Introduction to Housing
Housing slaves in the cities was quite different than housing slaves on plantation. Usually on a plantation the slave quarters were a considerable distance from the planters residence. Yet during the ante-bellum period not one plantation lacked a set of racially segregated buildings known as the "slave quarter". By 1860 there was approximately 11,000 scale-plantations located all across the South that were operated with the labor of fifty or more slaves. The city, however, offered a different view amongst housing slaves. It was a much more difficult task than imagined. A master and bondsman would share a plot usually not larger than 50ft by 150ft. The comfortable distance which the plantations contained was no longer available.
Slave quarters were generally much better than those on plantations, yet problems in overcrowding affected the population, and urban housing changed the way many slaves lived with their master.
The Slave Quarter
City conditions in general discouraged large slaveholding, which prohibited overcrowding and limited facilities. The quality of a slave quarter varied greatly, but it was never very adequate. The most common structure for the main residence on the street stood behind the yard and the slave quarters. The buildings were long, narrow and two stories high. The quarters were usually adjoined to the masters house or they stood at the back of the lot. No matter where the quarter, it was usually on the same plot as the master. The second floor was used only as a dormitory, the first floor usually contained the kitchen and store rooms. The buildings were usually constructed of brick and were quite sturdy and well-built. "In fact, a great many have outlasted the owners place, and in some cities like Charleston and New Orleans remodeled slave quarters are now fashionable apartments".
Slave quarters were barely adequate even if they were much better than those on farms (A:\Popup1). The rooms were small, approximately 10ft by 15ft, usually without ventilation of some sort or windows. A single door provided any light and air entered in the house. There were many variations of slave quarters, but the basic situation involved the master and slaves sharing the same lot. Simple luxuries such a s furniture was scarce, which meant many slaves did not own beds and would have to sleep on the floor. Yet slaves were thankful for the roof over their heads since their many duties kept them busy and out of their quarters. these accommodations were not much help since part of the problem was overcrowding.
The number of bondsmen fluctuated during the pre-war Southern cities, which made it impossible to know exactly how many slave occupied quarters at this time. In 1840 Savannah and Charleston encountered a typical situation. More than 11,000 inhabitants were nearly divided among races. About half of the white race did not own slaves. Bondsmen (A:\Popup2) outnumbered their masters, even though the main house was larger there were many more people held in the slave quarters. Overcrowded or not, slave housing was the social view it embodied. "City conditions in general discouraged large slaveholding, thus precluding sustained overcrowding". Pressure arrived in the 1830s when the cities were increasing rapidly and altered the attention on colored population.
Urban housing started when in the early years there were too many blacks belonging to a single master and they both had to live on the same premises. Many masters found it easier if their slaves found lodging for themselves. It was much more convenient and profitable. Slaves started to"live out" (A:\Popup3), finding their own lodging. In 1806 a municipal legislation was passed, addressing that "No slave or slaves within the city shall have, hold, occupy, reside, or sleep in any house, out-house, building or enclosure, other than his or her owners or his or her owners representative'. Penalties for violation fell on both bondsmen ("twenty lashes on the bare back") and white ("fifty dollars for each such offense'). And so such a law was created where the slave must live on the same premises as its master.
The housing of urban slaves outside the masters lot was quite scarce. The sheds,
basements, attics, small houses, and single rooms were never very elegant but they
spread the population of blacks. Many slaves "living out" were always transients
where their master or the police may take away the privilege. Many travelers who stopped
at hotels found black to be everywhere. "Male servants sleeping on narrow boards
placed on chairs, the floor being sanded, without a pillow or blanket", says C. G.
Parsons. Such conditions were found at a Charleston hotel where James Stuart, saw,
"The male servants of the house...already laid down for the night in the passages
with their clothes on . They had neither beds nor bedding.....". Slaves were growing
quite rapidly in each city and they either lived in single rooms or they made
arrangements. But like many aspects of urban slavery, this practice had no standing law.B
y the 1850s there were so many variations of housing that its only accurate to say
that there is no pattern at all. The basic housing arrangement was breaking down. Slaves
could be found living in all sorts of conditions and different types of buildings in all
parts of town.
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Stuart, James, Three Years in North America (N.Y., 1833), II, 68,132.
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Wade, Richard C., Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860. New York:Oxford University Press,1964.
Woodman,Harold D., Slavery and Southern Economy: Sources and Readings, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), table 3, 13-14.