Whetting, Setting and Laying Timbers: Black Builders in the Early South

Black and white photo of large white building

Tom Reed

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 1, "Building South." Find more from that issue here.

Who built the seven towers of Thebes?

The books are filled with the names of kings.

Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone? 

In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished 

Where did the masons go?

- Bertold Brecht


I was visiting Monticello for the first time, joining thousands of other bicentennial pilgrims to the Charlottesville home of Thomas Jefferson. As we emerged from the sage's impressive house and viewed the vast estate, the lady in front of me remarked to her husband, "It's a beautiful place; do you suppose he had any help?"

Yes, Virginia, Mr. Jefferson did have "help. Several hundred blacks, all enslaved for life, once lived where herb gardens, picnic sites and parking lots are now laid out. At the time of the Revolution, Afro-Americans made up one-third of the South's overall population, more than half of the population of most large plantation units. In fact Southern plantations were North America's first "predominantly black institutions," and the vast majority of houses on plantation property were constructed and occupied by Afro-Americans. At Monticello enslaved workers even forged nails to be sold by their "master" and used by slave builders on neighboring plantations.

Of course blacks were not the South's first builders. For centuries Native Americans had raised a rich variety of structures large and small, sacred and secular, permanent and transportable across the Southern landscape. Nor were Afro-Americans the only builders during more than 200 years of slave society. Euro-American artisans were central to Southern construction from the time of the first Spanish fort at St. Augustine and the first English encampments at Roanoke and Jamestown. But the activities of black builders in the early South have been curiously overlooked. Take, for example, the map of Mount Vernon from one of the most prestigious, up-to-date and widely used college history texts available. It shows Washington's mansion, the mill for his grain and the barns for his livestock. But who built and maintained these structures, and where are the dwellings of the builders? Precise knowledge about early black craftsmen and their built environment is as crude today as the general understanding of Afro-American music and language was 50 years ago. But a few ingenious studies by Southern archaeologists and historians are beginning to turn the tide.

As the Southern colonies expanded during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the demand for labor increased sharply. Merchants with a growing stake in the huge trans-Atlantic slave trade provided hundreds, then thousands, of enslaved Africans to the plantations of the early South every year. Unlike workers from Europe, African newcomers were cut off from contact with their homelands, so that plantation conditions, no matter how brutal they became, had no effect upon the continuing flow of workers. During the eighteenth century, as these people learned English, adopted Christian beliefs and established New World families, Afro-American communities came into being.

While these victims of the "middle passage" were unfree, they were far from unskilled. Alex Haley's "furthest back" American ancestor, for example, who reached Annapolis in 1767, came from a family which had long been part of West Africa's metalworking tradition. Countless other newcomers like Kunta Kinte had experience as woodworkers, brickmakers and homebuilders in the Old World.

Such practical talents did not go unused in North America. They were often passed along directly from parent to child for generations, despite the rigors of slavery, for planters growing tobacco in Virginia, rice in Carolina and sugar in Louisiana needed more than field hands. "Am in great want of a Carpenter," wrote an officer constructing a fort on the Savannah River in 1723, and everywhere such calls were repeated. Soon the founder of nearby Purrysburg, South Carolina, could state, "Artifacers are so scarce at present that all sorts of work is very dear." Blacks, John Brickell noted, "prove good Artists,' and negroes not only served as blacksmiths and coopers but also practiced every aspect of the construction trade. Peter, put up for sale in Charleston in 1733, was a qualified "Bricklayer, Plaisterer and Whitewasher." Sampson, executed 10 years later in the same city for his repeated efforts to escape, was "well known in Town and Country for his painting and glazing.”

When slaveowners had no pressing work for such valuable artisans, they rented these skilled slaves out to other employers or put them up for sale. In 1735 one Charleston master, using the trade jargon of the time, advertised four men who could “whet, set and lay Timbers," and seven years later another person sold, along with their wives and children, "Two Negro Men, choice Sawyers (who can whet and set and lay-out their Work)." "My father was a carpenter by trade," recalled

James Wiggins, an ex-slave from Southern Maryland; "he was hired out to different farmers by Mr. Revell to repair and build barns, fences and houses."

