- Cabins as Far as the Eyes Can See:An Introduction to the Black Belt Slave Housing Survey
Comemorative and celebratory events of recent years marked two watershed moments in African-American history, namely, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement. During the last week of his eight-year term in office, President Barack Obama designated downtown Birmingham, Alabama, as a Civil Rights National Monument to recognize the city's historic role as a center for organized, arduous social change. Only months earlier, the president opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. Wishing to contextualize the experiences of African slaves in the United States, the museum's curators sought to acquire a house in which slaves had lived. On Edisto Island, South Carolina, they found a small, one-room house, the only one remaining of what had been a complex of slave houses on a large cotton plantation. The house had been occupied into the 1980s. It was carefully dismantled, transported to Washington, and re-assembled in the new museum as part of a permanent exhibit on slavery and freedom.1 The museum's director, Lonnie Bunch, has declared that the cabin is a "jewel in the crown" of their collections.2 [End Page 22]
Interest in studying and preserving slave housing seems to have increased recently, in part due to the efforts of Joseph McGill's Slave Dwelling Project, whose mission is to identify and assist property owners in the preservation of extant slave dwellings.3 McGill's strategy for raising awareness toward this goal is to spend the night in slave houses, often partnering with local historical societies, student groups, and other preservation-minded organizations. His work has resulted in an annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference, where historians, architects, archaeologists, and others gather to discuss preservation and fundraising ideas. These efforts generally remain centered in South Carolina, where McGill is based, and adjoining Atlantic states. In fact, much of the literature on slave houses and plantation architecture has originated in this region, a trend due possibly to the long tradition of historical preservation and architecture there. The Virginia Slave Housing project is one such expanding archive of slave housing and associated documentation.4
In Alabama, nineteenth-century structures, both formal and vernacular, have received uneven scholarly treatment. Robert Gamble's guide to the state's architecture draws from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) collection of photographs and records and remains a most useful, comprehensive introduction to the subject, while Eugene M. Wilson's study of Alabama vernacular structures was formative.5 Other volumes approach Alabama's built history from the perspective of architecture as art or that of the sentimental romantic, without intent of focused study on specific folk forms.6 With regard to slave houses, the lack of attention is understandable: they have neither grand scale nor grand histories. At a glance, one might say [End Page 23] that they all look the same, and, in truth, they simply are not as visible as the white-columned houses in whose shadows they often rest. This apparent bland sameness, however, makes them an ideal form of study for the archaeologist, who is trained to collect data on mounds of seemingly redundant material cultural, often in the form of fragmented pots or rocks. These anthropologists of the past record information about every distinguishing characteristic, or attribute, of an artifact. When data on the attributes of many similar artifacts are compiled and analyzed, what was once mundane or of limited explanatory value by itself exposes broad patterns about culture.
Slave houses are artifacts. Their attributes can be recorded, analyzed, and broad patterns about their historical context, their builders, and inhabitants revealed. The methods of construction, for instance, often indicate climate, economy, and available technology. Ethnographic and archaeological studies demonstrate that houses, yards, and landscapes reflect cultural values and social relationships and changes to these.7 The organization of labor may be inferred from the placement of houses in relation to one another and to non-domestic buildings. Houses, too...