Home Sweet Home?: Slave Dwellings and the Politics of Home

Home Sweet Home?: Slave Dwellings and the Politics of Home

Perhaps nothing better encapsulates our personal histories than our homes. From the slightly outdated furniture to the embarrassing school-age portraits to the perfect warm spot by the fireplace, the amalgam of objects, images, and spaces that comprise home shapes our core. So too do those within; our families, friends, and pets influence our experience and memory of home. At once a thing, a place, and people, home is also an idea, a mix of the imagined and the real. We define our past, our present, and our future through homes.

Home reveals both personal and national histories. Historians of architecture, material culture, and family, for example, have long argued that American history is made in the home. Americans have always demanded the right to private domestic spaces in which to safely house their families, goods, and hopes for the future, since the time of the fifth amendment, which states, “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

But not all Americans have possessed that right. Millions of enslaved African Americans struggled to build and maintain homes within an institution that sought to strip them of their humanity, including their right to private domestic spaces. The threat and reality of sale meant that slave homes were tenuous. And enslaved people responded to this anxiety in disparate ways. Writing of his life in slavery, Thomas Jones expressed his belief that enslaved Americans shared a natural, acute longing for home: “no one can have…such intensity of desire for home and home affections, as the poor slave.” On the other side of the spectrum, the British abolitionist John Passmore Edwards proclaimed in his supplementary book to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s massively successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin that “slaves have no home.”

Joe McGill has spent nights in more than fifty slave dwellings in twelve states since 2010. Photograph from http://slavedwellingproject.org/.

My own research has been animated by the question: how did enslaved people build private homes, physically and psychologically, while under the impossible burdens of slavery? This past October, I attended the Slave Dwelling Project Conference in North Charleston, South Carolina ready to engage this question more deeply. The Slave Dwellings Project (SDP) is the product of Joseph McGill, who, after spending years as a Civil War re-enactor in South Carolina, began campaigning for the preservation of an oft-ignored Old South relic: the slave cabin. And McGill did so, by determining to sleep in every single extant slave dwelling in the United States. After gaining national attention, McGill formed the SDP as a way to continue his work. The Project brings together groups that too rarely engage one another. From scholars to activists, legislators to business people, the SDP and corresponding conference are great ways for like-minded individuals and organizations to coalesce to save the dwellings of enslaved people.

This mixture of like-minded but methodologically diverse professionals resulted in consensus over some issues and fierce contestation over others. We all agreed that preserving and presenting the history of enslaved people is absolutely crucial to an accurate national story.

Derelict slave cabins, often inhabited by freed people long after the Civil War, still stand throughout the U. S. South. This one is located outside St. Francisville, Louisiana, where a number of antebellum “Big Houses” are carefully maintained. Photographs by the author, 2012.

The grand “Big Houses” of the antebellum South are seemingly omnipotent in America’s physical and mental landscape. The dwellings of enslaved people should have a similar presence (fig. 3). But what constitutes a slave dwelling? Is it always a small log cabin, as pictured in popular culture (when they’re depicted at all)? Does it even have to be a physical building, or simply a space where one might sleep? Historians are well aware that enslaved domestic laborers might have slept in the “Big House,” possibly in their own room but more likely wherever their owner demanded. George Womble related to a Works Progress Administration interviewer in the 1930s that he had “slept in the house under the dining room table all of the time.” Conversations did not even begin to address the dwellings or homes of enslaved people living in cities or on small yeoman farms. Home was never a homogenous concept; the diversity of enslaved living conditions and lived experiences meant that home meant many things and took many forms. If we focus all our efforts on preserving wooden slave cabins on large plantations, are we accurately presenting the history of slavery?

Additionally, many were so focused on the materiality of the slave dwelling, that we sometimes lost the humanity of the dwelling, how enslaved men, women, and children, actually experienced and imagined home. Of course the physical space and conditions of the dwelling are crucial to understanding slavery and our past. As a dedicated material culturist, I will always support that position. But, for enslaved individuals, home was about more than its physical incarnation.

“Margrett Nillin, ex-slave, Ft. Worth,” 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When we talk, write, think, and construct exhibits about slave dwellings – actually, about any aspect of slavery – let’s not forget the ideas of home held by enslaved people. Home – a true, private, safe home – exemplified the most desired fruits of liberty. At the heart of emancipation was the reunited black family in a comfortable, protected home (fig. 4). As Margrett Nillin, a former slave in Palestine, Texas, noted in a late 1930s W.P.A. interview, “In slavery I owned nothing and never owned anything. In freedom I own a home and raise a family. All this cause me worriment and in slavery I had no worriment, but I’ll take the freedom” (fig. 5). The struggle did not end with emancipation. Housing was a central issue in the twentieth-century civil rights movement, and remains so today. It’s vital that we recognize not only the long history of discriminatory housing practices, but also how home as both physical space and evolving idea shaped the black freedom struggle.




“10 Homes That Changed America.” 10 That Changed America Series. PBS. 2016.

Arnold, Sandra A. “Why Slaves’ Graves Matter.” New York Times. 2 April 2016.

Desmond, Matthew. Evicted Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown, 2016.

Edwards, John Passmore. Uncle Tom’s Companions: Or, Facts Stranger Than Fiction. A Supplement to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Being Startling Incidents in the Lives of Celebrated Fugitive Slaves (London: Edwards and Co., 1852), 144.

A short account of Joe McGill as a re-enactor at Fort Sumter can be found in Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998, 47–48.

Nillin, Margrett. WPA Slave Narrative Project. Texas Narratives. Vol. 16. Pt. 3. Federal Writer’s Project. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress, 153.

Jones, Thomas H. Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones; Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. Boston, Mass.: H. B. Skinner, 1854[?], 23.

Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in AmericaNew York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Womble, George. WPA Slave Narrative Project. Georgia Narratives., Vol 4. Pt 4. Federal Writer’s Project. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress, 187.

Whitney Stewart

Whitney Nell Stewart is a PhD Candidate in History at Rice University and a 2016-2017 Barra Foundation Dissertation Fellow in Early American Art and Material Culture at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Her dissertation, entitled “The Racialized Politics of Privacy: Meaning and Materiality in the Nineteenth-Century Black Home,” has been supported by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture and National Museum of American History, the Huntington Library, and the American Antiquarian Society, among others. Additionally, she has held curatorial fellowships at the Bayou Bend Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The Henry Ford Museum.

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