A New Database Will Document Every Slave House in the U.S.: Discover the “Saving Slave Houses Project”

In central North Carolina, not far from where I live, sits the Franklinton Center at Bricks, a 224-acre educational campus and conference center built on the remains of a historic “Agricultural, Industrial, and Normal School,” then junior college, for the descendants of enslaved people. These schools were themselves built on the land of a former cotton plantation, on former territory of the Tuscarora Nation. The campus acts as a palimpsest of Southern U.S. history. Each successive generation on the site after the Civil War has built memorials alongside modern institutions of learning and activism. The model is rare. As historian Damian Pargas of Leiden University tells Atlas Obscura’s Sabrina Imbler, “slavery is largely invisible in the [current] Southern landscape, and therefore easy to ignore or forget.”

Even at the Franklinton Center, the remnants of the slave past consist only of a whipping post, the focus of a remembrance area on the campus, and an antebellum slave cemetery a short distance away. All traces of slave quarters and houses have been wiped away. Where they remain in the U.S., writes Imbler, such buildings often “bear no visible trace of their past; many have been converted into garages, offices, or sometimes—unnervingly—bed-and-breakfasts. In some cases the structures have fallen into ruin or vanished entirely, leaving behind a depression in the ground.” Since 2012, Jobie Hill, a preservation architect, has tried to change that with her project Saving Slave Houses.

Hill is determined to build a first-of-its-kind database that honors and preserves these spaces in more than memory, and to unite the houses with the stories of people who once inhabited them. As she sees it, such a repository is long overdue. “There has never been a national survey of slave houses, except for the one I’m trying to do,” Hill says.

Houses, says Hill, in her TEDx talk above, “can tell us a lot about the people that lived there…. Each slave house has a valuable story to tell.” A slave house, Hill writes, on the project’s site, “was a place where enslaved people found strength and comfort from one another; but at the same time, it was a place that imposed physical limitations and psychological trauma.”

The project grew out of Hill’s master’s theses in preservation architecture and through an internship for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), “a federal program established in 1933 to employ architects and draftsmen” during the Great Depression, Imbler notes. She has been able to identify slave houses by their small size, location on a property, “and if the building has a fireplace or chimney,” she says, noting that such buildings were rarely included in surveys. She has also cross-referenced surveys with the “largest, best-known collection of interviews from formerly enslaved people: the 1936-1938 WPA Slave Narrative Collection.”

These interviews “paint a grim picture of the cruel and cramped quarters enslaved people were forced to live in.” But slave houses are not only markers of a painful past. “A slave house simultaneously embodies suffering, yet perseverance and strong family bonds,” writes Hill. They are symbols of survival against daunting odds, and like the magnolia tree that marks the remembrance site at the Franklinton Center, they can “serve as a reminder that we too must do more than survive. We must find a way to thrive.” Learn more about Hill’s Saving Slave Houses project here.

via Atlas Obscura

Related Content:  

Hear the Voices of Americans Born in Slavery: The Library of Congress Features 23 Audio Interviews with Formerly Enslaved People (1932-75)

The Names of 1.8 Million Emancipated Slaves Are Now Searchable in the World’s Largest Genealogical Database, Helping African Americans Find Lost Ancestors

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visualized in Two Minutes: 10 Million Lives, 20,000 Voyages, Over 315 Years

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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