I’ve been pondering lately how we need to reconsider how our enslaved ancestors lived. We need to think more about the physical dimensions of that space.
Not long ago I posted a recommendation for a book called “Back of the Big House.”
This book tells the stories of these homes well and encouraged me to think about the topic more deeply.
It had never occurred to me to consider what kinds of houses enslaved people lived in. Most of those houses in the U.S. are no longer standing.
The Dynamic of Slavery
Before I became a genealogist, my mind conjured up the more commonly images attached to slavery: large plantations, fields of slaves, whippings and slave cabins. I have since learned that this tells only a part of the story and is incomplete picture.
Slavery was a dynamic institution, ever-changing, and different from farm to master to crop to state. Enslaved people worked in mines and were barbers. They worked on ships, in factories, and in stores.
Farming rice was very different from tobacco which was different than cotton. Both were different from sugar cane and different from indigo. Slavery in 1700 was profoundly different from slavery in 1820.
Especially when beginning our research, we need to challenge all our assumptions about the institution of slavery.
What Can Housing Tell Us?
The housing where enslaved people lived can tell us much about their experience. These should be viewed as sites of the experience of enslavement.
Slave housing could speak to how much privacy (or lack thereof) they were allowed. Were two or more large families sharing a space or given separate spaces?
Was the housing minimal but not decrepit? How far were homes spaced from the overseer’s house? Many small farms did not have separate slave housing, especially since they were likely to have owned fewer enslaved people. They may have lived in their owner’s house in a loft or attic space.
What did that mean for how much control the master had over their lives? Was the master boastful, setting out rows of slave cabins in front of his house for all to see? Or did he hide them in back, out of the immediate view of visitors?
I took the picture above 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 saw pictures of housing made of stone and brick. I had assumed they were mostly wooden structures. There was duplex housing, and many other forms that removed that “log cabin” image out of my mind.
Yes, many enslaved people lived in log cabins. But the Back of the Big House book helps us see diversity of housing types across the country & across time, and to think more deeply about the implications for our ancestor’s lives.
I wonder how my ancestor Malinda and her children lived in rural west Tennessee? What kind of housing did the slaveowner Nathan Cook provide in Montgomery County, Maryland?
Have you searched for pictures of surviving slave housing in the area where your ancestors lived?
As we tell the story of our enslaved ancestors, let’s not forget an important physical aspect of their day-to-day lives. Their homes.
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.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.