Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Plantation Tradition in an Urban Setting

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Plantation Tradition in an Urban Setting

Article excerpt

The Case of the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, South Carolina

Scholars of southern culture usually define an antebellum plantation as an agricultural estate comprising several thousand acres where large numbers of enslaved African Americans labored to produce a single commodity--cotton, rice, tobacco, sugar, hemp--for export. By 1860, when close to four million African Americans were held as slaves across the southeastern United States, about two-thirds of them were living on plantations. If we use ownership of at least twenty slaves as the benchmark of plantation status, we find that in 1860 there were over forty-six thousand plantations spread across the southern countryside from Maryland to Texas.(1)

Although the majority of slaves in the South lived on plantations, the institution of slavery was equally well entrenched in the region's cities. In the three largest southern cities--New Orleans, Richmond, and Charleston--slaves made up one-third of the population. Urban slaves usually worked as servants for wealthy whites, but many worked as artisans in their owners' shops. In either case, slaves were usually housed in their masters' homes. Such arrangements, which put blacks and whites under the same roof, were quite different from the common plantation experience where slaves inhabited separate quarters from their owners. If, however, an urban master owned several slaves--say six or more--as was frequently the case for a person of considerable wealth, he too would provide separate buildings at the back or to the side of his house lot. Historian Richard Wade offers an apt description of urban slave quarters:

   Not only were the bondsmen's quarters placed close to the main building,
   but the plot itself was enclosed with high brick walls. The rooms had no
   windows to the outside and were accessible only by a narrow balcony that
   overlooked the yard and the master's residence. The sole route to the
   street lay through the house or a or on the side. Thus the physical design
   of the whole complex compelled slaves to center their activity upon the
   owner and the owner's place. ... The whole design was concentric, drawing
   the life of the bondsman inward toward his master.... This compound was the
   urban equivalent of a plantation.

The remnants of such arrangements can still be seen today in several southern cities including Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans, Huntsville, Montgomery, Savannah, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. Wade calls these urban settings composed of houses, slave quarters, yards, and tall enclosing walls "compounds." A suitable term, yet some of these compounds, particularly the larger ones, could more properly be labeled "urban plantations."(2)

The largest urban slaveholding estates were laid out along the same formal premises as rural plantations. First, the slaveholders' own residence was not only the largest and most centrally located building, but was also the most elaborately decorated structure. Its impressive scale and decorative features immediately made clear who was socially significant and, more important, who was in charge. Slave dwellings and work spaces such as kitchens, laundries, dairies, carriage houses, and stables were subordinated by being set to the side or rear of the main structure, as is the case with several of Charleston's more prominent residences. Miles Brewton, for example, signaled social hierarchy by the marginal position, modest size, and plain finish of the work buildings at the edge of his property. Like their rural counterparts, urban slaveholders, whenever possible, used symmetrical building arrangements that placed the slave owner in the center of a balanced, hypothetically self-contained world. The ensemble built for Henry Faber and later acquired by Waccamaw rice-planter Joshua Ward, also in Charleston, follows a plan similar to many rural estates. It consists of a prominent and rather ornate mansion flanked by identical slave dependencies that lack even the slightest hint of decoration. …

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