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Where Slaves Lived

June 2024
1min read

Back of the Big House The Architecture of Plantation Slavery

by John Michael Vlach, University of North Carolina Press, 258 pages

John Vlach, an anthropologist at George Washington University, has assembled some two hundred pictures of leftover plantation cabins, kitchens, and other outbuildings, most of them taken during the Depression, to create a kind of ghost town of American slavery. His subject is not only these plain yet significant structures but how they functioned. He takes a careful inventory of the typical number and size of all the buildings that made up a plantation except the main house: stables, cabins, spinning or weaving houses, tobacco and cotton presses, rice mills. He draws on 1930s Federal Writers’ Project interviews with former slaves to help explain what’s in the pictures. The small grim slave cabins and floor plans appear neutrally, like exhibits, yet the considerable pride slaves took in the world they had made shines through. As an aggrieved group of South Carolina freedmen wrote to President Andrew Johnson just after the war, asking for their former master’s property, “This is our home. We have made these lands what they are.”

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