That Time I Slept in a Slave Cabin

By Tonya M. Williams

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 dwellings, reading about 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 often clearly, if ever, communicated in brochures or presented in professionally guided tours of antebellum estates. One might think those unassuming, often, wooden structures are storage sheds, certainly not places where people lived in cramped conditions regardless of relation, or gender or age, at the command 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, the buildings barely receive the slightest consideration though standing 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.”

The Pilgrimage

We met at the Marengo County History and Archives Museum for a reception and part one of a two part lecture centered around the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, Changing America: The Emancipation, 1863, The March on Washington, 1963.  Joe McGill’s Slave Dwelling presentation was the opening event. As night fell some participants went home, while others, myself included, drove 25 miles down winding country roads dotted by catfish farms and cattle, to Magnolia Grove Plantation in neighboring Greensboro, AL. 

Our caravan pulled into a circular drive partially framed by magnolia trees and overgrown hedges. Overnight gear in hand, my friend and I followed shadowy figures across a wet lawn, away from the Greek revival mansion, towards the cabin at the back corner of the estate. Altogether, eleven souls, gathered 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 it suddenly dawned on me that  I’d be sleeping next to strangers, I also wondered what right we, or I for that matter, had to be there. Amid some of the most robust discussions around the human condition, I listened for the answer.

Besides two ancient chairs, there were three windows, a fireplace and wooden door we managed to prop shut with someone’s boot. Well after midnight, as conversations slowly 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, talk about, in that room? What secrets did they keep? From which African tribes were they taken?


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. 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 experience. 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.

About the author: Tonya Scott Williams is a speaker and soon-to-be published author of the children’s book “Marvelous Marva Has a Dream.” She’s also an outdoor enthusiast with a knack for identifying birds. Sometimes she posts interesting stuff on her blog. In fact, you’ll find more to this story at For information about the Slave Dwelling Project, go to

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