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McGill, RC honor those “Behind the Big House”

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Written by Emily Searles

In an effort to provide agency for those enslaved who served the Monterey house, Roanoke college brought Joseph McGill, a public historian, in a major turning point in highlighting the importance of the college’s preservation project. 

McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, travels across the country sleeping in slave dwellings to bring attention to preserving structures like the one behind Monterey.  His larger goal is to preserve the slave dwellings still dotting our current landscape so that we can hear the unheard stories of the enslaved who lived in them and recognize the importance of their labor to the built 

scape.  As slave quarters are reclaimed, restored, and repurposed, the stories within their walls must be recorded and shared so that we can understand the impact that the institution of chattel slavery has had, and continues to have, on our nation. 

In 1853, the Monterey House was constructed for Salem merchant Powell Huff, but “Behind the Big House” an untold story lies. Ned, Sarah, John, Mahaly, Ellen, Josephine, Judy, Mary, Martha, Taylor, Morris, Tucker, Jim and Lewis are the names of the enslaved people who most likely lived in the four room, two-story brick structure behind Monterey. 

Over McGill’s stay, many voices were heard across campus and around the campfire discussing the legacies of slavery. A Black Lives Matter Forum was held where McGill joined two history faculty members, Dr. Rosenthal and Dr. Bucher, in addressing many social and political issues facing our country. This informative discussion allowed for open dialogue between students and faculty alike. 

The conversation continued as Joseph McGill joined members of the INQ 300 Historic Preservation class, and other students from Roanoke College’s Historical Society and Office of Multicultural Affairs around the fire for s’mores on the west lawn of the slave dwelling. This teaching moment between students and a preservation expert allowed for a better understanding of the mission and purpose of the slave-dwelling project as something much greater that the physical reclamation of slave dwellings. 

 It is ultimately Joseph McGill’s goal to aid in repairing race relations in the United States.  The intimate setting and the introductions everyone in attendance gave as to why they came to hear about the project allowed for an open and very real discourse about how current race relations in the United States impact students today.   

The Historic Preservation class and other interested students joined Joseph McGill overnight in the Monterey Quarters reclaiming the space and highlighting the need of other college campuses to preserve slave quarters alongside Roanoke College. On Saturday, the effort continued as members from the Salem community and the wider Roanoke Valley communities came together to support the restoration effort through a robust schedule of events.  Everyone enjoyed formal presentations by Joseph McGill on the Slave Dwelling Project and former Roanoke College History professor, Kelley Deetz, on slave cooks in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Virginia.  Jerome Bias, a specialist in slave foodways, gave a cooking demonstration and professional storyteller Dontavius Williams told the inspiring story of “Adam,” a slave separated from his mother as a child when his Virginia owner sold him south to work on a plantation in South Carolina.  These events served as a catapult for Roanoke College faculty and administrators to begin a discussion with students, members of the local community, and preservation specialists in the Roanoke Valley as how best to ensure that the slave quarters “Behind the Big House” becomes an actively used and interpreted space where all historical actors will be given a voice.