All builders must adapt to the materials around them and newcomers to the South were no exception. On the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, Europeans familiar with cutting stones and Africans familiar with plastering clay began using the vast heaps of oyster shells to create foundations and walls of "tabby," a cement-like substance which endures for generations. But by far the most common building material was wood.

The richness and variety of the South's early lumber supply is almost unimaginable today, after three centuries of escalating deforestation. The term "lumber" originally meant "junk" in England. Colonists applied the word to the seeming excess of standing and fallen timber which cluttered the American landscape, and the name stuck. From the seventeenth century onward, Afro-Americans were involved in every phase of the lumber trade, beginning with the cutting and hauling of huge trees. The creation of tar and pitch for the English Navy was an important early industry, and blacks have been central to Southern turpentine manufacture down to the present.

Timber not used to make naval stores, split for barrel staves or shipped to the West Indies to boil sugar cane was squared and sawed for construction purposes. Before electric, steam or even water power had been harnessed for this task, teams of black workers "ripped" long logs, hour after hour, with a two-man saw. The man standing above the raised log was known as the "top dog," and his partner, who had to work in a pit below, was known as the "bottom dog" (two terms which have outlived their original use). "Such carpenters do not exist now," wrote a white South Carolinian recalling his antebellum boyhood on the Cumbahee River; "from cutting down the pine trees to hanging the window blinds they built the great house and the barns and the mill and all the other houses.”

Using slaves for such work greatly profited their masters, but free artisans found it hard to compete and quickly complained. Many colonies heard the protest which Governor Clarke of New York put forward in 1737 against the "pernicious custom of breeding slaves to trades whereby the honest and industrious tradesmen are reduced to poverty for want of employ, and many of them forced to leave us to seek their living in other countries." Such hostility was strongest in the South, where enslaved tradesmen were most numerous. In 1742, 19 ship carpenters petitioned South Carolina's Grand Council to act against the unfair competition created by "the Great Number of Negroe men chiefly employed in mending, repairing, and caulking Ships, Vessels and boats" in the Charleston dockyards. Significantly, the racial antagonisms which have made it difficult for Southern tradesmen to organize effectively down to the present day have roots in this remote era of unequal competition.

Black artisans, like field hands, offered individual resistance to the indignity and exploitation of the slave system on an ad hoc basis. Just as a tobacco cutter could remove the wrong leaves and a cotton picker could drop stones in his sack, a skilled craftsman could create a leaky barrel or squeaking hinges as an act of subversion or protest. Builders, like other unpaid black workers, knew how to use the recognized tools of "malingering" and "carelessness" when necessary or appropriate. Colonel Landon Carter, a wealthy eighteenth century Virginian, tells in his diary how he instructed Toney, a skilled slave carpenter, to fence in the garden, making the garden gate "as wide as two piers." Carter measured the opening himself and marked the exact spots for the gate posts. He asked the slave carpenter whether he understood the instruction, and Toney replied that he did. But when Carter returned two hours later to find that the task had not been carried out, he was informed by his self-confident craftsman that the specifications simply did not meet his approval. "The villain had so confidently interrupted my orders," wrote the frustrated planter, "that I struck him upon the shoulder with my stick which broke into pieces."Pitted against white wage laborers and forbidden from organizing, black workers in the building trades sometimes managed against all odds to protect their interests through collective action. Most such efforts were necessarily covert and are difficult to document, except through the complaints of the masters. But occasionally a slowdown or work stoppage surfaced as an overtly defiant act. Such incidents occurred not only on plantations, but also in towns and cities, where enslaved artisans had less close supervision and more intimate contact with other workers in the locality. As anti-British colonists assumed control of the port of Charleston in 1775 and moved to strengthen it against English naval forces, slaves were required to rebuild the crumbling battlements at Fort Johnson. By no means convinced that such an effort was in their best interests and responsive to hints that they might be freed by siding with the British, the workers, according to the minutes of Charleston's frustrated Committee of Safety, seized their strengthened bargaining position and slowed construction to a crawl.

