I am posting a project I completed based on my study of the enslaved peoples’ homes at Evergreen and Stagville plantations. As you will see, there is linked at the beginning an exhibit hosted Omeka, so that you can see photographs of primary evidence to bolster the written component below. As always, let me know your thoughts and let’s have a discussion!
Research question: Looking at Evergreen and Stagville Plantations as case studies, what can we say about the actual construction of slave dwellings, especially in contrast to the standard narrative that they were weak and shoddily constructed?
In American public memory, especially in the South, the notion that the enslaved people had the skills to do anything more than farming, a task also often relegated to the “unskilled labor” category, is a notion that carries little weight. Carpentry, masonry, blacksmithing, weaving, and more do not seem like anything possible for anyone save the occasional and exceptional white person, typically a man. Even if one does allow for the possibility that enslaved people did perform such tasks, they usually assume that they did not do so very well, with even some historians, as Catherine Bishir reminds us, arguing that “the presence of [enslaved] artisans tended to reduce the quality of building by taking away work from free craftsmen – thus implying that [enslaved people’s] work was of inferior quality.” Moreover, even if one allows that the enslaved people did these tasks and could indeed perform them well, they for some reason could not perform them well when it came to the construction of their own home. The persistent idea, even with a skillful historian like Bishir, is that most of the homes of the enslaved were weak and shoddily constructed, or even nothing more than “small, crude buildings.” For some reason, historians and the wider public alike seem to think that even though the enslaved could and did build the magnificent big houses on these plantations, somehow they could not build a suitable home for themselves; the documentary and material evidence alike, though, show that they could and did. In this introduction, I will detail further some of the context for my project, explaining some of my methodology and decisions for laying out the exhibit in the manner I did. I will also provide further written evidence to bolster the argument inherent within the exhibit that not only were the enslaved people tremendously skilled builders, but also that they took this skill into the construction of their own homes, which still stand today as a testament to their abilities and their care in constructing a place they would call their own.
This project began to address an absence. Historians and the wider public alike tend to consider enslaved people as nothing more than unskilled “field hands,” a name given instead of “farmer” that further implies what they say explicitly: enslaved people just could not do the tasks required to build this nation, so they picked cotton or cut cane while the white people did everything else. This idea, though, could not be further from the truth. Enslaved people did each and every task required to literally build America, and they did it with precision and skill, doing it so well that Natchez, Mississippi has so many plantation homes as to have a twice-yearly, three-to-four week long “pilgrimage” every year to go see them all. Moreover, all of that skill transferred over into the construction of their own home, too, with the same methods of construction and ability remaining evident in those back houses as was in the big house.
Why does this absence exist, though? I argue that it is because historians have tended to take what they perceive as the absence of evidence as an evidence of absence. They look at the main house on the plantation and see no names of enslaved people and assume that the white builder with whom the contract was made must have been the one to do everything. Take, for example, the building contract to heavily renovate the main house at Evergreen Plantation in south Louisiana. Pierre Clidamon Becnel, owner of Evergreen, contracts with John Carver “to do therein all the wooden work consisting chiefly in door and window frames, floors, ceilings, doors, shutters, sashes &c.” Seeing no names of the enslaved and not knowing anything about John Carver biographically, historians assume that Carver must have been the only one to do this work, and not just the work contracted for the main house, but also the work of building “the several outbuildings that still exist at Evergreen.” This idea from the primary source documents is persistent, going so far in the case of Evergreen as to be included in the National Historic Registry Application wherein the only architect or builder that is listed is John Carver in 1832. Unfortunately, these persistent ideas become insidious as they enter the public sphere and shape public memory. We assume publicly that white people did everything, leading to narratives that enslavement was not that bad and that the enslaved people did not really do that much work anyway. This is quite the shocking view, not only for its ethical implications, but also for its clear misalignment with the historical reality, whereof two visitors from Virginia to a Moravian settlement in North Carolina, upon discovering there were only two Black people who lived in the town, “were the more surprised to find that white people had done so much work.” Indeed, the historical record, the documentary and material evidence alike, support this surprise when white people do work because when we look around us at the still-extant buildings, in combination with the myriad documentary resources we have at our hands, it becomes quite clear that Black people quite literally built this nation, and included in that was the skillful construction of their own homes.
