Beyond the Big House - The Architecture of Slavery
Photographs by Alexander O. Boulton
Before there were interstate highways, each year my family drove from Connecticut to Georgia to visit my grandparents and cousins. During these trips I began to learn about America. I looked forward to seeing Spanish moss hanging from trees, and to drinking Dr. Pepper, which in the 1950s was sold only south of the Mason Dixon line. Behind a gasoline station, I once saw a mule tethered to a post, walking around a circular track, grinding corn. I was only vaguely aware of the separate restrooms marked "white" and "colored," but the houses that lined the roads -- bare wooden shacks without paint, their roofs covered with tar paper made an impression. Sometimes I could see chickens running from their small fenced-in, dirt yards into and out of houses. This was so different from my world in West Hartford, Connecticut, and I think sitting in that backseat looking out the window of our 1956 Chevrolet station wagon, I began to conceive the project, a part of which is now on exhibit.
With these memories, in 1983 I began another trip. During that year, I traveled from Maine to Texas photographing places where slaves had lived.
For the most part, I followed the route Frederick Law Olmsted took on a similar trip in 1857. Both Olmsted and I were interested in documenting and interpreting the institution of slavery as it existed in the United States the years before emancipation in 1865. Neither of us were neutral, objective observers. Olmsted was convinced of the immorality of slavery and set out to prove that it was also economically inefficient. While virtually all of us agree today on the immorality of slavery, it is clear that it was an enormously prosperous system of labor. America was built upon the backs of slaves. Slave-grown crops fueled the phenomenal growth of the United States from colonial times up to the Civil War.
Olmsted realized something that many historians have largely ignored or forgotten - slavery was not universally the same wherever it existed. As a system of social relations slavery could not exist without coercion and brutality. A human being was considered by law to be the absolute property of another individual who had complete control over him or her. The institution of slavery corrupted everyone who participated in it. Nevertheless, the nature of slavery varied dramatically from place to place and over time.
My photographs illustrate variety in North American slavery. The most important difference in the nature of slavery was between "house slaves" and "field slaves." Domestic servants of the wealthy often lived in very nice houses. (Example, the brick slaves' quarters behind the Miles Brewton house in Charleston, South Carolina.) These houses often served as kitchens, laundries, and stables. Nevertheless, they were often two-storey brick structures with glass windows - far better than housing provided for field workers. Domestic slaves were generally better clothed and fed yet this did not mean their lives were easier than those of field slaves. House slaves were in constant contact with their owners, subject to their whims while separated from others.
Another significant variation as illustrated in their physical remains, location of the structures and how that changed over time. Slaves were more visible in the colonial period before the American Revolution. Quarters even for field workers were often very close to the main house. At Boone Hall, Berkeley County, South Carolina , and at Mulberry Grove the quarters lined the boulevard leading up to the "Big House." After the Revolution, quarters for field slaves were moved further from the home. Inside the mansions rooms were increasingly private, with hallways and back stairways separating slaves from their owners. This increased segregation suggests that colonial slaveholders were proud of their property and wanted to show them off but later, as Revolutionary Era ideas of freedom and equality spread, the morality of slavery was increasingly questioned and slaves were hidden from sight.
A difference in the nature of slavery was also due to the kind of crops produced and that was largely dependent on geography and climate. North of Virginia, the principle crops of wheat and corn, required seasonal labor. Maintaining a slave labor force was uneconomical and after the Revolution, slavery declined in importance in these areas. Earlier, slaves were common throughout the North (as can be seen in the well-preserved slaves' quarters behind the Isaac Royal house in Medford, Massachusetts).
In Virginia, parts of Maryland and North Carolina, tobacco, the major crop was highly labor intensive that required small groups of laborers under close supervision by an overseer who resided close by. Although wealthy slave-holders could own hundred of acres of land and hundreds of slaves, their plantations were generally divided into smaller quadrants which contained only one or two dozen slaves. Tobacco generally supported a small family and their slaves, but did not lead to great wealth, and both whites and blacks in tobacco-growing areas often lived in similar log cabins. The houses of the free white slave-holders and overseers would differ from the cabins of slaves only being somewhat larger, having glass windows and brick chimneys. (An example of a typical log cabin that may have housed slaves is found at Zion Crossing in Virginia).
