Saturday, December 28, 2013

Slave Dwellings Described in "Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses"

In 1839, a book was published by the American Anti-Slavery Society called Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. The book contained a myriad of examples that were mainly taken from newspapers, but also from correspondence, books, and other publications from the slaveholding states and compiled by abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld.

Sections of the book discuss various aspects of slave life including: food, labor required, and clothing. A section that caught my eye and that deals with a current interest of mine was that of slave dwellings. 

It should be noted that a general evolution of sorts did occur during the later years of the antebellum period where owners often started to provide better living quarters for their enslaved populations, due largely from criticism such as the following given testimonies in Slavery As It Is:

Mr. Stephen E. Maltby, Inspector of provisions, Skaneateles, N. Y. who has lived in Alabama. 
"The huts where the slaves slept, generally contained but one apartment, and that without floor."

Mr. George A. Avery, elder of the 4th Presbyterian Church, Rochester, N. Y. who lived four years in Virginia. 
"Amongst all the negro cabins which I saw in Va., I cannot call to mind one in which there was any other floor than the earth; any thing that a northern laborer, or mechanic, white or colored, would call a bed, nor a solitary partition, to separate the sexes."

William Ladd, Esq., Minot, Maine. President of the American Peace Society, formerly a slaveholder in Florida. 
"The dwellings of the slaves were palmetto huts, built by themselves of stakes and poles, thatched with the palmetto leaf. The door, when they had any, was generally of the same materials, sometimes boards found on the beach. They had no floors, no separate apartments, except the guinea negroes had sometimes a small inclosure for their 'god house.' These huts the slaves built themselves after task and on Sundays."

Rev. Joseph M. Sadd, Pastor Pres. Church, Castile, Greene Co., N. Y., who lived in Missouri five years previous to 1837. 
"The slaves live generally in miserable huts, which are without floors, and have a single apartment only, where both sexes are herded promiscuously together."

Mr. George W. Westgate, member of the Congregational Church in Quincy, Illinois, who has spent a number of years in slave states. 
"On old plantations, the negro quarters are of frame and clapboards, seldom affording a comfortable shelter from wind or rain; their size varies from 8 by 10, to 10 by 12, feet, and six or eight feet high; sometimes there is a hole cut for a window, but I never saw a sash, or glass in any. In the new country, and in the woods, the quarters are generally built of logs, of similar dimensions."

Mr. Cornelius Johnson, a member of a Christian Church in Farmington, Ohio. Mr. J. lived in Mississippi in 1837-8. 
"Their houses were commonly built of logs, sometimes they were framed, often they had no floor, some of them have two apartments, commonly but one; each of those apartments contained a family. Sometimes these families consisted of a man and his wife and children, while in other instances persons of both sexes, were thrown together without any regard to family relationship."

The Western Medical Reformer, in an article on the Cachexia Africana by a Kentucky physician, thus speaks of the huts of the slaves. 
"They are crowded together in a small hut, and sometimes having an imperfect, and sometimes no floor, and seldom raised from the ground, ill ventilated, and surrounded with filth."

Mr. William Leftwich, a native of Virginia, but has resided most of his life in Madison, Co. Alabama. "The dwellings of the slaves are log huts, from 10 to 12 feet square, often without windows, doors, or floors, they have neither chairs, table, or bedstead."

Reuben L. Macy of Hudson, N. Y. a member of the Religious Society of Friends. He lived in South Carolina in 1818-19. 
"The houses for the field slaves were about 14 feet square, built in the coarsest manner, with one room, without any chimney or flooring, with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out."

Mr. Lemuel Sapington of Lancaster, Pa. a native of Maryland, formerly a slaveholder. 
"The descriptions generally given of negro quarters, are correct; the quarters are without floors, and not sufficient to keep off the inclemency of the weather; they are uncomfortable both in summer and winter."

Rev. John Rankin, a native of Tennessee. 
"When they return to their miserable huts at night, they find not there the means of comfortable rest; but on the cold ground they must lie without covering, and shiver while they slumber."

Philemon Bliss, Esq. Elyria, Ohio., who lived in Florida, in 1835. 
"The dwellings of the slaves are usually small open log huts, with but one apartment, and very generally without floors."

Mr. W. C. Gildersleeve, Wilkesbarre, Pa., a native of Georgia. 
"Their huts were generally put up without a nail, frequently without floors, and with a single apartment." 

Hon. R. J. Turnbull, of South Carolina, a slaveholder. 
"The slaves live in clay cabins."

Many of the surviving slave quarters that have managed to exist are those that were occupied by enslaved individuals that provided "house labor." These quarters were generally of better construction materials (brick, stone, frame with clapboards) than those that were built by and for the field slaves (logs and other temporary materials) and which were largely described in the above accounts. 

When discussing slave quarters with others, I too often hear that their living quarters were not worse than what poor landless whites experienced. While that is largely true, I try to counter by reminding those that make such an argument that while poor whites had the ability to move physically and or socioeconomically, slaves did not. Regardless of the living conditions that slaves endured it must be remembered that they were most often in these living conditions against their will and without the ability to change their situation, short of running away, which, of course, had dire repercussions if captured.   

No comments:

Post a Comment