Reclaiming the Black Past: An Artifactual Journey

Two events over two days!


September 29-30, 2023

  • Friday, September 29, 6 pm until…

    A Campfire Discussion
    Led by Joseph McGill, Jr., Executive Director of The Slave Dwelling Project, at the Boyette Slave House, 3696 Glendale Road, Kenly, NC.  Reservation required.  Make a reservation by calling the Johnston County Museum, 919-938-5912, or by sending an email to

  • Saturday, September 30, 9:00 am – 2:30 pm

    Artifactual Journey of Black North Carolina—Johnston County Edition
    Led by Philip J. Merrill, African American historian, collector, appraiser, and author, at the Johnston County Agricultural Center, 2736 NC Highway 210, Smithfield.  Also features living historian Joe McGill, singer and story-teller Mary D. Williams, and dramatic interpreter Denise Joyner Bennett

    Lunch – traditional African American cuisine served in Ag Center Auditorium (ticket required, may be purchased at the Johnston County Museum, 329 E. Market Street, Smithfield, or online.)

    Have an artifact to display? - Attendees with artifacts they wish to display or to show and discuss with Philip Merrill are encouraged to make a reservation by calling the Johnston County Museum, 919-938-5912, or by sending an email to


About Our Presenters

Joseph McGill Jr.

is founder and executive director of the Slave Dwelling Project. He is a history consultant for Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. Previously, as a field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Mr. McGill worked to revitalize the Sweet Auburn commercial district in Atlanta, Georgia, and to develop a management plan for the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. He is a former executive director of the African American Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a former director of history and culture at Penn Center, St. Helena Island, South Carolina. He has also served as a National Park Service park ranger at Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston.

The Slave Dwelling Project envisions a future in which the hearts and minds of Americans acknowledge a more truthful and inclusive narrative of the history of the nation that honors the contributions of all our people, is embedded and preserved in the buildings and artifacts of people of African heritage, and inspires all Americans to acknowledge their ancestors.

Philip J. Merrill

is a native of Baltimore, Maryland, and formerly worked as an appraiser for the Antiques Road Show on PBS. He served on the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) and has consulted with the Smithsonian, Johns Hopkins University, the History Channel and the National Park Service. He has provided content for films, books, and magazines. His oral history collection is archived as HistoryMaker at the Library of Congress. He has a forthcoming book, entitled Artifactual Journey Through Black North Carolina (Blair Publisher).

His work follows the directive of historian John Hope Franklin to "go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey." In 1994, Merrill founded Nanny Jack & Co, an archives and consulting agency specializing in creating projects that illuminate the African American experience through Black Americana, oral history, and research. The company houses thousands of artifacts that include photographs, rare books, folk art, documents, music, dolls, furniture, quilts, and more.

Mary D. Williams

is a gospel singer, historian, and educator with a voice and a presence that demand attention. Born and raised in Garner, N.C., Williams grew up spending summers with her grandparents near Smithfield.

Music was an integral part of her daily life. Her father was a quartet singer, and her grandmother was always singing. "When her heart was heavy there were times when she would just be moaning," says Williams. "Those songs gave her the tenacity when she was called names, when she was treated disrespectfully. It was like she was really telling me don’t allow what people say to you to be a blocking of you going further but use it as a stepping stone."

Williams weaves together African American spirituals from the Civil War era with more modern anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, connecting generations of music and social change.

Denise Joyner Bennett

is a native of Kenly and was one of the founding members of the Johnston County Heritage Commission in 1996. Her career in communications, public relations, and cultural diversity spans more than 35 years in the non-profit, private, public, and governmental sectors, including serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin West Africa as a rural community health worker. While in West Africa, she also created and delivered cultural diversity training workshops for Peace Corps Volunteers and Peace Corps staff in Benin and Ghana. She now works as a technical assistance specialist with the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute in Chapel Hill.

She serves on the Johnston County Heritage Commission’s Black History Committee, the planning team for the Heritage Center’s annual Black History events in February. She has used her special gift as a dramatic interpreter on many occasions to bring to life personalities from Johnston County’s black past.



Friday, Sept 29, 6 pm until…

Campfire discussion with Joe McGill at Boyette Slave House, 3696 Glendale Road, Kenly, NC  

Free, but reservations required.  To make reservation for the Friday event, please call Johnston County Museum, 919-938-5912, or send email to

Saturday, Sept 30, 9 am to 2:30 pm

Free Public Event at the Johnston County Agricultural Center, 2736 NC Highway 210, Smithfield, NC

NOTE: Admission to the events is free, but tickets must be purchased for lunch only. Tickets may be purchased at Johnston County Museum, 329 E. Market Street, Smithfield, or online.

9:00 – 10:45 am
Displays of African American artifacts/show and tell with Philip J. Merrill
NOTE: Reservation required for consultation with Mr. Merrill.  Contact the Heritage Center to make a reservation.

10:45 am – 11:45
Speakers - Joe McGill and Philip Merrill

11:45 am – Noon

12:00-1:00 pm
LUNCH - traditional African American cuisine (ticket required, purchase tickets online)

1:00-2:00 pm
Singing and Story-telling by Mary D. Williams
Monologue (“I’ll Fly Away”: A Daughter Remembers) by Denise Joyner Bennett 

2:00 pm
Gathering at Sanders-Smith Cemetery next to Ag Center to honor the memory of enslaved persons buried there 


Page last updated:  August 11, 2023