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The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation

"We Kept Our Dirt Floors...Clean and White"


Slave Quarters at the Hermitage plantation, Chatham County, Georgia
(Photograph by Charles E. Peterson, 1934)

There was a lot of cabins for the slaves, but they wasn't fitten for nobody to live in. We just had to put up with them.

-- Mary Ella Grandberry, former slave from Colbert County, Alabama

The clusters of cabins where slaves were housed, some times scattered about randomly and other times ordered with geometric precision, were the definitive element of any plantation. Encoded in the quarters was a complex and contradictory message; they were a sign of the planters' success and the slaves' captive status. Comments from slaveholder and slave alike detail the slip-shod condition of many of these buildings. Slave cabins had chimneys that were prone to catching fire, roofs that leaked, dirt floors, and walls with gaping holes. Nothing more than a place to sleep, the average slave house appeared to be simply one more of the penalties of being a slave. Yet, testimony from former slaves points up their persistent and deliberate efforts to improve their cabins, to keep them in good repair, and to make them as comfortable as possible. In short, many slaves worked very hard to transform their quarters into homes. In this way slaves signaled their reluctance to accept degrading living conditions. With nearly invisible acts, they defied the subservient status conferred on them by the plantation system.

"Aunt Lucy," the oldest of the former slaves living at the Hermitage plantation (17.1)
(Photographer unknown, ca. 1915)

Slave house at Thornhill plantation, Greene County, Alabama (17.2)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1934)

Plan of a Thornhill slave house (17.3)
(Reproduction of a drawing by Kent W. McWilliams, 1934-35)

This building was one of four identical slave quarters located behind the Big House. Designed in the so-called "dog-trot" pattern, two families were expected to occupy this house and share the benefits of the covered breezeway that ran between the two rooms.

Down in the quarters every black family had a one- or two-room log cabin. We didn't have no floors in them cabins. Nice dirt floors was the style then, and we used sage brooms. We kept our dirt floors swept . . . clean and white.

-- Millie Evans, former slave from North Carolina

In the cabins it was nice and warm. They was built of pine boarding . . . . The beds was made of puncheons [rough poles] fitted in holes bored in the walls, and planks laid across them poles. We had ticking mattresses filled with corn shucks. Sometimes the men build chairs at night. We didn't know much about having nothing, though.

-- Mary Reynolds, former slave from Catahoula Parish, Louisiana

Fannie Moore, former slave from South Carolina (18.1)
(Photograph possibly by Marjorie Jones, ca. 1938)

Fannie Moore told interviewers that she had lived in a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor. There she held a pine torch so her mother, who spent her days in the fields, would have enough light to complete her evening tasks of spinning and quilting.

Slave quarter from Belmont plantation, Colbert County, Alabama (18.3)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1936)

Front elevation of the slave quarter at the Cavitt plantation, Robertson County, Texas (18.2)
(Drawn by Barbara Rottler and Alan Hohlfelder, 1980)

One-room log cabins of this sort were the most typical type of buildings used for slave housing all across the South.

Slave quarters at Doughoregran Manor, Howard County, Maryland (18.4)
(Photograph by E.H. Pickering, 1935)

Slave quarter at the Gracey house, Hale County, Alabama (18.5)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1935)

Trimmed with stylish Gothic features, this frame building constructed in 1840 represents the kind of improved housing offered by some planters. The slaves' efforts to fix up their quarters, however, were confined mostly to the inside and so generally went unnoticed.

Mary Reynolds, former slave from Catahoula Parish, Louisiana (18.6)
(Photographer unknown, ca. 1938)

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