So I set out here to fill in the gaps. Time and again the idea persists that the enslaved people’s homes were weak and shoddily constructed, implied in the sort of backhanded compliment that historian Jean Bradley Anderson pays the Horton Grove homes at Stagville Plantation in North Carolina wherein Anderson says that they were “unusually well-constructed.” This assessment that the construction was “unusually” good does not fit the historical record, though, as not only did enslaved builders become and remain a crucial part of the building of this nation throughout the antebellum years, but also the buildings they erected, including the Horton Grove homes and the Great Barn, all at Stagville, “number among the most ambitious and elaborately executed landmarks in the state.” We need not depend solely on primary source documents and secondary source material to see this, though. Indeed, the material evidence all around us, particularly in the Horton Grove homes at Stagville and the twenty-two still extant homes at Evergreen Plantation in south Louisiana, demonstrate the tremendous skill necessary to construct these homes, and to do so well enough to make them capable of still standing today.
Just a brief showing of the material evidence arises from my Omeka exhibit linked above. Within the exhibit are examples of the skilled work of timber framing that goes into the construction of these homes. A long-time trade of at least 7,000 years, timber framing was a frequent construction method throughout America in homes, churches, and other buildings, including the homes at Stagville and Evergreen. One can see the evidence not just in the massive timbers visible from the inside of the homes, but even in the small details like the scarf joints, the hewing ax marks, and the ever-present peg which shows arguably more than any other element the prime evidence and the tying together of a timber frame structure.
Admittedly, some of these elements can be hard to see. As John Michael Vlach reminds us, “The carpenter’s art is difficult to appreciate because it generally lays hidden underneath siding, shingles, or coatings of plaster and stucco.” This is the case with both Horton Grove and Evergreen in some ways as only the occasional missing clapboard or the opportunity to go inside the homes will truly reveal all the secrets that these homes have to tell. Through seeing the posts, the tie beams, the pegs in every single mortise and tenon, it becomes more obvious that these homes were skillfully timber framed, rigid and long-lasting to stand up to whatever weather or damage North Carolina or Louisiana had to offer it. Moreover, through an appreciation of the knowledge of timber framing itself, one can notice further not just the construction skills necessary, but also the knowledge that each of these builders had.
Two important points arise for this knowledge. First is the square rule method, a term coined by Edward Shaw. This is an American method of timber framing that began around 1800 and seemed to quickly rise into prominence as America still had big, long, and straight timbers with which to work, compared to the smaller, irregular timbers more prevalent in Europe after centuries and centuries of sustained large populations.  This square rule method has as its crux finding a square timber within an irregular one. For example, a timber that may be nominally 7”x7” square may actually measure 7 ¼” by 6 ¾”. This is no problem, though, because square rule will dictate that within this timber is a perfectly square 6 ½” x 6 ½” timber, and those numbers are the ones from which the builder draws the measurement in order to raise a square, plumb, and level frame that is ready to withstand the test of time. This square rule also involves a reduction, or a slight chamfering or cutting away, so that the shoulder of the tenon timber has a sort of shelf on which to sit when it comes with the timber that houses the mortise. This reduction is in some ways a hallmark sign of square rule method, and it is evident in the Great Barn at Stagville in the picture in the exhibit. This, too, was likely the method employed in the Horton Grove homes given that the time period of construction of the Great Barn and Horton Grove is likely within the same decade, and they were constructed at the same plantation under the same owner.
The second noteworthy point is the knowledge of math. As is probably quite obvious, there is a tremendous amount of math that goes into the construction of a timber frame. This is especially true in the construction of a roof. As Vlach argues:
To raise any roof in an efficient manner all of its rafters must be measured and cut beforehand. Their lengths are calculated not by stretching out a tape measure between two points but by the application of the rules of basic geometry, as a rafter is thought of not merely as a board, but as the hypotenuse of a right triangle.
