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ESSAY The Plantation Tradition in an Urban Setting The Case of the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, South Carolina by John Michael Vlach ^" cholars ofsouthern culture usuaUy define an antebeUum plantation as an agricultural estate comprising several thousand acres where large numbers of enslaved African Americans labored to produce a single commodity—cotton, rice, tobacco, sugar, hemp—for export. By 1 860, when close to four milUon African Americans were held as slaves across the southeastern United States, about twothirds of them were Uving on plantations. Ifwe use ownership of at least twenty slaves as the benchmark ofplantation status, we find that in i860 there were over forty-six thousand plantations spread across the southern countryside from Maryland to Texas.1 Although the majority of slaves in the South Uved on plantations, the institution of slavery was equaUy weU entrenched in the region's cities. In the three largest southern cities—New Orleans, Richmond, and Charleston—slaves made up one-third of the population. Urban slaves usuaUy worked as servants for wealthywhites, but manyworked as artisans in their owners' shops. In either case, slaves were usuaUy housed in their masters' homes. Such arrangements, which put blacks and whites under the same roof, were quite different from the common plantation experience where slaves inhabited separate quarters from their owners . If, however, an urban master owned several slaves—say six or more—as was frequendy the case for a person of considerable wealth, he too would provide separate buildings at the back or to the side of his house lot. Historian Richard Wade offers an apt description ofurban slave quarters: Not only were the bondsmen's quarters placed close to the main building, but the plot itselfwas enclosed with high brick walls. The rooms had no windows to the outside and were accessible only by a narrow balcony that overlooked the yard and the master's residence. The sole route to the street lay through the house or a door on the side. Thus the physical design of the whole complex compeUed slaves to center their activity upon the owner and the owner's place. 52 . . . The whole design was concentric, drawing the Ufe ofthe bondsman inward toward his master. . . . This compound was the urban equivalent ofa plantation. The remnants of such arrangements can stiU be seen today in several southern cities including Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans, HuntsviUe, Montgomery, Savannah , Richmond, and Washington, DC. Wade caUs these urban settings composed of houses, slave quarters, yards, and taU enclosing waUs "compounds." A suitable term, yet some of these compounds, particularly the larger ones, could more properly be labeled "urban plantations."2 The largest urban slaveholding estates were laid out along the same formal premises as rural plantations. First, the slaveholders' own residence was not only the largest and most centraUy located buüding, but was also the most elaborately decorated structure. Its impressive scale and decorative features immediately made clear who was sociaUy significant and, more important, who was in charge. Slave dweUings and work spaces such as kitchens, laundries, dairies, carriage houses, and stables were subordinated by being set to the side or rear ofthe main structure, as is the case with several of Charleston's more prominent residences. Mües Brewton, for example, signaled social hierarchy by the marginal position, modest size, and plain finish of the work buildings at the edge of his property. Like their rural counterparts, urban slaveholders, whenever possible, used symmetrical buüding arrangements that placed the slave owner in the center ofa balanced , hypotheticaUy self-contained world. The ensemble built for Henry Faber and later acquired by Waccamaw rice-planter Joshua Ward, also in Charleston, foUows a plan similar to many rural estates. It consists of a prominent and rather ornate mansion flanked by identical slave dependencies that lack even the süghtest hint of decoration.3 Without any outbuildings a large home Uke the FaberWard residence was merely a large house, but when it stood in the company of a set ofservice structures, the same buüding took on the appearance ofa plantation mansion, or "big house." Given the fact that the largest urban compounds might be home to as many as thirty people (both...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 52-69
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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