Slavery was a violent, pervasive, and pernicious institution that left a terrible stain on the moral character of the United States, one that has persisted to this day. Many well-intentioned people still believe that slavery's physical environments were limited to southern rural plantations, but Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg's edited volume Slavery in the City makes clear that slavery was also embedded within urban settings throughout the South and North, in a surprising variety of iterations. Other scholars have addressed urban slavery (myself included, as Ellis and Ginsburg note in their introduction), but our knowledge of its built environments is advanced significantly by this collection of essays, which offers new information from a variety of methodological perspectives. This slim volume provides a much-needed corrective to our limited understanding of the physical and psychological conditions of slavery in the United States. It also informs us that a number of factors, including demographics, directly influenced the shape of urban slavery. Its publication will be of value not only to architectural historians but also to scholars of history, anthropology, and African American studies.
Edward A. Chappell's chapter constitutes the most ambitious contribution to the book. Retired director of architectural and archaeological research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Chappell is a preeminent expert on the built environments of Williamsburg and Jamestown. In his chapter, he maps slave spaces in Williamsburg, Annapolis, Baltimore, Charleston, and other southern U.S. cities. He also compares those communities to Falmouth, Jamaica. Chappell examines what Elizabeth Collins Cromley has called the “food axis”—the pathway of food from the place where it is cooked to the space where it is consumed.1 In this context, he also interrogates the critical issue of visibility. Did slave owners deliberately minimize the visual presence of slaves, or was the timely presentation of hot victuals via convenient routes more important? Chappell investigates food axes in great detail, but, unfortunately, the book's illustrations do not always equal the quality of the text. For example, Figure 1 in Chappell's essay provides twenty-eight building plans on one page measuring only 6 by 9 inches. Although the author's descriptions are thorough, even architectural historian readers may find it difficult to match his words to such small plans; scholars from other disciplines may find the task even more daunting. A more generous budget for images from the University of Virginia Press would have made this volume more useful.
John Michael Vlach, another well-established scholar, focuses in his chapter on environments of bondage in the North, reminding us that slavery was present in the United States beyond the South. As he points out, the state of New York did not abolish slavery until 1827. Because of the smaller numbers of slaves in the North and because urban sites there have been built over, it is challenging to discern the architectural details of slaves' accommodations. Consequently, Vlach addresses more rural sites and investigates the psychology of northern slave owners. Did they regard the possession of human chattel and its accompanying housing as a mark of superior social status?
At the beginning of his chapter, volume coeditor Clifton Ellis explains why the records of Maryland's 1798 Federal Direct Tax, having fortuitously survived, provide a crucial resource. He generously acknowledges other scholars who have guided his interpretation of those records. A demographic analysis of Annapolis is key to Ellis's essay, but he admits that tax records largely fail to itemize slave dwellings in the city, even though they provide this information for surrounding regions. While the presence of slaves in Annapolis is made apparent by archaeological evidence such as beads and small bells, the related architecture is not indicated in documentary records. Ellis proposes that, unlike the slaves in Charleston, Annapolis's slaves were housed in low-status spaces such as cellars and garrets; consequently, they were not enumerated in tax records. They were, as others have pointed out, hidden in plain sight.
Gina Haney's chapter is the volume's most compelling. Haney utilizes a phenomenological approach—what she calls a “sensorial landscape”—to examine how enslaved people might have experienced daily life in Charleston's built environments. Bells and drums meant to regulate their movements could terrorize them, but, ironically, also incited feelings of dread among white people, particularly women living alone. Haney investigates how people of color navigated the complex interstices of urban life at night. She argues convincingly that the large number of slaves in the city induced fear among whites, and she notes that this fact is fundamental to an understanding of architectural spaces in Charleston.
In his chapter, Kenneth Hafertepe describes how, unlike Charleston, where much of the urban fabric is preserved, Texas cities have largely erased earlier architectural evidence of slavery. Further, slaves in urban Texas constituted a much smaller portion of the population than did slaves in cities of the Southeast. Hafertepe draws from documentary evidence such as fire insurance maps created by the Sanborn Map Company, bird's-eye views, photographs, and letters from both white and black inhabitants to study eight Texas sites. He finds that in addition to agricultural work and domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare, many slaves acquired skills in manufacturing and construction. Often, they were hired out by their owners and needed to find their own accommodations, most of which are now gone. The task of investigating urban slavery in Texas is daunting, but Hafertepe ably draws a number of conclusions. Some slave owners, having moved to Texas from other parts of the country, adopted local vernacular house types to shelter their slaves, while others employed building traditions brought from Charleston or New England. The segregation of black slaves from white owners was important, but so too were issues of convenience. As with Chappell's chapter, more illustrations in Hafertepe's essay would have enabled a greater understanding of Texas urban slave environments.
Like other contributors to this volume, Charles H. Faulkner employs demographic data, in his case to assess the architecture of urban slavery in Knoxville, Tennessee. He contests a thesis of the 1950s that slaves' living conditions were more humane in parts of Tennessee than elsewhere. As Faulkner shows, Knoxville created laws regarding slaves and free blacks that were every bit as onerous as those in other states, including the prohibition of unsupervised assembly on Sundays. Because of the erasure of physical evidence, Faulkner's investigation is limited to only the Blount Mansion and the Perez Dickinson slave quarters. From these sites, he concludes much about the lives of Knoxville's slaves and free black inhabitants. Archaeological remains such as bones from food sources and buttons and beads from clothing suggest exchanges between Caucasian and African ethnic groups even in West Tennessee.
Lisa Tolbert's essay, the volume's last, focuses on temporal and urbanistic information concerning slavery in small towns such as Franklin, Tennessee—less studied than larger cities like Knoxville. Tolbert mines data from an 1850 transcript of the murder trial of a black man named Henry, who in 1850 was charged with the nighttime killing of two white citizens in Franklin. She asserts that court testimony significantly informs our understanding of Upper South slavery and its physical environments. Restrictions on the movements of slaves at night were not always strictly enforced, yet African Americans risked their lives when violations were occasionally punished. As other authors in this volume demonstrate, the proportion of blacks to whites was critical to the uses of urban space. Demographics also limited the ability of slaves and free blacks to create communities in the face of temporal and spatial restrictions. The calculus of profit determined whether African Americans had a greater or lesser degree of freedom of movement. Profit was key to racial control.
Considering how little physical evidence of the presence of slavery remains in most North American cities, Slavery in the City makes a significant contribution to our understanding of human bondage in the United States. The small number of illustrations is a troublesome defect, especially for readers not familiar with the conventions of architectural history. However, the range of methodological approaches used by the contributors to this collection opens up opportunities for future scholars at other urban slave sites.