Slave Cabin, Built ca. 1830, Photograph
By 1830, slavery was located primarily in the South. Slaves toiled on small farms, large plantations, inside homes, and in industrial settings. The traditional image of southern slavery is that of the large plantation, but, in fact, most Virginia slaveholders held only a few enslaved people. In addition, the common image of southern slave quarters is of small, unstable cabins aligned in rows along the outskirts of the plantation. Ongoing research indicates, however, that slave housing was more diverse depending on the scale of the farm or industry, the size of the enslaved population, and the makeup of the enslaved community.
A social hierarchy existed among enslaved people on large plantations and influenced the types of quarters that were provided. Skilled artisans and African American overseers (or drivers) formed the enslaved elite at the top. After the elite, came the domestic servants, then the field laborers, and finally the children's gangs and the unemployable (usually the sick or elderly). If slaveholders held considerable economic wealth and social prestige, they might house hired-out or skilled slaves in separate servants' halls. On large plantations, such as George Washington's Mount Vernon, field hands might be lodged at the farms where they worked, with the best accommodations reserved for the slaves who lived nearest the owners' homes. Most field hands lived in crude outlaying wooden cabins, while skilled and domestic workers might be housed communally in barrack-style housing or in quarters above dependencies of the main house such as the kitchen. Log cabins, nevertheless, were the most common building type used for slave houses in Virginia during the nineteenth century.
Log cabins were cheap and relatively easy to construct. The structure in the photograph reflects a typical Anglo-American log cabin design and technique including one and a half-story, which was a typical style of log cabins. The half-story allowed for much needed storage or sleeping space. Unusual in this photograph is the brick chimney. Most slave cabins had wooden chimneys because they could easily be knocked down and replaced if they caught on fire. Log cabins usually contained of a dirt floor, one or two unglazed (without glass) windows, and a fireplace for cooking and warmth. Overall, slave quarters were generally poorly constructed, and enslaved blacks were given only the barest essentials.
Usually slaveholders issued enslaved blacks one or two garments a year and gave shoes only to working adults, which were oftentimes cheaply made or manufactured at home. Slave families also improved the daily rations of food provided by slaveholders when possible by earning personal money, cultivating gardens, raising poultry, collecting berries, and sometimes hunting game in their free time.
The typical nuclear family unit generally did not characterize slave families in the antebellum South. Instead, extended kin networks of aunts, uncles, and grandparents composed the slave family unit. Children, whose mothers or fathers had been sold away, often had adoptive parents who were friends of their biological mother or father. Extended families might live in a single-pen log house with rectangular floor plans sometimes divided into two rooms. Double-pen log housing, which consisted of two, independent housing units, provided protection for at least two extended family units.
Enslaved people often strove to re-create meaningful family lives built largely upon their kin-based, African heritage. While some slave quarters suggest that certain enslaved individuals were provided for with a degree of material comfort, all slave quarters reflect the complex relationship between the slaveholder and the enslaved individuals. Between 1830 and 1860 there was a noticeable movement toward improved conditions in many slave quarters, perhaps fueled by slaveholders hoping to encourage their slaves to be content in bondage. Planters, however, were often were more concerned with the exterior of the slave quarters than with the material comfort of its occupants. Despite the inconsistencies of slave life and the ever-changing circumstances of slavery in America, African Americans turned their living spaces into their own personal and cultural domains where they valued family and developed powerful cultural traditions.
1. Describe common features in the housing provided for enslaved African Americans.
2. Describe the hierarchy that existed among enslaved African Americans on larger plantations.
1. Did slaves who lived in the main house have an advantage over those who lived in the slave quarters? Why or why not?
2. What were the results of poor housing on the health of enslaved African Americans?
3. Why were people documenting evidence of eighteenth century slavery in 1930?
This photograph of a slave cabin, built in the early or mid-nineteenth century was taken about a hundred years later by a WPA worker for the Virginia Historical Inventory during the Great Depression.
Pogue, Dennis J. "The Domestic Architecture of Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon." Winterthur Portfolio 37, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 3–22.
Vlach, John Michael. "'Snug Li'l House with Flue and Oven': Nineteenth Century Reforms in Plantation Slave Housing." Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 5 (1995): 118–129.
Berlin, Ira, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.
King, Wilma. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth Century America. Indianopolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.