Written by Joseph McGill, Jr.
When I started staying in slave dwellings in May of this year, it was not my intent to move the project out of South Carolina. But, my duties as a program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation took me to Montgomery, Alabama for the statewide presentation conference. While there, I could not pass up the opportunity to stay in as many slave dwellings as possible.
My contacts in Alabama were well aware of the slave dwelling project and arranged for me to stay in two while attending the conference. One was at Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, and the other at Riverview Plantation on the Alabama River, near Montgomery. This would be the first time that I would stay in slave dwellings on two consecutive nights.
I first arrived at Old Alabama Town and anticipated no problem with the stay. My usual inspection revealed that I would be spending the night in the most luxurious slave dwelling I had experienced to date. The structure was two stories high and made of brick, with the kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs.
Prior to my night in the dwelling, arrangements had been made for me to lecture on the slave dwelling project in the historic Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That arrangement also included the reading of excerpts from the “Slave Narratives” by Alabama State University drama students. The emotionally-charged performance was outstanding, tear-jerking, and a befitting honor to former slaves.
The overnight stay at Old Alabama Town was, as expected, uneventful - though, through the night, I contended with the sounds of trains and vehicle traffic.
The following evening I arrived at Riverview Plantation, the private property of the McWirther family. Teresa Paglione, an archeologist for the state of Alabama, joined me for this part of my stay. After a brief respite to grill some ribs, we toured the slave cabins in search for one that would be the most conducive to my overnight stay. The first cabin contained some materials that, if disturbed, could possibly reveal living creatures (despite the fact that I had been assured the cabin had been recently bug-bombed). I chose the second cabin. It was less cluttered, but still made me question my resolve to carry on with my project.
We proceeded to the main house to eat and enjoy more conversation. I tried my best to prolong the latter, because I was not looking forward to my impending stay in the cabin. Around 10:00 p.m., I finally arrived in my quarters. Though it was the first time I slept with my shoes on—in the event that I might need to hastily leave the cabin—I made it through the night without incident.
The best part of my stay came the next morning, when Mr. McWirther took me on a tour of the property. Our tour revealed that Mr. McWirther is also sensitive to the substantial Native American history contained in the property. The visiting archeologist, Ms. Paglione, was assisting him in his cultural preservation efforts.
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