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Long Island

Preservationist spends nights at LI's former slave dwellings

Joseph McGill, Jr., founder of the Slave Dwelling

Joseph McGill, Jr., founder of the Slave Dwelling Project spends the night in the slave quarters at the historic Joseph Lloyd Manor home in Lloyd Harbor on the evening of August 13, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

It's 9:30 p.m. and Joseph McGill Jr. heads to the second floor of a historic Lloyd Harbor home, taking the back stairs -- much like the slaves who worked the land did some 200 years ago.

He's spending the night in the room that likely served as living quarters for Jupiter Hammon, a slave and the first published African-American poet, in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

For McGill, a Civil War re-enactor and preservationist, there will be two more nights in old slave quarters on Long Island.

McGill, 54, of Ladson, South Carolina, has slept in 70 such places in 14 states, from lean-tos with dirt floors to well-appointed rooms like the one at Lloyd Harbor -- in the Joseph Lloyd Manor House, built in 1766.

He often is alone with his thoughts, recorded in a blog, but he sometimes invites community residents to share the experience.

His goal, he said, is to preserve slave dwellings and bring awareness to the lives of those who were forced to work on the lands of the estate owners and are often forgotten in the splendor of the historic estates admired for their opulence.

"A void existed in preservation," said McGill, who founded The Slave Dwelling Project five years ago. "I stay in these places because they are significant also. They are just as important as the big house. It was the work, the toil of the enslaved, which made that owner or person rich."

The group has been involved significantly in the South, but New York is one of four northern states where McGill has identified and stayed in slave sleeping quarters.

"It's not just a Southern thing," he said. "It extended throughout the nation."

During the 18th century, about 40 percent of Long Island households had slaves, and a quarter of the population was of African descent, according to officials at the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities.

"It's a big challenge across the entire nation; the lack of documentation and physical evidence that survives," said Jason Crowley, the society's preservation director. "Yet it's the history of millions of Americans."

At Joseph Lloyd Manor, the room McGill stays in Thursday night is spacious, with two large windows and a fireplace. It's upstairs alongside the master's and children's rooms.

"It's typical, to my experience to date, of how it worked in northern states," he said. "It was a lot more intimate."

In fact, there were at least four slave quarters on the second floor and more on the third floor where the estate had 13 slaves at one point.

At a reception for McGill at the manor, Brentwood ninth-grade global studies teacher Tracey Bennett said the lives of slaves must be included in history lessons alongside their well-known masters. "If you don't study that, you aren't getting the full picture," she said.

McGill also stayed in the former slave quarters at Shelter Island's Sylvester Manor on Friday night and the Halsey Homestead in Southampton Village last night. He will give a talk at 11:30 a.m. today at 51 Pond Lane by Agawam Park in Southampton Village.

Later, he intends to stay at Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson -- one of 12 former U.S. presidents who kept slaves.

While staying at a slave dwelling, McGill said he often thinks about those whose lives were lived in that room; those who "toiled, not for their own good but to make their owners rich," and of the mothers who had to give up their children at birth to the owners as if they were goods to be sold.

At the Lloyd house, the heat is stifling, but, unlike Hammon, McGill allows himself the benefit of a fan. He also has Wi-Fi, which enables his blogging.

Before retiring for the night, McGill tells a story of his first time staying in a slave dwelling, in South Carolina. He woke around 3 a.m. to the sound of dogs barking outside.

"It was a feeling I got," he said. "That it could have been dogs chasing those who tried to escape."


Slavery in New York began when the Dutch West India Company imported 11 African slaves to New Amsterdam in 1626.

During the 18th century, about 40 percent of Long Island households had slaves.

New York passed a 1799 law for gradual abolition; all remaining slaves were freed on July 4, 1827.

Sources: New York Historical Society; Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities


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