Further South, along the coast in South Carolina and Georgia, were some of the wealthiest plantations in North America. There, rice was grown by large numbers of slaves with relatively little white supervision. Whites fled the region from "killing frost to killing frost" when mosquitoes spread malaria and other diseases. The slaves' quarters were often fairly substantial, housing large families over many generations. Here, elements of traditional African cultures, religion, music, and language were often retained with out much assimilation of white society.
The most common type of slave housing in North America, was the impermanent log cabins of slaves who worked the cotton fields that fueled the American economy throughout the early nineteenth century. Cotton production spread across the new states of the American South following the invention of the cotton gin in 1792. Very few of these buildings have survived. Cotton, like tobacco, required frequent movement from field to field as soil became depleted with successive crops. Traveling South one can often spot a log cabin that might have housed slaves. Today it would generally be falling into ruin. Signs of later occupants, perhaps twentieth-century, tenant farmers, are seen in electrical wiring, the board and batten siding and peeling wall paper. Cotton plantations allowed a more varied number of laborers than tobacco or rice. Planters might own only a couple to a hundred or so slaves. After emancipation, ex-slaves generally moved away from others, claiming land of their own, or more likely share-cropping on the land of their previous masters. One clue to a cabin originally housing slaves is its close proximity to similar cabins.
There is an old saying that a hundred very rich cotton planters were the equal of one poor sugar planter. Sugar plantations were often "factories in the fields," requiring extensive industrial equipment for harvesting, pressing, and refining raw cane into molasses. This process was imported from the Caribbean into the Mississippi River area in Louisiana beginning in the late eighteenth century. Some of the finest Plantation houses and slaves quarters in America were on the River Road just north of New Orleans (See Evergreen Plantation). The sugar plantations of the lower Mississippi were famously described in Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin (Based on the story of Josiah Henson, who lived near Bethesda Maryland before escaping to Canada.) The character of Simon Legree justifiably gave the area its reputation for brutality.
The lower Mississippi as a French colony before it was absorbed into the United States had a history of racial assimilation. Melrose (also known as Yucca) plantation, the home of the Metoyer family, illustrates this complex past. The Metoyers are descendents of an African slave Marie Thérèze (originally Coincoin), and a French man. The family inhabited a space between black and white. Described as "free people of color" or genes de colour libre, they enjoyed many of the rights reserved for whites throughout the antebellum South, including the right to hold property in land and slaves, but not the right to vote or hold political office. According to the 1850 census, the Metoyers and their relations owned over five thousand acres and 436 slaves. [fn Gary Mills, p. 111] Marie Thérèze acknowledged her African heritage in the construction of several of the outbuildings at Melrose plantation. (African architectural influence is perhaps also evident in the quarters at Keswick plantation in Powhattan, Virginia.)
Any study of slavery is fraught with ironies and contradictions. I tried to make these pictures visually and aesthetically interesting, knowing that the subject matter will be interpreted by different viewers. In doing so, I have been complicit in exploiting the lives and labor of people long since dead. Slavery and its legacy have been a driving force in the history, economy, and art of our country since the first African slaves landed in Virginia in 1619. My travels in the 1950s and 1980s were only a small part of America's journey - a journey that is far from over.
Alexander O. Boulton received his Ph.D. in history from the College of William and Mary in 1991. His doctoral dissertation, partly inspired by his research in the architecture of the American South, was titled, "The Architecture of Slavery, Art, Language and Society in Early Virginia." He has written and photographed articles on American architecture for American Heritage, and Historic Preservation magazine, and has written about slavery and race for American Quarterly, and the William and Mary Quarterly.