What is evident, then, is that not only was it necessary to know how to saw tenons, hew logs, and shape pegs, but it was also necessary to know geometry, trigonometry (also evident in rafter construction), and much more required to raise the frame in order to make it square, plumb, and level across the entirety of the structure. This kind of skill and knowledge shows further that the enslaved people were not simply unskilled field hands with no working knowledge, but instead they were tremendously talented craftspeople who had everything in their mind and in their hands to build their homes in a manner that showed impeccable ability and care for those who would be living inside.
Transitioning from points about details on the buildings, I now talk more generally about the project as a whole. As is quite clear, my methods are field-work heavy. It is of utmost importance for this work to actually see the construction itself, not simply to read about it. Moreover, it is important to me personally to be able to do the work of building so I can notice with my own calloused hands the skill required to make logs into a home. I turn to the primary sources, the material evidence of the homes that still stand today, to see what those builders did, and then I go back home and try to build it myself, or with a crew sometimes as a solo timber frame raising is impossible, or at least unnecessarily inefficient. This focus on the primary source material evidence made me turn to a formation of an exhibit that highlights the details I have discussed above: the joinery, the tool marks, the peg, and more. I form the exhibit much like I do this introduction: I start with the Carver-Becnel contract, a document that seems to demonstrate that white people did all the work, and then I call that into question through other historical documents and the construction of the enslaved people’s homes themselves. Despite the persistent idea that the enslaver built all of these homes, as Catherine Bishir claims when she says that Paul Cameron “built larger houses” at Horton Grove and then “covered these sturdy structures with the latest modern walling of board and batten,” the enslaved people were actually the ones who built these homes. If indeed there were a minimum of twenty-seven Black carpenters in New Bern, North Carolina alone from 1770-1900, then it stands to reason that Black people, especially enslaved Black people, would have been doing this building, especially of their own homes. Their construction methods of their homes, also, demonstrated a concern for the ways they would have to live in those homes, as well.
If one takes the Horton Grove homes as an example, there are two main elements that demonstrate the concern enslaved builders had for the enslaved people who would be living inside the homes. The first is the brick nogging. This is a method of filling the spaces in between the timbers of the frame with bricks in order to provide “an unusual measure of stability and warmth,” offering both insulation and protection from the elements and any critters that may try to get inside the home. Although one may point out that Paul Cameron ordered the enslaved to do this, having the idea does not translate into making that idea a reality, which was the work of enslaved brick masons and carpenters working together to make the Horton Grove homes suitable for the inhabitants. The second element is the window placement, which looks out over the main stretch of Horton Grove where much of the socialization would occur before and after working hours. As Annette Gordon-Reed argues, “[E]nslaved people typically socialized, cooked, and took meals outside.” This window would have allowed those inside the home to still see and interact with those outside. Similarly, the porch on the homes at Evergreen and the relatively large yards surrounding the homes there would have offered the same socialization opportunities, especially since the yard, like other places outdoors, “was often a gathering place” for the enslaved to build community outside the eyes of the enslaver. All of these elements, be they the parts that helped protect those on the inside from the elements or critters or be they the construction methods and details that followed the life needs and desires of the enslaved inhabitants, point to the care with which the enslaved builders constructed these homes. Indeed, to borrow from Catherine Bishir’s language, in building their own homes, they inevitably were able to shape their own lives in the hope that they could “advance their situations and those of their families.” The construction of the enslaved peoples’ homes at Stagville and Evergreen seem to demonstrate clearly this concern for a whole home life, not merely a place to sleep.
