Slave Housing in Virginia


Slave housing in Virginia varied widely depending on the context: whether it was rural or urban, whether it was on an elite plantation or a small farm, and even whether it was located close to or far from the slaveholder’s main house. Many of the first Africans who came to Virginia lived in barracks-style housing and other, less-than-permanent accommodations. As the enslaved population grew, however, houses were designed and constructed specifically for black laborers and, in particular, those living in family units. Most slave quarters were constructed of wood, and many were log and earthfast structures with no foundations. Those located closest to elite plantation houses were generally better built, with wooden frames and masonry chimneys and foundations. Separate one or two-room structures, designed to accommodate one- or two-family units, were the most popular house type, although many enslaved laborers slept where they worked—in kitchens, laundries, and stables. Slaves who were hired out in cities sometimes resided in separate “shanty towns.” Few intact slave quarters exist in the twenty-first century—likely fewer than 300—and most of those are relatively large and well-built.

Types and Construction of Housing

The landing of the first Negroes

Africans first came to Virginia in 1619, and various documents dating to the next several decades refer to “quartering negroes” on plantations. Because the African population was still relatively small, it is unlikely that prior to 1675 housing was designed and constructed specifically for these laborers. As their numbers grew, however, such quarters became the norm. In 1686 the French traveler Durand de Dauphiné noted this recent development in describing the type of housing that he observed: “Whatever their rank … they build only two rooms with closets on the ground floor, & two rooms in the attic above; but they build several like this, according to their means. They also build a separate kitchen, a separate house for the Christian slaves, one for the negro slaves, & several to dry the tobacco.”

The terms “quarter” and “cabin” were most often used to refer to slave housing. The former, developed out of the seventeenth-century “quartering house” for indentured servants, came to be associated with slave housing more generally, while cabin implied a small domestic building of inferior construction, often made of logs. Both log cabins and quarters typically were one-story structures with one or two rooms. In addition to an individual building, the term “quarter” could refer to a clustered group of slave houses physically separated from masters and often under the charge of an overseer. The term also was applied to a division of a larger farm or plantation that encompassed crop fields, woods, housing for slaves and perhaps an overseer, and other agricultural or industrial support buildings.

Slave houses varied in size and layout, and many different types of houses could exist on a single plantation, especially those with large enslaved populations and wealthy owners. House servants and craftsmen usually lived in quarters near the owner’s main dwelling and residential complex, collectively known as the home house quarter. Enslaved agricultural workers, or field hands, resided in smaller cabins near fields. The most modest of these had unfinished interiors and dirt floors, shuttered windows, and chimneys formed of wood and mud. These so-called farm quarters also included an overseer’s house and related outbuildings such as barns and corn cribs. Slave quarters or cabins could be placed in single file along a road or plantation “street,” in parallel rows, or randomly distributed as a “slave village.” Quarters located near the main house on elite plantations were likely to have been built of more durable materials and often echoed the generally more elaborate architectural design schemes adopted there. Thus, home house quarters tended to be sturdy frame structures set on masonry foundations, while some were even built entirely of brick or stone.

The earliest cabins had no foundations and were erected around timbers set in the ground. This method of construction was shared by most other Chesapeake buildings, including the homes of slaveholders. The posts supported a relatively slight wooden frame, which was enclosed by clapboarded sides and roof, and heated by one or two fireplaces with wooden chimneys. Other cabins were made of logs, joined together at the corners and supported by only a slight masonry foundation, or none at all. Most of this housing was poorly built—described by the Englishman Edward Kimber, who visited Virginia and Maryland in 1736, as “Huts or Hovels”—and there was little expectation that it would last for more than a few decades. Quarters sometimes were constructed of brick and stone, although in most of Virginia this seldom occurred outside of elite plantations or in urban settings where wooden housing was subject to threat of fire. Roofs were predominantly covered with wood: split shingles, clapboards, slabs, or rough boards. This was the case even in urban areas, although fire insurance policies dating to the antebellum period indicate greater use of terra cotta tile, metal, and gravel roofs, again largely due to the concerns over fire.


