In the stifling attic of rough boards, the afternoon sunlight caught etchings of sailing ships on a wooden beam near a narrow window.
You could see a progression in the work, from a suggestion of a ship to finely drawn images of sails and intricate renderings of ropes and riggings. In the airless August heat, just under the roof of Sylvester Manor, the etchings spoke of an indentured boy’s need for expression and freedom.
The drawings of the ships — probably etched into the wood by a nail — were made by Will Pharaoh, an eight-year-old bi-racial boy of African-American and Native American heritage. Will lived in the spaces under the eaves in the 1830s with his brother, Isaac, who was five at the time of the etchings, according to Maura Doyle, historic preservation coordinator at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. The attic served as slave quarters for the plantation.
To keep the work of Will Pharaoh alive and, more importantly, to recognize and preserve the place enslaved and indentured people lived at the Manor, several people will spend Friday night, August 14, through the following morning, in the attic as part of “The Slave Dwelling Project.”
On Saturday afternoon, August 15, a panel open to the public to discuss the event will be held by the people who spent the night at the Manor, which is, according to academic research, the most archaeologically intact plantation north of the Mason-Dixon line.
The Slave Dwelling Project’s creator and guiding spirit is Joseph McGill, a field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Mr. McGill has spent overnights in more than 70 slaves’ dwelling places in 14 states. The project is a nonprofit with a goal of identifying the places enslaved people lived and then assisting property owners, governments and agencies to preserve them.
“Buildings tell stories,” Mr. McGill said from his home in Ladson, South Carolina. “We have to explain that these places are important and preserve then so it’s not easy to deny the history of people who built them and lived in them.”
The inspiration to create the project came from putting two of his passions together — his work with the National Trust in finding structures that merit preservation and his role as a Civil War re-enactor, playing the role of a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the African-American unit made popular by the film, “Glory.”
“I thought that spending the night would draw attention to the legacy of slavery,” Mr. McGill said. The overnights have continued to shine a light “on the prejudice today that was rooted in the institution.”
His first overnight was at a plantation in his home state of South Carolina, when he spent the night alone in a former slave cabin. His emotions were raw, he remembered. “I had moments when I thought: Why have I taken this on?”
But in the morning he knew the project would be successful, helping the public to better understand the meaning of the lives lived within the walls.
The most emotional and revealing moment, however, came the morning after spending the night in slaves’ quarters in Brenham, Texas. The owner of the property said he had something to show Mr. McGill.
“It was slave auction block,” he said. “I stood on the block and thought: How many people stood where I’m standing? How many people were split up from their families standing here? How many were ‘inspected’ standing here?”
The overnights are a time of reflection and conversation, Mr. McGill said, with the current state of race relations in America at the top of the agenda.
Joining Mr. McGill for the stay at the Manor will be Barrymore A. Bogues, a professor of humanities at Brown University, and Katrina Browne, a filmmaker who produced and directed “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.”
The film chronicles Ms. Browne’s family’s involvement in the slave trade and the implications of northern involvement in keeping slavery alive for generations. The acclaimed documentary was screened last year at the Shelter Island Public Library as part of its Friday Night Dialogues series in association with Sylvester Manor.
Professor Bogues said the greatest misconception most people have today “is they don’t get the horrific nature of slavery. They say, “Oh, it was a bad thing, it was morally reprehensible. But they don’t understand that it was a system, an institution that permeated every single aspect of American culture. People think that some parts of the country were different, but the system was all pervasive. People don’t quite get that.”
The Manor’s attic is a place that once held as many as five families, who boarded off living spaces for each other. It’s above what once was the kitchen. The only heat in the winter was provided by chimneys serving the ovens below. Scorching summer days and nights under the eaves, with only unscreened windows for circulation, can only be imagined.
Standing in the attic, Ms. Doyle noted that during partial construction work, a “spiritual cache” was found, a hiding place for objects used as talismans in West African religious belief. The enslaved people would take a brass button that fell to the floor, a slate picture frame, a used candle, or other everyday articles and bundle them together and hide them away to ensure, for example, a successful birth.
Ms. Doyle looked around the nearly empty attic, with an old steamer trunk in a corner and mattresses waiting for the Slave Dwelling Project participants. “People were born here, were married here,” she said. “Lives were lived here.”
Will Pharaoh left a legacy on the beams of clipper ships sailing away. Little is known of the fate of the Pharaoh boys, Ms. Doyle said. But there is speculation that Will escaped Sylvester Manor and made it across the water to Sag Harbor, which was one of the thriving ports of the region in those days.
“At any one time there would be 1,000 sailors on the streets of Sag Harbor,” Ms. Doyle said, “of all races.”
She added that working on ships, especially whaling vessels, was a meritocracy, so no matter who you were or where you came from, you could advance in the seaman’s trade, and be free.
The Slave Dwelling Project panel discussion will be held at the Manor House at 1 to 2 p.m., Saturday August 15. There will be a fee of $10, children 12 and under admitted for free.