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Legacy of slavery a talking point at Pineville presidential historic site
James K. Polk homestead hosts conversation
Published Thursday, September 12, 2019 3:29 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

An overnight sleepover at the James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville  is part of the Sept. 13-14 Slave Dwelling Project’s presentation “Inalienable Rights: Living Hstory Through the Eyes of the Enslaved.”

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PINEVILLE – It’s one thing to talk about slavery. It’s another to understand how it still impacts American life.

The President James K. Polk State Historic Site will host the Slave Dwelling Project Sept. 13-14 along with a living history presentation, “Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved.”

Saturday’s free program, which runs 10 a.m.-4 p.m., caps a weekend that includes a Friday reception and screening of Frederick Murphy’s documentary, “The American South As We Know It,” and an overnight sleepover experience in the Polk site's kitchen cabin led by James McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, a nonprofit that raises awareness of slavery's legacy through historic interpretation programs and preservation initiatives.

The initiative’s goal is to provide a safe place for community conversations around race, history and culture. The weekend project is the second at the Polk site, which previously hosted it in 2017.

“The 2017 event was certainly a success,” said site manager Scott Warren. “The response from the participants in the community was just outstanding. Mr. McGill's experience running the Slave Dwelling Project give participants that glimpse into and hopefully that understanding of the impact of slavery – what it meant then and the consequences and effects it has in our society today.”

Polk, who was president from 1845-49, was born in Pineville in 1795 and moved to Tennessee in 1806 with his parents and four slaves. As an adult, he owned cotton plantations in Tennessee and Mississippi as well as 50 slaves, according to William Dusinberre, author of "Slavemaster President," a biography on Polk. Unlike antebellum planters who portrayed slavery as a historical burden given them by their ancestors (Polk inherited 20 slaves from his father Samuel), Polk also bought Africans of his own volition. He wasn't alone in that regard. At least 12 presidents — more than a quarter of the nation's 45 chief executives — did the same during their lifetimes. Eight owned enslaved people while in office, including Polk.

Slave life at the Polk estate was brutal and often short, Dusinberre writes in the Polk biography, with fewer than half of slave children living to age 15, a mortality rate that was higher than of the average plantation. As an absentee owner, slaves often fled the Polk plantation – at least temporarily – yet the master offered an incentive plan for slaves and granted special privileges to his favorite. Dusinberre detailed how, as president, Polk tried to hide from the public that he secretly bought slaves. Shortly before his sudden death from cholera in 1849, Polk drafted a new will in which he wanted his slaves freed after he and his wife died.

McGill, who has been identifying and preserving slave dwellings across the South since 2010, will lead a conversation about the preservation and interpretation of slave dwellings and slave life.

“I prefer that every slave dwelling ever built was still on the American landscape to remind of the enslaved Ancestors, but that is not the case because we have been a nation that would rather forget about those parts of history that make us uncomfortable,” he wrote in a 2017 blog after Polk site presentation. “Some slave dwellings are not part of the built environment because of demolition by neglect and the fact that they were not initially built with the best and most durable materials. Some antebellum historic sites use the absence of slave dwellings as their reason for not interpreting that aspect of American history.”

Saturday’s program includes re-enactors who’ll demonstrate tasks typically performed by slaves, storytellers re-creating historical vignettes, and formal presentations in the visitor’s center. The goal is to engage in a deeper conversation about slavery and reflect on its long-term ramifications on the American experience.

“It's meant to give that feel of what the enslaved went through,” Warren said. “This was their home. This was their life, and I think that's what Mr. McGill is trying to impact on our participants.”


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