Slave Ship Diagram

The violent and disruptive nature of the international slave trade and the Middle Passage meant that enslaved Africans were likely to be separated from their families either before or after their arrival in America. Masters often resorted to housing large numbers of unrelated individuals together in barracks-like structures in order to supervise and impose control over their workers. Archaeological evidence from a site dating to about 1690 in James City County has revealed such a quarter. The relatively small structure (26 by 16 feet) was supported by posts set into the ground and included a single interior fireplace that probably was serviced by a wooden chimney. As such, it is typical of the type of impermanent construction in use throughout the region at this time. Of particular interest is the discovery of fifteen features within the building footprint that are interpreted as sub-floor pits used for storing personal items. Similar features have been found with regularity in the Tidewater in association with the houses of enslaved laborers. The remarkable density of pits in the James City County example suggests that a large number of unrelated individuals were housed there.

Family-Sized Units

The most common house forms were single-cell buildings, typically accommodating a family unit, and duplexes, which consisted of separate rooms accommodating two different family groups. Importing African slaves to Virginia had effectively ended by 1775, leaving the enslaved population to increase naturally through reproduction, and fostered their living in family groups. As a result, most masters quickly abandoned barracks-style housing in favor of family-focused log and frame quarters. By the mid-1700s, logs were the most popular building material for slave houses on outlying quarters and were used for service buildings and the houses of many whites and free blacks as well.

A duplex was a double cabin or quarter with exterior doorways providing entry to each room, and no interior access from one space to the other. Each room had its own fireplace, with chimneys positioned either at the ends of the structure or with a single chimney placed in the center with flues to serve both fireplaces. The relatively large number of surviving duplexes that date to the 1820s–1850s are generally more substantial and weather-tight, with continuous foundations or masonry piers, raised wooden floors, glazed windows, and brick or stone fireplaces. Some duplexes had interior wall plaster and trim boards, but the majority were more cheaply built. Their interiors were enclosed with plain sheathing or were left with the framing exposed and covered with whitewash, and the garret above was unheated and could be accessed only by a ladder.

In the nineteenth century quarters were often “improved,” reflecting a new attitude among masters that combined Christian duty, paternalism, scientific agricultural reform, and a sharp business approach to slave management. Whereas earlier quarters generally had few and small windows, covered only with wooden shutters, new houses tended to feature windows with glass panes. Some masters may have used such improvements to signal to their peers that they were rich enough and moral enough to invest in higher-quality accommodations for their slaves. More importantly, though, glazed windows provided improved light and ventilation that kept slaves healthier, and allowed for extra indoor work as well.

Slave houses ranged widely in size, although they became more standardized over time. Masters may have preferred smaller slave houses, such as the 12 by 14 feet (168 square feet) cabin that survives in Stafford County. But the range in the sizes of slave quarters was nevertheless quite broad, from distressingly small buildings measuring only 8 by 8 feet, to those 18 by 20 feet and larger. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, quarters with a single room often measuring only 140 square feet of interior space became the norm. In the early to mid-nineteenth century the sizes of quarters expanded to about 230 to 250 square feet. While duplexes provided more space overall, commonly measuring 16 by 32 feet (512 square feet), these buildings were designed to accommodate two separate households.

Represents Our next door neighbor

Smaller, more private slave buildings reflected an ongoing and complex series of interactions between slaveholders and enslaved laborers. Over the course of the eighteenth century African American populations and families stabilized, and slaveholders sought to encourage that stability out of the belief that it produced men, women, and children who were less likely to rebel. At the same time, Virginia planters began to transition from growing tobacco to cultivating wheat and other grains. With these less labor intensive crops, slaves had the time and energy to acquire new skills while contributing to their own subsistence through gardening, gathering, hunting, sewing, and producing marketable goods. Slaveholders thus became more dependent on their slaves who, in turn, negotiated for greater autonomy and better working and living conditions. Better built quarters and kin-based households formed a negotiated outcome acceptable to both parties.

Urban Slavery

As they did on rural plantations, some urban slaveholders erected separate quarters for their enslaved laborers outside of the main house. With the more confined setting the quarters were generally pushed to the side or rear portions of the house lot. Because most urban slaveholders owned only one or two workers, accommodations often could be found within the main house, usually in spare and sparsely furnished spaces. One common strategy, on plantations as well as in towns, was to require that laborers sleep in the buildings where they worked, including kitchens, laundries, smokehouses, and stables. Kitchens were particularly popular as mixed-use buildings and featured either two rooms on the first floor, separated into the kitchen and quarter, or a kitchen below and quartering room above.

