Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Evidence of the Capital's Pernicious Past

It’s often difficult to find evidence of slavery in a modern urban landscape. After the 14th Amendment which abolished slavery, the need for slave quarters and shanties in the back allies of streets disappeared. Often lacking architectural flourish, slave quarters were the first buildings torn down to make way for the new architecture. As Washington shifted from a rural town to a bustling metropolis, evidence of slavery within the District all but disappeared. Yet, in 1860 there were 3,185 slaves (4.2% of the total population of the city) living in the Capital. You could be walking by an old slave quarters on your way to work every day and not even recognize it. Fortunately, there are some telltale signs in recognizing an old slave quarter --and what follows is a guide to help you.

Location relative to the master’s house: Unlike plantations, where slave quarters were set apart from the Big House, lack of space in urban areas meant that slaves were located closer to their masters. A typical urban slave quarter could often be found in back of the master’s house or at a right angle to the house. For quarters that were perpendicular and attached to the main house, the idea was to create a confining space for slaves, essentially keeping their view of the outside world limited.

Construction: Architectural design and layout was more crucial in urban areas than on the plantations—a slave quarter could not be an eyesore that could be hid from the Big House as on plantations. In the city the quarters would be seen, and were therefore constructed out of brick and stucco rather than the mud and logs found in the Deep South. Quarters in the City came with glass windows and shutters.

Size: The quarters typically housed no more than 15 slaves at a time. The structures were usually one to two stories and often long and narrow. On a two-story structure the idea was to create a sense of a compound around the slaves who worked in the backyard. The height of the quarters made it difficult for slaves to see the outside world, a further means of control for the slave owner.

Doors: In order to keep slaves confined there were no doors leading to the street. If the quarters were attached to the master’s house, a slave would have to walk through the Master’s house before leaving for the market or entering the outside world. This was done to give slaves the feeling that their actions were constantly under the surveillance of their masters and mistresses.

Interior: In a two story building, the ground floor held the kitchen and household laundry. The top floor contained the living space which could be one large open room, or small bedrooms meant to provide family space.

The overall theme to take away from the design of an urban slave quarter is that of control. The quarters were meant to be confining, meant to limit contact with others outside of the master’s household, and intended to emphasize the degree to which a master was in control of his slave. The urban slave quarter to some extent reveals the fear felt by a white slave-holding society as well. The masters' need for control came from an ever-increasing sense of fear that their slaves would seak freedom, or worse, revolt. Unlike on an isolated plantation, the city provided a chance for free and enslaved blacks to mix and mingle at markets and at church; white owners did not want their slaves to take to the notion that freedom was possible.

Before you go looking around DC for these slave quarters, I’ll point out that there is only one remaining in the District. It’s located at 1610 H Street, NW and is a part of the Decatur House Museum (seen at left now standing admidst cars rathers than carriages). As far as slave quarters go it is a perfect example of what I have just described—right angle from the main house, two stories, stucco, no door to the street (one has been added in modern times due to fire codes), long and narrow.

The slave quarter at the Decatur House is believed to date back to the 1820s, where it started as a single story structure. The second story was added in the 1830s by house owner John Gadsby. The kitchen was located on the first floor, with slave families living above it. In 1844, there were 17 people living on the top floor, which is about 900 square feet, about the size of a single apartment. The preservation of this structure-- one of only a scant handful left in American cities-- serves as a reminder that slavery did exist in Washington and it existed within sight of one of our greatest symbols of democracy, the White House.

Sources: The Decatur House Museum.
Peter Kolchin, American Slavery.
Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities.

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