I can’t say that I arrived that evening without some notion of what might unfold. For about a year I followed historian Joe McGill’s work with the Slave Dwelling Project, watching as he slept in extant slave dwellings, reading stories of the inhabitants whose forced labor, for centuries, fueled the American economy. When he announced that Demopolis, Alabama was on the 2017 schedule, I knew I needed to be there.
What’s behind the “big house” is not clearly, if ever, communicated in brochures or professionally guided tours of life in antebellum America. One might think those shabby, often, wooden structures were storage sheds, certainly not places where people lived in cramped conditions regardless of relation, or gender or age, at the behest of enslavers. After toiling countless hours within a system designed to exhaust every ounce of strength, intellect and spirit from them, they retired to those shelters. Today, those spaces barely receive the slightest consideration though they stand only a few yards, in many cases, from the much-lauded manor. Maybe, as W.E.B Dubois proposes in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, “it is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loath to have them disturbed by facts.”
We gathered at the Marengo County History and Archives Museum for a reception and lecture on the history of the project, then, as night fell, drove 25 miles down winding country roads dotted by catfish farms and cattle, to Magnolia Grove Plantation in neighboring Greensboro, AL.
Sleeping bags and backpacks in hand, my friend Johnnie and I followed shadowy figures beside the Greek revival mansion, across a wet lawn towards the cabin. Eleven souls, gathering on an unseasonably cold spring evening, for one of the most unusual experiences imaginable. As I scoped out a sliver of space to settle down, intense anticipation gave way to uneasiness. Besides the fact that I suddenly realized I’d be sleeping next to strangers, folks I didn’t know from Adam’s house cat, I also wondered what right we, I, had to be there. Amid some of the most robust discussions around the human condition, I listened for the answer.
Besides two ancient looking chairs, there were three windows, a fireplace and wooden door we managed to prop shut with someone’s boot. When the conversation finally drifted to a few whispers, I snuggled into my sleeping bag and thought about the ancestors who’d gazed out those windows, warmed themselves by the fire. What did they look like, sound like, talk about, in that room? What secrets did they keep? From which African tribes were they stolen?
With the first glimmer of sunlight, I maneuvered between sleeping bodies sprawled across the floor and made my way to the big house. A Northern Cardinal’s familiar whistle cheerily announced the day.
While I still cannot say with absolute certainty what moved me to drive two hours from Montgomery, that bastion of competing historical narratives, to the little cabin at Magnolia Grove – maybe that’s too much to expect from a single encounter – what I do know is that the stories of people of African descent, stories fraught with peril, and unyielding resolve will no longer languish in the margins. We re-member our voices and they are strong.
As extraordinary as the cabin stay was, it rests in the middle of two remarkable encounters.
First, the reception May 24th coordinated by Mrs. Mary Jones-Fitts, President and Director of the Marengo County History and Archives Museum. In fact, she is central to this story. It is she who secured the Smithsonian exhibit, Changing America: The Emancipation, 1863, The March on Washington, 1963, bringing it to Demopolis then enlisting
Joe McGill as keynote speaker. She also arranged the sleepover. Although it took four years to bring all the pieces together, she persisted and the end result was this incredible experience. Mrs. Jones-Fitz is a historian and genealogist whose love for the Black Belt region and its people was infused our conversations. She traveled with us the next day to Faunsdale, AL and to the Safe House Black History Museum where I met Mrs. Burroughs.
After exploring the Safe House, I walked back to the car completely amazed. We had just learned that townspeople heroically staved off terrorists bent on kidnapping and murdering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Theresa Burroughs, our 88-year-old guide, was there that night in 1968. The human rights activist, who bares scars from the savage Bloody Sunday assault, helped assemble a protective shield of armed black men who surrounded the house in the Depot neighborhood to defend him.
When asked why she did it, not just that night, but why she endured beatings, protests and arrests throughout the movement, she said, “I just couldn’t live like that anymore. Things wasn’t gonna change, so I decided to do something and if I died trying, well, that was alright too.”
Mrs. Burroughs insisted that our group sing as we crossed Freedom Lane, the glass enclosed hallway connecting the two structures housing museum artifacts. No doubt it was a scene played out many times before with others who’d come to hear how a critical moment in history unfolded there.
I hugged both women – Mrs. Jones-Fitts that morning at the cabin and Mrs. Burroughs in the afternoon. I appreciate them, and Joe for diligently doing the work they’d been called to. I’m also sincerely grateful for the ancestors, and the elders whose indomitable spirits cleared a path for us all.