Trying to understand slavery is not an easy thing to do. I ran across a reference the other day about the "flexibility" of slavery. By flexibility I think the author meant that slavery was not a one-size-fits-all type of labor system. Depending on a slave's geographic location; upper-South, Deep South, east coast or Texas frontier; or their even urban or rural environment, all of these factors spelled different experiences for different slaves. Another element that determined much of the slave's life was the type of labor he or she was forced to do. Domestic slaves had different experiences than field slaves, and sugar plantation slaves had different lives than hemp plantation slaves. Likewise skilled craftsmen slaves knew a different world than unskilled laborers. The slaves that worked in mining operations could little image the details of life of those that worked in tobacco factories. But, I don't think "flexibility" is the right word for me though. I think a better word is diversity.
One way to help get a better grip on the diversity of slave life is to look at where they lived. Below are a few photos that I found on the Library of Congress "American Memory" website of slave quarters in Kentucky. These images were taken largely in the 1930s and early 1940s as part of the HABS (Historic American Building Survey) project. The slave quarters range from the urban to rural, and from quality brick structures that many antebellum whites would have envied, to log and frame structures, that must have been impossible to keep warm in winter. Some are two story, while others are one story and probably only one room.
Today, few of these slave quarters still exist. Many have fallen into disrepair and ruin or have been torn down to help forget the days of slavery. Others, especially those in urban areas, have been converted into apartments or garages. Thankfully the HABS program documented many of them before they were lost forever, because without images such as these we would know much less than we do about the diversity of slave life.
For more images and information about slave quarters check out a great book - Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery, by John Michael Vlach
Above - Urban setting slave quarters at Rose Hill: Lexington, Kentucky