Joseph McGill is coming to Minnesota to lay bare the state’s history with slavery.
The Minnesota Historical Society invited the historian and founder of the Slave Dwelling Project to lecture at Fort Snelling on Saturday and then spend the night where it’s believed enslaved couple Dred and Harriet Scott lived during their time at the frontier outpost.
“This slavery thing was not just a Southern thing. Its footprint went far and wide,” said McGill, who has slept in hundreds of slave quarters in 21 states and Washington, D.C. “This is why I am coming to Minnesota.”
His visit is part of the historical society’s effort to broaden the stories told at its sites, peeling back some of the neat and tidy — and mostly white — history that generations of Minnesotans have learned. The new programs and exhibits tell the state’s story through the eyes of its diverse mix of people.
As many as 40 slaves lived and toiled at the Minnesota fort at any given time, including the Scotts, who famously sued for their freedom and lost. Some Southern military officers brought slaves with them, and some Northern officers, including the fort’s namesake, Col. Josiah Snelling, acquired slaves while serving there. Military records show that the government reimbursed owners for their slaves’ labor at the fort.
Exhibits, programs and staff at Fort Snelling still explore the site’s frontier military history, something veterans’ groups don’t want to see diminished. But they also now talk openly about the slaves who lived at the fort, the Japanese-American soldiers who trained there during World War II, and American Indians who occupied the land centuries before white settlement and were held there as prisoners after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
“It allows us to tell more stories that we hope resonate with more people’s experiences,” said Melanie Adams, senior director of guest experiences and educational services. “You can go to the fort every Saturday and have a different experience.”
The historical society is also expanding the military stories it’s telling beyond the fort’s construction in the early 19th century through its role in the Civil War and world wars.
Uncovering the invisible
Last weekend, chef, historian and author Michael Twitty cooked a traditional 19th-century African-American meal over the hearth at the fort and spoke with visitors. His award-winning book “The Cooking Gene” explores African-American culinary history from slavery to freedom.
McGill will sleep overnight Saturday.
The historical society’s new CEO, Kent Whitworth, said the events are “tangible examples of broadening the stories we tell at all our historic sites, but it’s not at the exclusion of the stories people know and love. It’s just adding more.”
Some military veterans have raised concerns that changes at the National Historic Landmark need to be tempered so they don’t diminish military history at the fort or demonize the soldiers who were behaving according to the standards of the time.
“We have some members concerned the pendulum is going to shift too far, which is often the case with these things. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s still a military fort,” said Al Zdon, historian and local spokesman for the American Legion. “It’s not an easy issue. We will trust the leadership at the MNHS to make the right decision.”
But, he added, “For too long, we left whole groups out.”
Adams said visitors generally crave more stories, which the historical society saw last summer with a temporary exhibit on slavery at the fort.
“It attracts new people and really helps them understand the diversity of this place,” she said.
The Fort Snelling stop is McGill’s first visit to Minnesota for the Slave Dwelling Project. He started sleeping in slave quarters and educating people about them because they were often invisible at historic sites. While owners’ homes are restored as historic plantations — all “sugarcoated, hoop skirts and mint juleps,” he said — the slave quarters have often been torn down and forgotten. He has also slept at slave sites in Northern states, which have historically minimized the role of slavery within their borders.
McGill, who is based in South Carolina and works as a history consultant at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, said the lessons he learned in schools were almost exclusively white history for a white perspective.
“I didn’t learn anything that made me proud as an African-American,” he said. “I felt I came from an inferior people.”
His professional work and research into African-American history led him to found the nonprofit. Since then, he has slept in slave quarters at the elaborate homes of four past presidents and at the University of Virginia, which was built by slaves, among other sites.
“I discovered I came from a proud people,” he said. “I am doing my part to honor them.”
‘Not just the revisionist past’
At Fort Snelling, McGill is focusing on the Scotts. Historians believe they may have slept in a kitchen below their master’s quarters, so that’s where McGill will likely be sleeping.
U.S. Army surgeon John Emerson purchased Dred Scott in St. Louis and brought him to the fort in the 1830s. U.S. Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro owned Harriet Robinson. The two slaves married while at the fort.
“Right away, Harriet and Dred Scott had their first child,” Adams said.
“There was a shift as an enslaved person when you are no longer thinking about your freedom, but the freedom for your children.”
After leaving the fort, the Scotts sued their owner, arguing that they should be granted freedom based on the fact that they had lived as slaves in free territory at Fort Snelling and elsewhere. They lost at the U.S. Supreme Court, but the ruling inflamed the national debate leading up to the Civil War.
Historical society staff say there are many more stories of enslaved people in and out of the fort. Research by retired attorney and historian Walt Bachman lays out how fur traders illegally brought slaves into the territory.
“We didn’t know until about 10 years ago how extensive it was,” said Jeff Boorom, a Fort Snelling program manager.
McGill said the Minnesota Historical Society is at the forefront of efforts nationally to tell history more fully and more honestly at a time when the country is becoming more diverse.
“This is a new America that is going to want to know the whole story, not just the revisionist past that was forced down our throats,” McGill said. “There is momentum, but not everyone is climbing aboard.”