RC students see living history through slave eyes

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Photo by Ashley Eagleson
Roanoke College professors, Slave Dwelling Project founder Joseph McGill and participants in the “Behind the Big House” program at Roanoke College stand together in front of the smaller house where slave names are inscribed behind Monterey House on the college’s campus.

A group of Roanoke College students have a more intense understanding of what life might have been like for slaves right on their own grounds, after spending time with the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project.

Founder Joseph McGill travels across the country spending nights in slave dwellings such as the two-story former home to slaves behind Monterey House that is now part of the Roanoke College campus. Monterey House, on the corner of the campus on Clay Street, was built in 1853 for Salem merchant Powel Huff.

“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,” Roanoke College student Emily Searles wrote in a paper after McGill’s visit Nov. 9-11.

The college’s Historic Preservation class and other interested students joined McGill overnight in the Monterey Quarters they term “Behind the Big House,” “reclaiming the space and highlighting the need of other college campuses to preserve slave quarters alongside Roanoke College.”

The next day members of the Salem community and the wider Roanoke Valley communities came together to support the restoration effort. In addition to McGill, former Roanoke College History professor Kelley Deetz presented a program 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, Searles said.

“The day-long ‘Behind the Big House’ programming also included a community feast and tours led by students of Monterey Quarters, Monterey, and the recently renovated Clay Street House.  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.”

“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,” Searles said.

“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,” she said.

“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,” she said.