Dwellings of the Enslaved, Statewide-Virginia

Dwellings of the Enslaved, Statewide-Virginia

While individual dwellings for enslaved African Americans have been nominated before to Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places List, the 2023 nomination seeks a more comprehensive approach due to the large-scale nature of threats, and the diminishing status of these dwellings in general.

Dwellings for the enslaved, in many cases built by enslaved carpenters and masons, are critical and complex cultural sites that embody the history of slavery and its legacies of racism and divisive politics in the post-bellum world and today. Once a widespread form of American vernacular architecture throughout Virginia’s rural and urban communities, few examples of housing for the enslaved survive as compared to the thousands of cabins and quarters that formerly existed in Virginia’s counties, towns and cities. There are no standing examples from the 17th century and only a handful from the 18th century have survived. Those surviving from the 19th century largely date to the late antebellum era (ca. 1830-1860).

Dwellings for the enslaved are tangible places that not only embody suffering, trauma, oppression and survival, they also represent domestic spaces that helped sustain families, communities and African American cultural heritage. They can also reveal negotiation and power struggles between the enslaved and enslavers, and the enduring Black resistance that grew from oppression.

Threats

Dwellings of enslaved people face a variety of threats, ranging from long-term deterioration and neglect to development pressures. From the research conducted by the Virginia Slave Housing Project, it has been determined that the physical survival of these buildings does not guarantee or equate to preservation, but that stabilization, repair and ongoing maintenance is crucial. Many standing cabins and quarters in poor condition will likely not last another ten years.

Solutions

Dwellings for the enslaved are threatened cultural resources that need careful documentation, repair and preservation. Many are owned privately by conscientious individuals, but they do not have sufficient funds to maintain them, let alone carry out more complex forms of preservation.

For more information please contact Dr. Douglas Sanford, dsanford@umw.edu, (540) 604-3034