Why this Iowan architect is documenting every slave house still standing

Theodora Aidoo Mar 8, 2020 at 08:00am

March 08, 2020 at 08:00 am | History, Women

Theodora Aidoo

Theodora Aidoo | Staff Writer

March 08, 2020 at 08:00 am | History, Women

The houses where enslaved people lived at Bracketts Farm in Louisa County, Virginia - Pic Credit: Library of Congress

Jobie Hill, an Iowan architect specializing in historic preservation has been documenting every slave house still standing in the U.S.

It all started in 2012 after Hill visited the historic Mount Zion home in Warren County as part of research for her Master’s thesis to assess how much of the building’s history has been preserved.

The first time Hill entered a slave house, she said: “You notice the size, the amount of light, the ventilation and you can imagine what it would have been like for you, personally, to live there.”

A slave house at Ivy Cliff in Bedford County, Virginia. This site was documented by the Virginia Slave House Project, which chronicles the architecture of slavery in the commonwealth.
A slave house at Ivy Cliff in Bedford County, Virginia – Pic Credit: Virginia Slave Housing Project/atlasobscura.com

It was then that she conceived the idea for Saving Slave Houses. She was a summer intern at the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a federal program established in 1933 to employ architects and draftsmen, who had been laid off during the Great Depression.

Hill has surveyed several structures she believes once served as a home to enslaved African Americans. She has visited 700 former residences of slaves.

According to her, the buildings no longer bear a visible trace of their past. Many have been converted into garages, offices while some of the structures have fallen into ruin or gone missing with a misery.

A slave cabin at the Green Hill Plantation in Campbell County, Virginia, in 1933 and in 2014.
A slave cabin at the Green Hill Plantation in Campbell County, Virginia, in 1933 and in 2014 – Pic Credit: Library of Congress/ Jobie Hill  

To honour and preserve these spaces, and to unite the houses with the stories of the people who once lived in them, Hill is building a first-of-its-kind database. “There has never been a national survey of slave houses, except for the one I’m trying to do,” Hill stated.

The Iowan architect has spent the past seven years visiting former slave dwellings. At each location, she records GPS coordinates, takes photos and sketches a site plan.

She then adds these drawings to a digital database called “Saving Slave Houses,” which currently includes 145 sites across the United States. When possible, she includes descriptions of the homes from the enslaved African-Americans who lived in them, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Hill recognizes the sites as sacred spaces. The first thing you notice when you walk inside a slave house, she said, is the size. “The ceilings are low, there are [very few] windows, and it’s stuffy, without much sunlight”.

She noted that many slave houses that have been converted into storage rooms or offices have seen a facelift like plumbing among others.

The houses where enslaved people lived at Bracketts Farm in Louisa County, Virginia
Pic Credit: Library of Congress

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

The purpose of her thesis was to document the architectural features of historically significant buildings in the United States. But it also recorded 485 slave houses that remained standing across the Antebellum South in the 1930s and ’40s. “It’s the closest thing to a national survey of slave houses that we have,” Hill said.

Relying largely on a government survey from 1930s, Hill was able to locate the slave houses. Her work has not been easy since most of these buildings are private properties.

Reportedly, property owners do not even know their sheds, cottages or outbuildings were slave quarters until Hill gets in touch. As a preservationist, Hill is keen on saving the domestic legacy of the nation’s slaveholding past.

Even though many of the slave houses are in poor shape, Hill said the fact that they’re still standing – more than 150 years after emancipation – is often a testament to the skill and ingenuity with which enslaved people built them.

“These were not just helpless, hopeless people,” Hill pointed out.

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