Changing a narrative is no small task. The highlighting of certain evidences over others and that highlighting’s strength in forming public memory can make it tremendously difficult to see the historical truth, even when the material and documentary evidence are right in front of us. It is my hope that by looking at the evidence from the primary sources, be they the letters of the Camerons or the Becnels, or be they the homes of the enslaved at Stagville or Evergreen, we can begin to see a more accurate historical picture that reflects the idea that the enslaved were ingenious and uncanny in their knowledge and abilities, and that they were able to construct their own homes in a way suitable to them, a way that would allow them to live the best life they could in spite of the death dealing, tortuous life of American enslavement. I hope that we not be surprised to discover the extent of the labor and craftspersonship of the enslaved, but instead we be like those visitors from Virginia, instead being surprised when white people do the extent of work that historians and public memory claim. May we keep in mind the words of North Carolina Congressman Charles Fisher, who asked and then answered, “What branch of mechanic have we in our country in which we do not find negroes often distinguished for their skill and ingenuity? In every place we see them equaling the best white mechanics.” The enslaved people in this country literally built this nation, and that most certainly included the construction of suitable, well-designed, well-thought out, incredibly well-built homes for themselves. If we but open ourselves to the material and documentary evidence all around us, we may just find the pegs that tie this whole thing together in a way that allows for a more accurate historical narrative, that then gives rise to a more just, more equitable future for every single one of us.
American Farmer. Baltimore: January 1828.
Anderson, Jean Bradley. Piedmont Plantation: The Bennehan-Cameron Family and Lands in North Carolina. Durham: The Historic Preservation Society of Durham, 1985.
Beemer, Will. Learn to Timber Frame. North Adams: Storey Publishing, 2016.
Bishir, Catherine W. Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Bishir, Catherine W. and Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Bishir, Catherine W. North Carolina Architecture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Bishir, Catherine W. Southern Built: American Architecture, Regional Practice. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2008.
Historic American Buildings Survey. “HABS LA,48-RES.V,1 – (sheets 34-37 of 37) – Evergreen Plantation, Reserve, St. John the Baptist Parish, LA.” Loc.gov. Accessed October 1, 2019.
Kingsley, Karen. Buildings of Louisiana. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Liloia, Ziggy. “Timber Frame Joinery Layout: Square Rule and Scribe Rule.” Theyearofmud.com. January 26, 2013.
Louisiana Buildings 1720-1940. Edited by Jessie Poesch and Barbara SoRelle Bacot. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, natchezpilgrimage.com.
Raised to the Trade: Creole Building Arts of New Orleans. Edited by John Ethan Hankins and Steven Maklansky. New Orleans: New Orleans Museum of Art, 2002.
Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, vol. II, 1752-1775. Edited by Adelaide L. Fries. Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company State Printers, 1925.
United States Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, National Historic Landmark Nomination, Evergreen Plantation.” May 1991.
Wilson, Jr. Samuel. “The Building Contract for Evergreen Plantation, 1832.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 31, No.4, Winter, 1990.
 Catherine W. Bishir, Southern Built: American Architecture, Regional Practice (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006) 76.
 Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 24.
 Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, natchezpilgrimage.com.
 Samuel Wilson, Jr. “The Building Contract for Evergreen Plantation, 1832,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 31, No.4 (Winter, 1990), 401.
 Wilson, “Contract,” 400.
 Wilson, “Contract,” 400.
 United States Department of the Interior, National Parks Service, “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, National Historic Landmark Nomination, Evergreen Plantation,” May 1991.
 Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, vol. II, 1752-1775, ed. Adelaide L. Fries (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company State Printers, 1925), 780.
 Jean Bradley Anderson, Piedmont Plantation: The Bennehan-Cameron Family and Lands in North Carolina (Durham: The Historic Preservation Society of Durham, 1985), 57.
 Bishir, Southern, 77.
 Will Beemer, Learn to Timber Frame (North Adams: Storey Publishing, 2016), 8.
 Raised to the Trade: Creole Building Arts of New Orleans, ed. John Ethan Hankins and Steven Maklansky (New Orleans: New Orleans Museum of Art, 2002), 29.
 Ziggy Liloia, “Timber Frame Joinery Layout: Square Rule and Scribe Rule,” theyearofmud.com, January 26, 2013.
 Hankins, Raised, 32.
 Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 309.
 Catherine W. Bishir, Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 364.
 Bishir, Architecture, 309.
 Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2008), 514.
 Gordon-Reed, Hemingses, 514.
 Bishir, Crafting, 13.
 American Farmer (Baltimore: January 1828), 9.