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A Look Inside the Slave Dwelling Project at Rowan Oak

By Laura Wilson
Special to Hottytoddy.com

“We now have evidence that Sheegog kept at least nine enslaved individuals in Oxford between 1850 and 1860, and hired some of this forced labor out to build the University.” Photo by Laura Wilson.

Joseph McGill’s stated intention for his self-founded labor of love, The Slave Dwelling Project, is to “Change the narrative, one slave dwelling at a time.”

Here in Oxford, we’re all pretty familiar with the narrative of William Faulkner, who lived at Rowan Oak just off the square for almost 40 years. Less is known of the owners prior to Faulkner’s purchase in 1930 however – the Baileys (for whom the woods surrounding the property is still named) and further back, Robert Sheegog, a wealthy planter who used the house as his urban residence.

Thanks to the work of the University of Mississippi Slavery Research Group, we now have evidence that Sheegog kept at least nine enslaved individuals in Oxford between 1850 and 1860, and hired some of this forced labor out to build the University. Although it’s not yet fully known where these enslaved peoples might have lived during Sheegog’s time, an extant structure on the property dates to Sheegog’s time and may have been used for sleeping quarters or as a kitchen.

As an avid scholar of Faulkner who moved to Mississippi from England to continue studying the author, I jumped at the chance to spend the night on the Rowan Oak grounds for McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project sleepover. At the same time, what is most important about this particular project is that it pushes museums and heritage sites to include the less well-documented, or less spoken about histories of the other lives that might have inhabited these places, and other histories that have gone untold – I’m well aware that the presence of Faulkner often looms over the town, crowding out other narratives such as these, so this is something I was mindful of going into the Project.

Furthermore, as my research has grown under the guidance of supportive faculty in the English department, I have become more interested in African American literature contemporaneous with the time that Faulkner was writing—my dissertation looks at the environment and Southern soil in early twentieth century texts—so for me, the chance to become intimate with the dirt floor of a dwelling for enslaved peoples provided a hands-on chance to get up close with my current project, which is not always the case in a discipline like English, unlike say history or anthropology. As many of the other participants rightly put it, we came to the event because this was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

The evening started off with a tour guided by Carolyn Freiwald from the anthropology department, who talked us through some of the new information that the UMSRG has discovered about Sheegog and the structures both standing, and perhaps still buried underground at this site on Old Taylor Road. Dr. Anne Twitty supplemented this with her own archival research. Following this informative walk around the grounds, we were treated to a fine dinner from Taylor Grocery as we convened in a circle of chairs around some ambient solar torches.

Joseph McGill and Dr. Twitty facilitated deep and meaningful conversation about how to make history engaging and include slavery in our knowledge of the past. Undergraduate students from Dr. Twitty and Dr. Paul Polgar’s History classes spoke about what they had (or hadn’t) learned about the peculiar institution in school, and we discussed how to overcome willful ignorance of those who buy into a certain version of events. Both Dr. Jodi Skipper and local heritage tourism guide Rhondalyn Peairs also gave compelling accounts of how to incorporate public interest into disseminating new interpretations of the past.

It soon grew dark as the conversation kept flowing until around 9:30 p.m. or so when we retired to the cabin structure to contemplate the evening and set up our bedding. The particular building we slept in is divided into two sides—one brick floored and the other just dirt—I chose the more earthy area as a way to feel more connected to an authentic experience.

It’s strange to lay out a camping pad and sleeping bag on tarpaulin and still call it authentic though—as you lay awake in the dwelling in four top layers, cozy socks, and a blanket atop the sleeping bag cocoon you’ve made for yourself, it’s hard not to evoke the surreal understanding that in reality this room could have been filled with triple the amount of people, with no sheet to separate you from the ground, and who’s to say what kind of clothing/covering?

As dogs (possibly coyotes) bayed in the distance at one point during my fitful sleep which came in a couple of two-hour spurts, I was both attuned to imagining what it must have been like to have been an enslaved individual and yet completely alienated from understanding this kind of circumstance.

How could it be possible to live this way? To survive this way? When the rain broke in the morning, we were all cheered by the knowledge of our cars nearby and the home comforts we were returning to—but for the enslaved people on Sheegog’s land, this would have been their day-to-day reality, come rain or come shine.

Just the evening before, McGill, Peairs, and Dr. Skipper had spoken about the repeated trauma that slavery evokes, and the “uncomfortability” that many feel discussing it.

But being uncomfortable in conversation, being uncomfortable for one night on the floor of a building that is so often overshadowed by the presence of this famous writers residence, is in my mind, entirely worth it, if it encourages us to remember the enslaved, and add their voices to our narrative, one dwelling at a time.

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