One on 1 with Joe McGill

“Freedom for African Americans came with restrictions.”

We spoke with Joe McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project and historical consultant for Magnolia Plantation, for the seventh episode of our First Amendment interview series, One on 1.

Joe speaks about the history and legacy of Juneteenth, as well as his thoughts on the long struggle African Americans have fought to access their First Amendment rights.


JOE MCGILL: Happy Juneteenth!

CHRISTIAN COTZ: Hi, everyone. I’m Christian Cotz, CEO of the First Amendment Museum. Today, I’m
joined by Joe Mcgill, the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, who’s on a mission to sleep in every former slave dwelling in the United States.

A descendant of enslaved people, Joe sleeps in these buildings to draw attention to the often neglected structures that are vitally important to American history. Joe is also a historical consultant for Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina.

Joe, thanks so much for being with us today.

JOE MCGILL: Nice to be with you in this capacity.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: Joe, today is Juneteenth, and for folks who don’t know what Juneteenth is all about, can you help us understand the meaning and the importance of the day?

JOE MCGILL: Yes, Juneteenth is freedom, put it simply, freedom from enslavement.

One thing about the Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of the Civil War was that if there were not any Union forces in place to enforce all that, you know, freedom meant very little. It took a while after the end of the war for Granger and his Union forces to get out to Galveston, Texas. That date that he got there to enforce all that freedom for those formerly enslaved people, that date was June 19th of 1865.

And that’s the date that has been celebrated and is being celebrated more as the day of freedom.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: Let’s look at this through a First Amendment lens. I’m wondering about the free black folk in the
eighteenth and the Antebellum years, early nineteenth century. Did the First Amendment apply to them?

JOE MCGILL: So those rights that were afforded by the First Amendment, they were being sidetracked. And as it
applied to those free blacks of that time, if they got too far away from where it could be proven that they were free then they would stand a chance of being sold into slavery, even if they were born free.

So, that was always a threat to not only runaways but the free blacks of that period too. It came with restrictions.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: The fourteenth amendment comes in 1868 and that promises due process to everybody. So, at least by then all black folk African Americans in America must have had access to First Amendment rights by then, right?

JOE MCGILL: The First Amendment, all those amendments up to that point, there was hope that all those things could be applied to these recently freed people.

But you know, reconstruction ends, in 1877 the Union forces are pulled out of the South and those things that replaced slavery was convict labor, and KKK, and lynchings, and redlining, and poll taxes, and Jim Crow Laws, and black codes and disenfranchisement, and massacres that we’ve been so recently made aware of – all those things came into place.

So, there were all these challenges that had to be overcome and we are still overcoming to this day.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: So when then would you say that African Americans received the full protection of their First Amendment rights?

JOE MCGILL: I think it’s ongoing. That’s an aspect of seeking this more perfect union and ensuring that those rights are afforded to African Americans because we’re still living with the residuals of that institution of slavery.

The trying times that we are in right now, trying to obtain equal rights, it’s nothing new and you know, Black Lives Matter is kind of a result of the necessity to continue that struggle.

And this document, this Constitution that we created, it had its flaws because it had to be amended many times, and you know the focus of this is one of those amendments.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: Is it okay for white folks to celebrate Juneteenth?

JOE MCGILL: I think it’s certainly appropriate for white folks to celebrate Juneteenth. A lot of the white folks who are attracted to the Slave Dwelling Project are descendants of slave owners and you know, this is their way to try to reconcile, if you will, show that they care.

Part of the problem that we face as a nation is that too many of us want to stay in a comfortable place. You know, those parts of history that we don’t want to hear, we tend to want to lock that stuff out.

When I work at Magnolia Plantation and people come there and they make choices as which tours to go on. Well, the tour of the slave cabins is chosen the least. That speaks to us as a nation, speaks to the history that we would much rather want to indulge in. So, I think that you know with that, I think white folks should be a part of this celebration, this commemoration.

CHRISTIAN COTZ: I can’t agree with you more. I can’t imagine how people wouldn’t want to celebrate the freedom of 4 million people you know, who were all Americans. So, thanks so much for being with us today, Joe.

Everyone out there, please check out the Slave Dwelling Project at www.slavedwellingprojet.org and have a great Juneteenth. Tune in again, there’ll be more One on 1’s in our future.

JOE MCGILL: Happy Juneteenth.