The founder of the Slave Dwelling Project will spend Friday night in an ancient cellar of a house on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz. His mission is to bring awareness to the existence of former slave dwellings, their history and need for preservation. In this case, he also aims to shine a light on Northern slave ownership.
Joseph McGill founded the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010 and, for the first time, is bringing it to the Hudson Valley. It’s his second visit to New York, as he visited an historic residence on Long Island last year. The first records for slave holdings in New Paltz began in 1674 with the purchase of two enslaved Africans in Kingston. Mary Etta Schneider is Historic Huguenot Street Board Chair and will participate in the overnight stay.
“It’s also the first time at Historic Huguenot Street that descendants of slave owners — and I’m one of them, by the way, I’m descended from the founders, the European founders of Huguenot Street — so it’s the first time that the slave owners of the original patent are spending overnight with descendants of those they enslaved.”
McGill has spent the night in dozens of slave dwellings throughout the country. And he says New York is one of five Northern states to where he has brought his Slave Dwelling Project.
“And the Slave Dwelling Project is a very simple concept. It’s seeking the dwellings where the enslaved people stayed and asking the owners to spend a night in these slave dwellings simply to bring attention to them because we tend to want to talk about the enslavers, not the ones who were enslaved, when we interpret the history and the stories of this nation,” McGill says. “So what this project does is elevates that part of the story and give the enslaved people a life, give them a story and let the public know that we were part of this nation from the onset.”
McGill and his associate Terry James, who has slept in more than 40 slave dwellings in shackles to commemorate the 10.7 million enslaved ancestors who survived the Middle Passage, will occupy the cellars of two houses on Huguenot Street. They will be joined by members of the public and a handful of SUNY New Paltz students. Again, Schneider.
“These kitchens, along with sometimes outbuildings and attics, were where the enslaved lived, where they slept and where they cooked for the household. And they were likely locked into these basements at night so they couldn’t escape,” Schneider says. “And when that door shuts behind us for those of us that are staying Friday night, we’re going to get a sense of what it must have felt like to just reinforce that ownership that lack of ability to have any control over your life.”
The next night, Historic Huguenot Street will host a reception during which McGill and James will discuss the previous night’s experience in the 300-year-old cellars. Additionally, Historic Huguenot Street will unveil for public viewing a steel slave collar, donated in 2010 by a descendant of the historic site that was owned by the very same family — the Hardenberghs — that once enslaved renowned abolitionist and former Ulster County resident Sojourner Truth. After this weekend, Schneider says the interpretation of Northern slavery will continue to be added to the regular guided tour.
“We want our interpretation of Northern slavery to really enable our visitors to make their own connections between the historic mistreatment of enslaved Africans and the tense relations that exist, race relations that exist, in the world today,” says Schneider.
And these race relations, McGill says, this strife, relates to slavery.
“A lot of what we’re dealing with today is rooted in that system of slavery. A lot of the strife that we deal with today, that stuff didn’t happen in our lifetime although we are the ones dealing with it right now. It was passed on, was passed on, passed down, and we didn’t deal with it at a time that we should’ve dealt with it. They allowed the slavery to exist. And this is just a residual of what was passed on to us,” says McGill. “This is the legacy of slavery that we’re dealing with today that has spawned such movements as Black Lives Matter. And so we’re dealing with that in the manner that we are.”
Meanwhile, Schneider feels it’s her responsibility to point out the following.
“It’s so paradoxical that the Huguenots who themselves were being persecuted, enslaved and killed, emigrated to the Americas so that they could practice their faith and prosper,” Schneider says. “Yet when they got here, they, in turn, enslaved others. They enslaved Africans.”
McGill says the overnight stays yield different experiences but the commonality is to bring the message that “the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history."
“In each place that I go it’s just kind of a tidbit, just a part of the larger story,” McGill says. “So I take pleasure in going to these places, even if they’re repeat stays as long as others join me and we can engage in the conversations, those conversations that are sometimes taboo in their regular circles, that’s a good thing when we can come to these places and have those conversations about slavery and the legacy that it has left on this nation.”
The overnight stay with Slave Dwelling Project founder Joseph McGill and his associate Terry James takes place Friday night, September 9, at Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz with a public reception Saturday evening, September 10.