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Remembering Slave Housing

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I was in Louisiana once, visiting a plantation where slave housing still existed. And I saw what I still think is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen. Most slave housing of course doesn’t exist anymore because it was cheap, usually wood, and never taken care of. But on this plantation, the housing was made of brick and it still stood. Under slavery, this brick house was divided into two with a big wall in the middle. Probably 8-10 people were living on each side of this house, filling up every inch of overcrowded space. But during Reconstruction, someone, taking over the whole house for their family, chopped a whole through that wall with a sledgehammer, creating a doorway connecting the two sides of the house. You can still see that today. I thought, what power in that hole. What a sign of agency and of making your life better. It’s so hard to get a kind of day-to-day physical manifestation of Reconstruction, as limited as it was for Black freedom. But this was it. It really blew my mind.

Anyway, I was reminded of that when reading this story about an architect who is going around and documenting whatever still existing slave housing she can find.

Since 2012, Hill has surveyed hundreds of structures that she believes once served as a home to enslaved African Americans. More often than not, the buildings bear no visible trace of their past; many have been converted into garages, offices, or sometimes—unnervingly—bed-and-breakfasts. In some cases the structures have fallen into ruin or vanished entirely, leaving behind a depression in the ground.

Hill is determined to build a first-of-its-kind database that honors and preserves these spaces in more than memory, and to unite the houses with the stories of people who once inhabited them. As she sees it, such a repository is long overdue. “There has never been a national survey of slave houses, except for the one I’m trying to do,” Hill says.

Scholars who study the horrors of American slavery agree. “Slavery is largely invisible in the [current] Southern landscape, and therefore easy to ignore or forget,” Damian Pargas, a historian from Leiden University who specializes in slavery, writes in an email.

“What Jobie is doing is great, and certainly necessary,” says Joe McGill, the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, which hosts overnight stays in former slave cabins. “These are buildings history has long overlooked, because they do not make the white male a hero.”

Indeed, this is powerful, important work.

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