Taking Back What Was Once Lost

Slave Housing

I just finished reading a wonderful article on slave housing in Montgomery County, Maryland, where one of my branches is from. A small part of the article is posted here.

Boone Cty, SC

Boone Cty, SC

I’ve been pondering alot lately how we need to reconsider how our enslaved ancestors lived; the physical dimensions of that space and what it said about their lives. Not long ago I posted a recommendation for a book called “Back of the Big House”, and that book got me thinking about the topic much more deeply. It pains me that so many slave houses are no longer standing.

My mind, like so many others, had been imprinted with the more common images attached to the slave experience: large plantations, fields of slaves, whippings and slave cabins. My genealogy research has shown me that slavery was a dynamic institution, ever-changing, and different from farm to master to crop. There were enslaved people doing mining, and barbering, working on ships, in factories, and in stores. There were slaves hiring themselves out, and making their own money. The nature of rice farming was very different from tobacco which was different than cotton. Though whipping was common, there were other forms of punishment. We have to challenge all our assumptions about the institution. I know I did.

The slave’s physical housing could speak to how much privacy (or lack thereof) they were allowed. Were 2 large families sharing a space or given separate ones? It could speak to the largess of the owner; was the housing minimal but not decrepit? How far were they spaced from the overseer’s house? Many small farms housed slaves in the master’s same house, in the loft space above the kitchen or other outbuildings. What did that mean for how much control the master had over their lives? Was the master boastful, setting out rows of slave cabins out front for all to see, or hiding them in back, out of immediate view of visitors?

Mt. Vernon I remember taking this picture of a slave “dormitory” at Mt. Vernon (George Washington’s plantation). It had never occurred to me that slaves ever lived in anything like this.

I was equally surprised when I found pictures of stone and brick housing, duplex housing, and the myriad other forms that remove that “log cabin–field slave” image out of my mind. Yes, there were certainly log cabins, but many other types as well.

How did Malinda and her children live down in rural west Tennessee? What kind of housing did the slaveowner Nathan Cook provide in Maryland? How did they live in that space, and how did that affect the slave experience for them?

From cestsuzanne.com

Have you searched for pictures of surviving slave housing in the area where your ancestors lived? I found only a few websites that included images of slave housing: The Missouri State Park, a dig at Monticello, and a school resource site in the UK. A promising site for Virginia doesn’t seem yet to be complete.

As we tell the story of our enslaved ancestors, let’s not forget the physical aspect of their day-to-day lives.

Consider this sobering description from Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery:”

The cabin was not only our living-place, but was also used as the kitchen for the plantation. My mother was the plantation cook. The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a door to the cabin — that is, something that was called a door — but the uncertain hinges by which it was hung, and the large cracks in it, to say nothing of the fact that it was too small, made the room a very uncomfortable one. In addition to these openings there was, in the lower right-hand corner of the room, the “cat-hole,” — a contrivance which almost every mansion or cabin in Virginia possessed during the ante-bellum period. The “cat-hole” was a square opening, about seven by eight inches, provided for the purpose of letting the cat pass in and out of the house at will during the night. In the case of our particular cabin I could never understand the necessity for this convenience, since there were at least a half-dozen other places in the cabin that would have accommodated the cats. There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor. In the centre of the earthen floor there was a large, deep opening covered with boards, which was used as a place in which to store sweet potatoes during the winter. An impression of this potato- hole is very distinctly engraved upon my memory, because I recall that during the process of putting the potatoes in or taking them out I would often come into possession of one or two, which I roasted and thoroughly enjoyed. There was no cooking-stove on our plantation, and all the cooking for the whites and slaves my mother had to do over an open fireplace, mostly in pots and “skillets.” While the poorly built cabin caused us to suffer with cold in the winter, the heat from the open fireplace in summer was equally trying.

3 Comments

  1. Liv's Gravatar Liv
    September 10, 2011    

    You asked, “Have you done a search for pictures of surviving slave housing in the area where your ancestors lived?”

    I have not done a major search for surviving slave houses in my area, but I heard that there is one not too far from the Houston area. Your post has me thinking that my one of my next road trips need to be at the slave house!

    Just in case you are not familiar with him, Joseph McGill, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was preserving slave houses and the history that surrounds them through the Slave Cabin Project last year. His blog about his sleepovers experiences in those cabins is WONDERFUL – http://blog.preservationnation.org/tag/slave-cabin-project/

  2. September 18, 2011    

    I live in Robertson County, Tennessee in Springfield, which is about 30 miles from Nashville. The plantation where my ancestors were enslaved is 10 miles from my house. The plantation is called Wessyngton, and was established in 1796 by Joseph Washington, a distant cousin of President Washington. The search for my ancestry started when I was in the 7th grade and spotted a photo of four former slaves. I later learned that two of them were my great-great-grandparents Emanuel and Henny Washington who were born slaves at Wessyngton. At the time of my research there were about 14 cabins still on the plantation. There is only one left now but I have pictures of the originals. In 1993 I participated in an archaeological dig where my ancestors’ cabin used to be. In 2009 Simon & Schuster published my book about the history of the plantation The Washingtons of Wessynton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom. I also have a website if you are interested in more history about slavery. The book is 432 pages and has over 100 pictures, some dating before the Civil War.

  3. October 5, 2011    

    You missed a great resource, that has hundreds of photos of slave housing from the 1930s through the present: the Library of Congress. The site contains the photographs and accompanying documentation of the Historic American Buildings Survey, which began under the Works Progress Administration. I wrote about these photographs of slave housing in an article almost two years ago: http://www.examiner.com/african-american-genealogy-in-national/discovering-where-slaves-lived

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I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

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