- Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America ed. by Clifton Ellis, Rebecca Ginsburg
Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017.
ix + 186 pages, 30 black-and-white illustrations.
ISBN: 978-0-8139-4005-2, $32.50 HB
ISBN: 978-0-8139-4006-9, $32.50 EB
Atlantic and American historians have sought to unravel slavery’s monolithic narratives since the dawn of social history studies a generation ago. But rarely do researchers investigate the institution in an urban context beyond a handful of major southern cities. A slim new volume from University of Virginia Press, Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America, offers compelling evidence that the lives of enslaved Africans and African Americans in places other than Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans are indeed hidden in plain sight. Its eight essays push beyond the familiar fields and big houses of the plantation to small Tennessee towns and Texas’ very edges to prove that “many of the urban environments that are familiar to us today are the legacy of [slavery’s] violence, as well as of ingenuity, courage, and perseverance” (10).
Slavery in the City argues that urban material culture is key to this more comprehensive understanding of slavery’s impact. Beginning with an introductory essay that is almost too generous to traditional history’s paucity of attention to urban slavery, the book’s editors, Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg, clearly espouse their commitment to fieldwork. The essays that follow arc from those rooted firmly in the documentation of structures and landscapes to studies about peoples’ movements between buildings. Two pioneers of the vernacular architecture movement, Edward A. Chappell and John Michael Vlach, launch the book with comparative typological investigations of slave housing in the Chesapeake, Jamaica, and northern settlements like Comack, New York. Their essays root the book in the materials and dimensions of buildings, using physical evidence to speak of the intentions of their builders and the perceptions of their otherwise undocumented users. They identify the ways in which the institution of slavery “weaponized” even the very places where enslaved Africans and African Americans laid their heads and built their families (65). Material culture thus confirms the futility of any attempt to argue that urban slavery was any less brutal than agricultural slavery.
The book continues with essays that focus on single case studies but vary in the methodologies they use to recover the experiences of the enslaved. Clifton Ellis translates painstaking documentary and archeological research into a highly readable essay on Annapolis. He ultimately concludes that the lack of distinct spaces for enslaved people indicates the fluidity of slavery in late eighteenth-century Annapolis, complicating the previous essays’ arguments for the importance of physical evidence. Gina Haney follows with an essay that also finds much in what is not there. Her bold combination of feminist scholarship’s “standpoint theory” and sensory history delivers an evocative look at how something as natural as shifts in daylight affected spaces for white and black Charlestonians.
The volume’s final essays epitomize vernacular architecture’s gospel of the local. Each looks closely at how a specific place’s landscape, geography, economics, size, and/or culture shaped the lives of enslaved people— and how they, in turn, attempted to carve out their own spaces there. Based in demographics, Charles H. Faulkner’s dense essay locates free and black residents in Knoxville, Tennessee. He concludes that African Americans lived relatively autonomously from their masters or white neighbors, allowing for the development of distinct cultures confirmed by archeological artifacts. Lisa Tolbert paints a very different picture of the small town of Franklin, Tennessee, where blacks and whites lived so close to one another that enslaved residents effectively “had multiple masters” (147). She creatively uses records of a salacious murder to argue that in towns where everybody knew everybody, all whites had eyes and ears on all enslaved African Americans at all times.
While both Faulkner’s and Tolbert’s essays offer examples of the very particular landscapes produced...