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Sleeping with the Ancestors: How I Followed the Footprints of Slavery
Joseph McGill and Herb Frazier


In this enlightening personal account, one man tells the story of his groundbreaking project to sleep overnight in former slave dwellings that still stand across the country—revealing the fascinating history behind these sites and shedding light on larger issues of race in America.

Joseph McGill Jr., a historic preservationist and Civil War reenactor, founded the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010 based on an idea that was sparked and first developed in 1999. Since founding the project, McGill has been touring the country, spending the night in former slave dwellings—throughout the South, but also the North and the West, where people are often surprised to learn that such structures exist. Events and gatherings are arranged around these overnight stays, and it provides a unique way to understand the often otherwise obscured and distorted history of slavery. The project has inspired difficult conversations about race in communities from South Carolina to Alabama to Texas to Minnesota to New York, and all over the United States.

Sleeping with the Ancestors focuses on all of the key sites McGill has visited in his ongoing project and digs deeper into the actual history of each location, using McGill’s own experience and conversations with the community to enhance those original stories. Altogether, McGill and coauthor Herb Frazier give readers an important unexpected emersion into the history of slavery, and especially the obscured and ignored aspects of that history.


Prior to his current position as founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, Joseph McGill was a field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is the former executive director of the African American Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the former director of history and culture at Penn Center, St. Helena Island, South Carolina. McGill was also a park ranger at Fort Sumter. He appears in the book Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. He is also a member of the South Carolina Humanities Council Speakers Bureau and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Professional English from South Carolina State University. 

Journalist Herb Frazier is the author of Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories. He is a co-author of We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel with Marjory Wentworth and Dr. Bernard Powers Jr. Frazier’s forthcoming book, Crossing the Sea on a Sacred Song.


“Thought-provoking… [Sleeping with the Ancestors] searingly describes dirt-floored cabins besieged by mosquitoes and creaky, airless attics, and it delves into the biographies of the properties’ past inhabitants. As Mr. McGill’s teams spent largely sleepless hours in these quarters, they grew hyper-observant…. Mr. McGill has paid particular attention to brickwork; the clay, he writes, remains textured with ‘finger-shaped impressions’ from enslaved brick makers.” -- The New York Times

“In this gripping personal account, Joseph McGill Jr., and Herb Frazier seek to deepen and broaden our understanding of the horrors our African American ancestors endured for generations by chronicling McGill’s experiences sleeping in former slave dwellings. I firmly believe that our history must be told and should be understood if we are to avoid repeating our worst mistakes. Sleeping with the Ancestors will further that goal by serving as a tremendous historical reference from which all can learn.” -- Congressman James E. Clyburn

“Scripture teaches to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8). Joe McGill walks the walk, and his hands-on, day-and-night journey inspires—one dwelling at a time. Few have done more than this determined South Carolinian to heal the scars of enslavement and lead us back—all of us—to the generations of ancestors whose unpaid labor shaped America. I feel lucky to have slept on some hard floors, seeing him stir the embers, share the meal, and invite the conversations that we all need to have.” -- Peter H. Wood, Duke University historian, author of Black Majority and Strange New Land

[H]  Hachette Books  /  June 06, 2023

1.1" H x 10.1" L x 7.1" W (1.25 lbs) 352 pages