Last September, Joseph McGill spent the night sleeping with ghosts. He does that a lot, all over the country, and this time he did so at Historic Huguenot Street, in the Bevier-Elting House cellar, because that’s where the slaves lived.
McGill himself doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he does have a strong belief in calling attention to and preserving historic slave dwellings. He founded the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010, and since then he has spent the night in about 100 slave dwellings in 17 states, at times in antebellum wrist shackles, at times sharing the space with descendants of the slave owners.
A history consultant and a docent at the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, S.C., Ladson started the Slave Dwelling Project, “to fill a void that exists in our efforts as preservationists. We tend to focus on iconic, antebellum buildings, but we tend to not include slave dwellings. This is a very simple project. I find them wherever they are and ask to spend the night in them.” He found the Bevier-Elting House on Huguenot Street, which was first built by Louis Bevier, one of the founders of New Paltz, sometime between 1698 and 1705. Bevier was known to own slaves; his tax records from 1709, for example, show he was taxed for “1 chimney, 1 stove, 2 slaves.”
The next day, Historic Huguenot Street hosted a reception at which McGill discussed his experience in the Bevier-Elting House cellar and his mission to preserve historic slave dwellings. His trips north have a particular impact. “In the south, slavery is pretty common subject matter,” he says. “In northern states, people seem to be surprised hearing about slavery. Because of ignorance, or denial, some people think there was no slavery in the north. Some run scurrying, because they are just not ready to deal with this aspect of our history. Others want to know more, and the angle I bring adds reality to it, makes it raw.”
That is especially true in our current political climate. “The stuff we are dealing with today has a foundation back to our founding fathers,” he says. “If we learn more about slave history, we will be more appreciative of the full history of this nation.”
Floor plan of the home, 1934
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