On Slave and Tenant Quarters and the Importance of Naming

Posted by on Jun 23, 2013 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | 7 Comments

1923slavequarters copy

For the past seven years, I have been conducting my dissertation research on two former slave and tenant quarter at Historic St. Mary’s City. One of the buildings, a duplex quarter, still stands, although not in its original place. Over the past year, we’ve made a number of strides towards being more public about the research. This process has included the building of a digital exhibit and blog that chronicles my ongoing research and our preservation efforts, as well as the acquisition of funds to preserve and interpret the duplex quarter. Both of these projects are very exciting, and I’m honored to be able to work on them. But there is one thing that has bothered me throughout the process: the insistence on calling the duplex “the slave quarter”.

Let’s be clear about the history of this building: it was built during the 1840s, and was one of at least seven quarters built to house enslaved African American laborers. The building itself is one of the few existing duplex quarters in Maryland, making it a valuable contribution to our understanding of African American life during the slave period, and preservationists have told me that this is the way it should be preserved when we begin the preservation and interpretive work on the structure. However, the building was only a slave quarter for 24 years. It was then home to African American families well into the 1960s. It was a slave quarter for a quarter century, but a tenant home for 100 years. In my opinion, the full story of this building, the stories of the families who lived in it, and, in the end, the public at large, are done a disservice by reducing the building’s significance to only the period of enslavement.

I see this everywhere, and it bothers me, not because of the story that is being told, but of the story that is not being told. Periodically, there are news articles that appear about a “slave quarter” that has been discovered or that is being preserved. In most instances, the headline reads “slave quarter”, and most of the article’s focus is on the fact that the enslaved lived there. Only a brief mention, if any at all, is ever given to what happened to the building afterwards. Odds are good, the building was lived in by someone, and the fact that it was lived in is the only reason it is still standing.

Naming is important. What we choose to call things or people or places imbues it with meaning. This is an instance where naming is powerful: by choosing to call these buildings slave quarters, we are heightening the importance of that period of time, and diminishing the value of what happened afterwards. This is particularly jarring when in all likelihood they were not slave quarters for a good portion of their existence. By leaving out this part of their history, we are ignoring and leaving un-named a critical component of American history. Ignoring these histories is a disservice, since it actively erases the experience of African Americans who lived after the Civil War, and who remade these houses of bondage into homes. This is a powerful story of family, perseverance, survival, and strength that must be told, and that is so often ignored.

Swepson - slaveqruin

The difficulty I have with the idea that “earliest is better” for the preservation of the structure, particularly the duplex, is that in many ways, the architecture of the building is what tells the story of the transition from slavery to freedom. The duplex at St. Mary’s City demonstrates this better than any other structure, and my research has shown that architectural modifications were one of the primary ways that African Americans were able to demonstrate their newfound freedom and improve their quality of life. By returning the building to its “original” look, this story is lost: visitors do not have the opportunity to experience the post-slavery experience in the same way they can experience the enslaved period. I would argue that the true value of this building is not only in its ability to show the conditions of slavery as constructed by the slave owner, but in the way that the African Americans used, manipulated, and modified this building through its 125 year history to make it their own. The process of becoming free is reflected in the process of taking ownership of these buildings. Of making them “their own”.

Here’s an example, pulled from the archaeology. Excavations around the duplex and its neighboring single quarter have revealed large concentrations of window glass along the walls of the structures. 19th-century window glass is an important artifact, since it can be dated based on its thickness (Weiland 2009). Measuring the glass of one of these concentrations at the single quarter shows two spikes in the ages of the window glass in the 1830s and 1860s, and a noticeable absence of window glass during the 1840s and 1850s. The peak in the 1860s was not a surprise: this shows that the newly freed African Americans very quickly installed glass pane windows in their quarters after slavery. The lack of glass during the building’s slave period suggests they didn’t have these windows, and that they added them after emancipation. The presence of 1830s glass, however, is perplexing, since we know the building was built during the 1840s. How did window glass from the 1830s get in the windows, only to disappear during the 1840s and 1850s?

Measurements of window glass show spikes in the 1830s and 1860s, but not in the 1840s and 50s.Measurements of window glass show spikes in the 1830s and 1860s, but not in the 1840s and 50s. Read more at the Walk Together Blog about this analysis.

What happened is this: after Emancipation, when inhabitants of these buildings had gained more control over the quarters, they decided to put in glass windows. This would provide a tremendous increase in their quality of life: windows provide more light and they allow the interior temperature of the buildings to be better regulated. However, window glass was not cheap, and just because they had taken their freedom did not mean that they were no longer impoverished. These data suggests that they used their own resourcefulness and took windows from abandoned buildings, and used those windows to modify their homes. These windows would have still had 1830s glass in them, and the broken panes would have been filled in with newer glass, thus resulting in a concentration of glass that includes glass from the 1830s and 1860s, but not 1840s and 1850s.

