Sleep Tight Historic Sites

Editor’s note: This begins a series of four articles related to the “Slave Dwelling Project Comes to Dorchester.” Presented by the Harriet Tubman Organization and the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, Oct. 13-14 at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, Historic High Street Cambridge, Md. and Handsell Historic Site, Vienna.

You drive by them every time you travel about on an Eastern Shore country road. They are often located between barns and outbuildings or perhaps hiding at a woodland edge covered with vines. They do not stand out or call attention to themselves. The abandoned and neglected state belies the remarkable stories that they hold. Once they are gone, there will be no tangible evidence of their testament to history. These are the vernacular dwellings that once housed the enslaved population of this peninsula. These buildings are quickly becoming extinct and need to be recognized and preserved.
The Slave Dwelling Project is a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to identifying and preserving extant slave dwellings and bringing their history to life by staying overnight in these structures, no matter how dilapidated, cold or dirty they may be. The simple act of sleeping in these slave dwellings brings attention to the need to preserve, interpret and maintain these structures and serves to foster dialog on slavery and race relations. According to Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project “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.”
Mr. McGill of the Charleston, S.C. area was with the National Trust for Historic Preservation until 2010 when he formed the Slave Dwelling Project. As a descendant of enslaved people, he has devoted his life to ensuring the preservation of these historic sites. He began by making his way around the Southeastern United States, sleeping in historic slave quarters. Mr. McGill has recently expanded his quest to the Mid-Atlantic States and has gone as far north as New York, carefully pointing out that there were indeed enslaved people in the Northern States. As he travelled, he met other historically minded living history interpreters and organized several people into a group he calls “Inalienable Rights” which includes storytellers, a cook, a blacksmith and other 19th century crafts people.
Mr. McGill and his troupe have journeyed to various historic sites, partnering with other nonprofit historic organizations who heard his message and wished to be involved in telling their own stories of local enslaved communities. The Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance (NHPA), owners of the Handsell Historic Site in Dorchester County contacted Mr. McGill in 2016, wishing to promote both the preservation of Handsell and the Bayley Slave Cabin on High Street in Cambridge, as well as bring attention to other historic structures in the county that need restoration or maintenance. Midge Ingersoll, president of the NHPA, says “no documentation has been done of the smaller utilitarian farm structures in this county and they are fading fast from our landscape just at a time when Dorchester is touting Heritage Tourism. With the new Harriet Tubman Visitors Center bringing tourists to our region, we are at a critical time to identify and preserve the structures that may include buildings that once housed our enslaved population or are part of Dorchester’s farming heritage.”
Handsell plantation, owned by the Steele family in the 18th century had a large enslaved community. Research shows that after the Steele’s sold Handsell in 1837, the subsequent owners, Jacob C. Wilson, John Thompson and Susan Emily Thompson (Mrs. Samuel E.) were enslavers. By the start of the Civil War, the Indiantown area around Handsell had become a predominantly African-American community made up of both enslaved and free people. After the War many of these families remained and eventually became sharecroppers right up through the 1960s on the same farms where their ancestors were held as enslaved people. In spite of all this layered history, the brick house at Handsell is the only remaining structure of several dozen homes and barns which once dotted the Indiantown landscape.
It is most likely this story repeats itself in other areas of Dorchester County where there were larger plantations with populations of enslaved people. So one must ask “where are the buildings that once served these plantations and is it possible that any still exist, unrecognizable under asphalt or aluminum siding”?
To this end, NHPA reached out to Bill Jarman of the Harriet Tubman Organization, Dana Paterra from the new Harriet Tubman Visitors Center and Diane Miller of the National Park Service to begin discussion to bring Joseph McGill and the Inalienable Rights troupe to Dorchester. Together, these groups have agreed to join in the Slave Dwelling Project’s task of “bringing historians, students, faculty, writers, legislators, organizations, corporations, artists and the general public together to educate, collaborate and organize resources to save these important collectibles of our American history.” For over a year, they have been planning the “Slave Dwelling Project Comes to Dorchester,” a two-day event scheduled for this October, and gathering sponsorships and participants from many fields. In preparation for this event, signs that say “This Place Matters” and “Sleep Tight Historic Site” will be seen dotted around the county in September.
In addition, the Dorchester County Historic Society is arranging public school tours for the 4th and 5th graders to visit both Handsell and the Bayly Slave Cabin during September to help county students understand more of the life and history of the African-Americans.
Prior to this event, the charge to Dorchester County residents is to pay attention as you drive around this beautiful county and ask yourself how you would feel if that barn, that row of outbuildings, or that old house suddenly were to disappear from the rural landscape? What memories and stories would go with them forever? What of your own family’s heritage would you lose? How would these demolitions affect our Heritage Tourism economy?
The “Slave Dwelling Project Comes to Dorchester” event is planned for Oct. 13-14 and will be held at the Cambridge Courthouse, Bayly House on High Street, and Handsell Historic Site in Vienna. More information can be found at www.restorehandsell.org and www.slavedwellingproject.org.

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