Preserving and Protecting Privately Owned Resources

The work of interpreting slave dwellings becomes a lot more difficult as we lose sites, due to neglect, and too little homeowner education and resources. Those homeowners who want to preserve properties often having daunting research projects ahead of them.

Consult local and state level architectural historians on suggestions for slave dwelling property owners. Also contact local and state level heritage trusts. They may offer historic preservation workshops and other resources. If possible, bring in someone like Joseph McGill Jr. who, through his Slave Dwelling Project, brings attention to the preservation of these sites. You can’t preserve them if no one knows they exist.


Not all potential partners will be willing to give equitable treatment to the lives of the former enslaved. Some may refuse to respond to any attempts at such interpretations. Others may claim that there is no proof of enslavement at a particular site or sites. Some will likely say there is a need to expand current narratives to include the lives of former enslaved persons, yet this is not the right time, or there first must be an indication of public interest to see such changes. Do not be discouraged by such responses. The Holly Springs program began with two people, and the Arkansas program began with one. In both cases, partnerships were sought out and quickly established, without an expectation that all invitations for collaboration would be accepted. Both programs were developed in less than a year. This time span is not meant to serve as a reasonable goal, but as inspiration for those who think that these programs take an army of support, and years to develop. Programs such as this take a small group of willing participants, who believe that those who may not have received equitable treatment in the past deserve it in the present.

Emotional Health

Most communities in the U.S. are still dealing with the impacts of slavery, without directly addressing those impacts. For some, an interpretation program prioritizing the lives of enslaved persons may be a first introduction to 1) recognizing the significance of slavery in U.S. History and 2) to transracial dialogues about race. This should be taken into consideration, when asking for local community support. To some community persons, this will be long overdue; to others, this will be a distraction; and to others, this will be unwanted. Citizens of racially fractured communities have lived for generations assuming that a peaceful existence can only be obtained through silence about race. This is far from true.

In 2014, Rowman & Littlefield press published Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites, a text targeting established museums and historic sites, but with much insight to offer anyone attempting to thoughtfully and critically interpret slavery. Read it! This rare, “how to” manual offers a psychoanalytical approach to understanding how we interpret such sites and how the message is received. The book’s message should be supplemented with methods used by organizations like Coming to the Table, a national organization whose mission is to provide “leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery.” Gracing the Table, in Holly Springs, developed with this organization as a model. The Holly Springs group consulted with a psychotherapist to help Behind the Big House visitors striving to acknowledge the impacts of slavery, and heal.

Working with a Behind the Big House program has been a rewarding experience for most involved. It is a rare effort in a country continuously stressing the need to talk about race and racism without critically doing so.  It is difficult work, with the realities of emotional labor. Know your role, and revise when needed. Also know when it is time to bring in others with the skill sets that you do not have. This is key to the stability of any program.