This story, of resourcefulness and the modification of the building to improve the quality of life for the building’s inhabitants, could not be demonstrated fully by converting the structure to its 1840 state. Neither would the powerful story about the dividing wall being cut down so that the owner of the duplex could double the size of his house. Or the addition of wooden floors over the dirt floors used during slavery. Or the bedroom that the Milburn family added in the 1940s to the back of the quarter (and which we hope to rebuild) that increased the size of the building by a third. In each instance, these additions and modifications are declarations of ownership and possession, while also improving the quality of life for those who lived inside them. These are valuable pieces of the African American story that are told exclusively through the modifications made to the building, and they are entirely lost if we only refer to and preserve these buildings as “slave quarters”.


Of course, these buildings, and the families who lived in them, cannot be separated from the context within which they lived. While they were able to make these meager modifications, the fact remains that the post-slavery era was still dangerous for African American families. Racism, segregation, poverty, unequal educational opportunities, attempts at disenfranchisement, debt slavery, and domestic terrorism were all parts of their day-to-day lives. Their homes were a place of refuge. In the home, they had control. They could modify their space, put additions on their house, and add windows to make it more comfortable for them and their family. Recognizing this places even more emphasis on the value of this building both during and after slavery.

Of course, I am cognizant that there is an important voice that is missing in this conversation: that of the local African American community. Everything I’ve said above are my own thoughts and interpretations and the thoughts of other white people who have different opinions about how this building should be preserved. At Historic St. Mary’s City, we are making efforts to open the conversation by reaching out to the local African American community because it is their story, not ours. I was fortunate this past week to talk with members of the Milburn Family after a public lecture, and they were very enthusiastic to know that our interest in their former home extends beyond slavery, and will take into account and celebrate the achievements of their family. I seriously doubt that they considered their home of forty years a slave quarter. If this isn’t testament enough to the importance of thinking about what we call things, then I don’t know what is.

The reason I’m bringing it up here is because I do think it is an important topic that needs to be discussed. I am not saying that the story of slavery isn’t important: it’s critical to our understanding of our society’s historical and present issues with race. I am arguing that by privileging the story of slavery  at the expense of the history of the post-emancipation period, we are placing a hard stop on the relationship of slavery to our current lives. Calling a building a slave quarter, without acknowledging the rest of its history, inherently suggests that the building is entirely a relic of the past, of a period that happened, but that isn’t connected to us anymore. Of course, we know this isn’t true. By telling the whole story, and the lives of those who continued to live in these buildings, we can begin to build the connection. Because they are interrelated. In the same way that the post-slavery era is heavily informed by slavery, the experience of race in the 20th century is heavily formed by the late 19th century. You cannot understand the Civil Rights movement without understanding segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, African American poverty, and so on, all which were products of the immediate post-Emancipation period. Ending slavery only solved the problem of enslavement, it didn’t solve the problem of racism or poverty. Naming is powerful, and by calling these buildings one thing, and ignoring the other, we are cutting off the story of the families who lived in them after slavery, and with them the possibility of learning about the way this past still resonates and is connected to us today.


Works Cited

Weiland, Jonathon
2009     A Comparison and Review of Window Glass Analysis Approaches in Historical Archaeology. Technical Briefs in Historical Archaeology. http://www.sha.org/documents/Technical_briefs_articles/vol4article_04.pdf.


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  2. Jason C. Flay
    June 24, 2013

    Great article. It definitely highlights the problems faced when interpreting multi complex sites. The argument of which event to explore is a common one. Battlefields are also subject to this. By highlighting a single episode, it underscores the activity that occurred and undervalues the people that lived up to and after the one event.

    • Terry Brock
      June 24, 2013

      Thanks, Jason. It is an incredibly difficult issue. This isn’t the only place where it is difficult at St. Mary’s City, either: this plantation was built directly on top of the 17th century city, so it’s a problem they’ve dealt with before!

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  4. David Serxner
    December 11, 2013

    Terrific article! I have shared it with the docents at my site. One small quibble. I wish the type face were a little darker. Old eyes and all. But this is a fantastic resource. Thank you.

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    […] hope to interpret the structure as a 19th and 20th century building, not just as a slave quarter (you can read some of my opinions about this process at my personal blog, here). Once we have the approval, we’ll be able to start getting to work on designing the exhibit. […]


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