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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  • Rochelle says:

    Thank you for con­cern­ing your­self with the preser­va­tion of our sojourn in Amer­i­ca

  • Angela r Hicks says:

    My hus­band was born in a house which was on a slave quar­ters and then moved by the mas­ters to a dif­fer­ent par­cel of land as a gift to his mom from the lady of the house , who even­tu­al­ly did some minor upgrades to assist this woman of col­or and her 5 chil­dren. Long sto­ry short the state of Alaba­ma is going to demol­ish it soon and I want­ed there to be some record of it ?

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