We Have Made These Lands What They Are: The Architecture of Slavery
I’ve spent the past three years documenting ante-bellum southern plantations and slave dwellings through text and image. As a journalist I am drawn to storytelling through words, and as a visual artist I respect the way an image can bring a text alive. As a filmmaker I’m refreshing the documentary form, working instead with still imagery. And as an African-American, I aim in my process to explore the many significant links between my peoples' past and present.
Over and over again, writes historian John Michael Vlach, recently freed enslaved people “expressed a surprisingly intense connection to their former places of servitude.” Many wanted to return after emancipation.
Not only did slaves build the “big houses” of their owners brick by painstaking brick, clear their inhospitable lands and plant their fields into fertility, but they hammered together their own families’ humble quarters and buried their kin in their own crude graveyards marked by craggy, unadorned fieldstones. Understandably, after centuries of uncompensated toil, many felt the need to hold onto what little they believed was rightfully theirs.
Through extensive research in six states I’ve uncovered ledgers, diary entries, accounting logs, letters, slave auction records, transcribed WPA-era interviews and countless books to compile a continuous, though patchwork, narrative of the history of the American slave economy. By coupling words with impressionistic images I aim to give voice and life to the crude, quotidian realities behind the grand, sweeping staircases and Spanish Moss of sugar-coated tourist lore.
A variety of voices - slave-owners and the enslaved - come together chronologically here to form a solemn chorus to the dirge of American slavery. What results is a complexity of feeling and nuanced understanding of an institution that still defines us, and whose repercussions are coming into sharper focus in our current deeply fractured times. Matters then, as now, weren't so black and white, so to speak. One slave owner felt true and deep love and compassion for her slaves. Another planned a church wedding for one of his enslaved. Former slaves wanted to return to their plantations after abolition. Many enslaved felt love for their ladies of the house. Others wanted to kill them.
I am personally drawn to this material as black woman married to a descendant of the largest American tobacco plantation in the ante-bellum south, home over centuries to at least 447 enslaved people.
We begin in Belle Grove, Virginia, where early 18th century financial records detail (in pound sterling) the building materials enslaved people used to finish the sweep of a staircase or the maintenance of a barn. (VITRIOL)
Two South Carolina runaway slaves are the subject of a detailed 1761 manhunt plea issued by Middelton Plantation owner, Henry Middleton. (CARGO)
A group of between 200 and 500 enslaved men dressed as soldiers and heavily armed with cane knives and axes attempted a mass rebellion in 1811. Their fate was decided at Destrehan Plantation outside of New Orleans. (SPOT)
In 1832, in the Feliciana country of Louisiana, the female proprietor of Evergreen Plantation laments how much she loves her slaves. (LOVE HIM)
1839 finds English actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble trying to navigate and document the cruel, inhumane conditions of slave life on a Georgia rice swamp where she is the improbable mistress of the operation, Butler Plantation. (DEW AND DAMP)
In 1847, the master of Middelton Plantation arranges for the marriage for one of his slaves to an enslaved woman from a neighboring plantation. (WIFE)
These are but a few of the stories behind these 18 images.