Images of Slavery as Visual Evidence 4 “Artifacts of Slavery”

So far I have focused on depictions of slavery and the complications of using them as historical evidence. I’d like to close the forum by giving some consideration to artifacts rather than imagery, specifically to evidence in the architectural and archaeological records.

Sometimes this evidence pops up in unexpected but revealing places. Take the case of the First National Bank in Huntsville, Alabama, built in the 1830s, and still standing today (it is thoroughly documented in the Historic American Buildings Survey on the Library of Congress website).

First National Bank Floor PlanFirst National Bank ElevationRemarkably, the building included an apartment for the cashier and slave quarters in the rear of the building, with a basement level “for the detention of slave property in case of mortgage default.” In other words, slaves were thrown into a dank basement vault, probably to be sold off, if their owners defaulted on a mortgage. This “slave keep” can be visualized from the plan and elevation on the HABS website-a stone and brick cell with narrow, barred slits for ventilation and a cesspool at the lower end.

Here is a mute witness to the cruelty of slavery, a system in which the reckless spending or bad investment of an owner could land his slaves in a bank’s dungeon. It complements the more dramatic instruments of slavery’s torture-the whips and shackles and thumbscrews that appear in museums of the slave trade.

Silver pendant. "Beads and Other Adornment," New York African American Burial Ground Archeology Final Report (February 2006).

Silver pendant. New York African American Burial Ground.

Some of the most interesting material evidence of slavery and early African American life has come from archaeological excavations. The African Burial Ground in Manhattan, discovered during construction of a new federal office building, has unearthed a wealth of evidence on burial customs including some spectacular reconstructions of body adornment. Excavations at Mount Vernon and Monticello are shedding new light on the lives of the slaves there, who used to be little more than an afterthought in the narratives of the great white men that these historic sites told. For instance, at Monticello archaeologists are reconstructing patterns of slave housing from the presence of sub-floor pits that slaves used to store food and valuables.

Some of this material is in highly technical reports but they document the realities of slave existence in a direct and powerful way. I’m interested in how to find creative ways to adapt this material to the classroom. How do we get students to imagine themselves in these spaces and environments, using these objects (or being used by them)? How can we use this material record to supplement, balance, or correct the imagery of slavery produced by abolitionists and slaveholders alike?