Little physical evidence of the nature of slaves' quarters was recorded or has survived. Generally speaking, however, it is known that housing for slaves was of poor quality. Slaves typically lived in small log houses coated with a plaster made of mud and other materials to keep out the wind, rain, and snow; a brick fireplace was centered in the largest part of the structure. Dirt floors were most common, and wooden chimneys that could be moved as needed were attached. The door was usually centered on one side, and if there was a window, it was typically unglazed. Archaeological evidence of duplex-like cabins shared by two or more families has also been discovered. On the largest plantations, housing for slaves was often a large barracks-like structure fitted with bunks and occupied solely by men; women, children, and the elderly lived some little distance away in mean, small wood cabins. Black overseers on the largest plantations sometimes occupied a small one-room cabin by themselves.
Historians and archaeologists have also found some interesting variables in slave housing. In the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina, slaves' houses were sometimes built to mimic various styles of West African architecture. These homes would be a reflection of the socioeconomic status of the slaves' African ancestors, which would determine the shape of the house, the placement of rooms, and the design of the courtyards. Moreover, religious beliefs and practices of African ancestors would figure prominently in the type of dwelling built.
Furthermore, archaeologists have discovered evidence of slave quarters built that mimicked construction techniques still used in West Africa. For example, American slaves constructed roofs from thatch or a clay mixture. Excavations have also unearthed wooden shingles and clay roofs that were reinforced by timber.
There are records showing that early in the nineteenth century many slave owners had the slaves' quarters arranged in a circular pattern around the masters' houses. This duplicated the practices of many African tribal chiefs, which may have comforted many slaves. However, the planter elite used this system because they found it easier to control their slaves when they lived in close proximity to the masters' houses.
The amount and quality of furniture, cooking utensils, and other household amenities found in slave quarters varied depending on the size of the plantation, the largesse of the owners, and the status of individual slaves. Most slaves' cabins would have been outfitted with pallets for the adults to sleep on—children often slept on the floor—and perhaps wooden boxes or stools for sitting. There might be some rudimentary utensils used for cooking, and bowls or gourds from which to eat. Wooden buckets were used to carry water for cooking, drinking, and bathing. Some slaves were lucky enough to acquire castoffs from their masters; archaeological excavations at Mount Vernon, owned by George Washington (1732–1799), have unearthed dishes of various materials, glassware, and pewter utensils.
Finally, many slaves planted small vegetable gardens around their cabins, and often acquired small barnyard animals, such as chickens. This provided them not only with extra food, but goods that they could sell or exchange to acquire additional clothing, foodstuffs not provided by the master, or other amenities they deemed important.
Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
Singleton, Theresa, ed. "I, Too, Am America": Archaeological Studies of African American Life. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999.
Marilyn K. Howard