of the south better than the Indians, because the Indians were first enslaved, but couldn’t survive.
Over 11 million people were shipped out of Africa and out of those 11 million only 450,000 came to the United States.
“In the South, their purpose was to manage the crops and the crop in South Carolina was cotton, they called it King Cotton it made so much money,” Bedenbaugh said. “Enslavement happened, but the thing to always remember is the empowerment these people had to survive and to carry on into a place where freedom could come as perfect as it was and to move forward where we could all sit here together now.”