Hiring Out Slaves

Slaveholders often hired out their enslaved laborers to work for other masters for set periods of time. In most cases, hired slaves lived on their employers’ properties, moving into existing slave buildings, such as cabins, duplexes, kitchen quarters, or spare rooms. In cities and towns, constraints of space could lead employers to secure rental lodgings for hired slaves. Depending on the circumstances, either the employers or the slaves themselves paid for this housing. As a result, hired slaves sometimes lodged in boarding houses or found other, cheaper accommodations located relatively near their work place. This practice may have had the unintended benefit of offering a more autonomous domestic setting, and cities such as Richmond and Petersburg often featured distinct residential districts for free and enslaved African Americans. Boarding houses and rude cabins comprised such “shanty towns” with which masters and white citizens likely had little familiarity, and where African Americans had more opportunities to pursue their own social life and to maintain their traditional cultural values.

Slave Quarters as Creole Architecture

The Old Plantation

Slave quarters were creolized, meaning that they reflected the influences of more than one cultural tradition. By far the most visible influence was that of white slaveholders, however. They regularly determined the number and variety of occupants within slave households with reference to family relationship, gender, age, and work skills. The design of the overwhelming majority of houses also reflected white, European-American traditions, as the masters controlled the placement of the building, the degree of material investment, and construction format, making it difficult to interpret the inputs and cultural influences of Africans. In addition, slaveholders could upgrade these quarters in order to make statements of political economy, status, and accommodation, while also drawing upon long-standing cultural traditions for worker and lower-class housing.

African traditions were not invisible, however. Even while the large majority of houses were designed in the European-American style, some scholars have suggested that certain architectural characteristics found in slave housing are African-inspired. These include spatial units of 10- or 12-foot squares, thatched roofs and wattle walls, and the one-story, linear “shotgun” house type.

Artifacts from Slave Quarters at Poplar Forest

In addition to their creolized nature, slave quarters were negotiated spaces, meaning that their design and function were the result of the power dynamics and interactions between enslaved African Americans and their owners. In rural settings, at least, owners and overseers rarely entered slave quarters, and some slaves even used door locks to secure their residences. Owners provided few interior furnishings and little furniture, most likely no more than a crude boxed bed and a cast iron cooking vessel. Slaves received periodic food and clothing rations, but otherwise supplied all of their other personal material goods, whether through theft, trade, purchase, or the work of their hands. Archaeologists investigating slave quarters have found furniture hardware, tools, hooks, and storage containers ranging from barrels to sub-floor pits. They also have found many food-related objects, including numerous types of glass and ceramic vessels, metal containers, and utensils.


African American Cabin

Of the thousands of slave quarters that were erected throughout Virginia over a span of more than 200 years, it is likely that fewer than 300 survive. In the entire Chesapeake region there are no standing seventeenth-century slave quarters and only a few, better-built eighteenth-century structures. Many more nineteenth-century examples exist, but these tend to be larger quarters, mostly duplex buildings, found near the mansion houses of upscale plantation estates. The same structures typically were modified in later periods for other uses and to reflect changing cultural sensibilities, meaning that only a small percentage of slave houses remain as they were originally built. Therefore, the surviving buildings fall into two broad categories: those that are in poor condition and are in dire peril because they no longer serve a viable function, and others that have been adapted, and usually significantly altered, to accommodate contemporary uses. Finding and recording the few relatively intact quarters that survive is therefore crucial to documenting and preserving the memory and significance of these important buildings. These structures also carry social and cultural significance for African American communities. While places of confinement and oppression, slave buildings also served as homes for families and places of community and culture. As such they are important sites related to the legacy of slavery in Virginia.

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APA Citation:
Pogue, Dennis & Sanford, Douglas. Slave Housing in Virginia. (2021, May 04). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/slave-housing-in-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Pogue, Dennis, and Douglas Sanford. "Slave Housing in Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (04 May. 2021). Web. 19 Oct. 2021
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