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The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation


Cover (front and back): Green Hill plantation as seen from the fields
Photograph by Jack Boucher, 1960. (1.1)

Slave quarters at Roseberry plantation, Dinwiddie County, Virginia.
Photograph by Beckstrom, 1936. (23.2)

The Big House was a two-story house; white like most houses during that time. On the north side of the Big House sat a great big barn, where all the stock and stuff that was raised was kept. Off to the southwest of the barn, west of the Big House, set about five or six log houses.

-- William Henry Towns, former slave describing a plantation near Tuscumbia, Alabama


THE PLANTATION ESTATES of the antebellum South were often described by their enslaved occupants as impressive places filled with many buildings that sheltered a wide variety of activities. The planter's residence, often called the "Big House" by slaves, was the most prominent building by virtue of its size and position and occasionally was adorned with stylish architectural features. The columned portico, even today, remains the prime icon of plantation identity. However on the more than 46,000 plantations that were in operation in 1860, the work done beyond the Big House was more important than the mansions. There, at the margins of the planters' domains, lived almost two and a half million slaves In the quarters--clusters of cabins that were actually African- American villages--slaves found, against all odds, the means to create a culture of their own. Beyond the Big House there existed another social domain, one that is often overlooked. This exhibit explores, in some detail, the slaves' side of the plantation.

The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation draws its content primarily from two collections at the Library of Congress: the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and transcripts of interviews with ex-slaves conducted by the Federal Writers Project. These two collections, both assembled largely in the 1930s, are united for the first time in this exhibit and its companion book. Joined together, the contents of these collections have the ability to carry us back more than half a century to encounter old people, now deceased, and old buildings, many of which are now lost or have fallen into ruins. The HABS images provide us with visual entry to plantation structures and spaces, while the interviews furnish us with the slaves' point of view. In the combination of old places, old people, and old words, we are able to recover the history of plantation work, a history that is too often obscured by all the attention devoted to glamorous mansion houses and their gardens and grounds.

The exhibit begins with a description of the distinctive physical features of plantation estates. Key building types and their distinctive arrangements are identified. Subsequent sections then move progressively deeper into the experiences of slave life. First, the range of slave tasks is reviewed. Cooking and other domestic chores are depicted along with some of the routines required in the raising of cotton, rice, livestock, and sugar. Next the domestic conditions are examined. Ranging from miserable hovels made with rough logs to well-built cabins framed with milled timber, slave quarters were the definitive feature of any antebellum plantation. They also constituted the sites where slave communities would develop. Here, black talents were displayed in many ways, and various skills such as carpentry, carving, blacksmithing, spinning, weaving, sewing, or tanning were used by slaves to make life in the quarters more acceptable. Often, slaves worked in their quarters just as hard as they worked in the fields but in the quarters the results of their labor belonged to them alone. Other talents in various performing arts including music, dance, and narration brought measures of joy to an otherwise bleak existence. Finally, the rise of a distinctive black liturgy is presented, a mode of worship marked by inspirational preaching, emotional singing, and much appreciated messages of liberation and deliverance.

Slaves knew that they were valuable people, and they said so among themselves. They proved their worth not only by what they did in the quarters but in the many tasks they performed all over the plantation. Slaves knew who had really produced the crops and earned the fortunes and they kept mental accounts of what they were owed. Eventually some slaves reckoned that the plantation, at least in moral terms, was really their justly-deserved property. Former slave Bayley Wyat was very clear on this point in a speech he made in 1866:

We has a right to the land where we are located. For why ? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; that the reason we have a divine right to the land . . . And then didn't we clear the land, and raise the crops of corn, of cotton, of tobacco, of rice, of sugar, of everything?

Many slaves looked upon the portions of the plantations where they were held as their spaces. These domains usually included the quarters and frequently the barns, stables, sheds, and other work areas. It was a modest but important victory over the planter's rules to appropriate, even if silently, his real estate. His rules were designed ultimately to hold black people in assigned places as pieces of property. But slaves repeatedly proved to be "troublesome property" when they sassed their masters, feigned ignorance of instructions, worked very slowly, broke tools, and engaged in other acts of insubordination. They lampooned masters and overseers with droll stories, sly jokes and clever satirical songs. Included in their repertoire of resistive acts was the strategy of territorial appropriation. Slaves would gradually identify a space as theirs by countless domestic acts so that a garden plot, a house, a shed, or a cupboard became theirs by dint of custom. Over time such acts of appropriation instilled among slaves a sense of autonomy or even quasi-liberty. That such attitudes mocked the claims of absolute control made by slave- owning whites is sensed in the remark of a slave woman from Georgia who, when asked if she belonged to a particular plantation family, replied without hesitation: "Yes, I belong to them and they belong to me."

As we look over these images and attend to the testimonies, we would do well to recall that plantations were contested territories. We must remember that back of the Big House the views held by slaves were very different from those espoused by plantation owners. The history of plantation life cannot be fully understood unless the slave perspective is acknowledged and the plantation landscape is viewed as a slave might have viewed it: that is, from the inside looking out.

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