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Reviews103 Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. ByJohn Michael Vlach. University of North Carolina Press, 1993. 258 pp. Cloth, $37.50; paper, $18.95. Reviewed by Thomas W. Hanchett, who earned his Ph.D. in history at the University ofNorth Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently Andrew D. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in southern studies at Emory University. He is author of "The Rosenwald Schools and Black Education in North Carolina" in the North Carolina Historical Review. All too often, architecture buffs interested in the plantations of the pre-Civil War South have focused only on the grand homes of the planters. Early in this century, when local landmark groups began moving to preserve important structures from the era of slavery, they saved the mansions but often let the outbuildings fall away. The result has been a skewed image of history, a loss of understanding of the plantation as a working farm. Equally important, selective preservation has obscured the vital role of African Americans as the plantation labor force—the South's main economic engine. A joke that made the rounds among museum directors during the 1980s perfectly captured the resulting myopia. After a tour of a particularly grand antebellum plantation house, an appreciative couple is said to have remarked, "Wonderful place! Do you know if they had any help?" In Back of the Big House, John Michael Vlach takes a step toward redressing that imbalance. Vlach, a professor of folklore and American studies at George Washington University, is well known among scholars of the built environment for his work on African American architecture and design. His pathbreaking research into the origins of the commonplace "shotgun" house suggested its links to Haitian and West African building customs , and his book Charleston Blacksmith documented the still-vibrant African-influenced decorative arts tradition practiced by South Carolina metalworker Philip Simmons. Now Vlach has turned his attention to the everyday buildings of the antebellum plantation— kitchens, smokehouses, stables, house servants' quarters, and the cabins of field hands— with an interest in seeing them through the eyes of both the planters and the slaves. Vlach begins by assessing the relative significance of the plantation in the experiences of white and black southerners before the Civil War. Plantations constituted only a tiny minority of southern farms. Only 24 percent of all white southern families owned slaves, and only 12 percent of those owned twenty or more. Vlach traces the image of the plantation to eighteenth-century Virginia, where a handful of extremely wealthy secondand third-generation families created the first American plantations on the model of English manors. Virginia estates provided the prototypes for builders in the South's three main plantation regions of the early nineteenth century—the Atlantic coastal plain, the fertile lands of the lower Mississippi River, and upland South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. In reality, only plantations with a hundred or more slaves achieved the Virginia model of grandeur, and they probably numbered no more than two thousand across the entire South. But for white families on smaller farms, these showplaces served as cultural beacons, symbols of the opportunity that the slave economy offered. While few whites lived on the fabled southern plantation, the vast farms were home to the majority of the region's blacks, including some 62 percent of slaves. The estates thus provided the primary landscape in which Africans forged an African American culture. Vlach's main tool for visualizing this landscape is the trove of photos and measured drawings created since 1933 by the Historic American Building Survey (HABS). Begun as a New Deal project to put architectural draftsmen and photographers back to 104Southern Cultures work, HABS continues to assemble teams of students and part-time professionals each year to document significant structures across the nation. The HABS collection at the Library of Congress includes images from dozens of major plantations . While planters' houses, not surprisingly, have received the most scrutiny, the archive also includes information on numerous outbuildings, many of which have now disappeared. Vlach's aim was to pull together, analyze , and publish this important body of data. HABS photographs and drawings make up the meat of Back of the Big...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 103-105
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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