Slave Dwelling Project Shares Local Slave History

Slave Dwelling Project Shares Local Slave History
Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, speaks with Loudoun residents at the first of four Slave Dwelling Project events June 2.

Some little-known Loudoun history came to life June 2 in the courtyard at the Leesburg County Courthouse.

The historic courthouse is a well known Town landmark, but what many may not know is that in the 1700s and 1800s, the courtyard was essential in the buying and selling of property — which at the time, included slaves.

The Black History Committee, Oatlands, Friends of Arcola Slave Dwelling and the Loudoun Freedom Center partnered to bring the Slave Dwelling Project to Loudoun.

The Slave Dwelling Projects works to recognize historic slave sites and aid in preservation and education efforts across the country. Founder Joseph McGill and member Terry James joined local organizers at the courthouse courtyard to share in the history and have conversations with residents. The lecture series broaches topics like local history, the conditions of slavery, racism, discrimination and bridging the gab between descendants of slavers and the enslaved, James said.

“It’s very emotional sometimes because they’re still dealing with the the residual effects of slavery,” James said. “That’s what we do, try to get people to have a conversation about a difficult part in American history, that really, nobody wants to talk about.”

James and McGill dressed in authentic 54th company infantry Union soldier uniform replicas. This regimen was made up of free black men. The pair also slept overnight June 2 in a tent on the courtyard with their hands shackled, like slaves did centuries ago.

“America needs to have a conversation about slavery that they’ve never had and come to grips with this terrible part, this awful part of American history. A lot of atrocities happened to people, they were taken advantage of, they were abused, beaten, killed,” James said. “It’s not easy. It makes you feel very uncomfortable but it’s a conversation we need to have so we can improve the quality of life for everybody in America and in the world.”

Not only was the courthouse a part of selling slaves in Loudoun, it is also a a recognized landmark of the Underground Railroad. Two trials were conducted in the old courthouse for people who had tried to free enslaved family members or multiple slaves, Black History Committee Chair Donna Bohannon said.

“One thing we want people to understand is that there was resistance from African Americans,” Bohannon said. “You see on television on slave sales, it happened here in Loudoun, but also, over and above that, there was resistance.”

Many people don’t know this piece of history because Loudoun doesn’t have any signage about these events around the courthouse. Bohannon said because the courthouse is identified on the national register as part of the Underground Railroad, the Black History Committee wants the county to add a sign, so that more residents will know this piece of history.

The event continued June 3, when the group took a walking tour of one of the only fully intact slave dwellings in Loudoun, the Settle-Dean cabin. Later that day at 8 p.m., Oatlands will conduct a lantern light tour around the enslaved community that once existed on the plantation. By 1860, the first year of the Civil War, 133 people were enslaved at the Oatlands and Bellefield plantations which were both owned by the Carter family, according to the Black History Committee.

The weekend-long events will end with an interfaith service at 9 a.m. June 4 at Oatlands, led by Pastor Michelle Thomas, founder of the Freedom Center.

“We’ve never dealt with the conditions of slavery and all that it caused. America never dealt with that, so we have to go back now and deal with it and bring it forward,” James said. “It’s a lot of hard work but I enjoy it because you meet so many beautiful people.”