Frequently the owners of urban artisans or teams of craftsmen allowed them to sell their skills independently and to keep part of whatever small compensation they could obtain. This provided low labor rates for the employer, easy profit for the slaveowner and hard-earned pocket money for the black artisan. But such activity, unless licensed, was strictly illegal, and the South Carolina Gazette contains numerous protests against slaves who "wrought clandestinely about Town." Two ads from the newspaper in 1733 read:

This is to forewarn all Manner of Persons whatsoever, not to employ two Negro Carpenters,… Mingo and Norwich, belonging to Lawrence Dennis of Charlestown, without first agreeing with the said Dennis, or his Spouse for the same.

This is to give Notice to all Persons, that they do not hire or employ these following Negroes… Cuffee and Beavour, two Caulkers, and Anselm a Bricklayer, without first agreeing with Nicholas Trott, or Sarah his Wife. 

Not even the harshest laws could curtail the power of determined artisans to bargain individually. In February, 1862, when the dream of liberation at last seemed an impending reality, Jack Savage, the head carpenter on a Savannah River rice plantation, went AWOL. Eighteen months later liberation efforts within and beyond the region had not yet succeeded, and Savage returned, starving but unrepentant. Owner Louis Manigault, who described him as "quite smart" and "our best plantation carpenter," ordered him sold in Savannah, where the artisan brought $1,800 after doing his best to minimize the planter's profit by vehemently denying his own skills. "It would have provoked you," Manigault's overseer told him, "to have heard Jack's lies of his inability &c.”

Often slave craftsmen have been portrayed as the most thoroughly assimilated of Afro-Americans, the persons who accommodated most completely to the tools, techniques and aesthetics of Caucasian masters. Undeniably, most black artisans were obliged to follow the instructions, suit the tastes and line the pockets of whites, so much of their work conformed to European values. At Stagville near Durham (one of the largest plantations in North Carolina) slaves erected a two-story Great Barn, framed with massive timbers and wooden pegs, which has been preserved by the state's Department of Cultural Resources. Elsewhere in antebellum North Carolina, Alex Haley's ancestor, Tom, was carrying on the family metalworking tradition by forging iron window grills to suit his master's wishes, and Thomas Day, a free black, was earning a reputation as one of the most skillful cabinet makers in the Southeast. Craftsmanship was indeed a route to assimilation and perhaps even, in rare cases, to legal freedom.

But the creation of material objects – dishes, baskets, boats, houses – also allowed blacks to retain, assert and even teach certain ancestral styles and values. In building, as in most areas of life, there were major constraints against direct "carryovers" from Africa to the South. Migrants came from a variety of backgrounds. Isolation, harsh working conditions and limited resources made it hard to transplant fully the material culture of the old countries. Once the U.S. slave trade was curtailed in the early nineteenth century, retaining Old World forms became even more implausible, as the refreshing influence of new arrivals from Africa disappeared. But evidence suggests that the Negro slaves who were required to build houses for whites, like the blacks obliged to cook English food or play European instruments, managed to bring their own methods and beliefs to the task.

At Nutbush Farm in Franklin County, North Carolina, a great iron pot has stood near the back door ever since the plantation house was built in the late eighteenth century. According to local lore, each time one of the county's seven Perry brothers built a house, the other brothers would send what blacks they could spare to help build. These workers would set a pot amid the stones as they laid the foundation for the central part of the house. As they sweated throughout the day to raise the building, they would pray and preach and sing over the pot, "fashioning something of power from their own despair, moving in rhythm around the pot as in a ring shout; pouring emotion into the pot –then exhaustion. And next day the pot was moved aside and the house was raised up." Legend has it that when certain winds come across the fields and loop down the rims of the old pot, the workers' songs rise up again, the same voices, full of despair and hope and power, building a dome of their own in the sunny air.* Naturally African building values would have been expressed most strongly in the slaves' own dwellings the very plantation structures which have been least studied and most poorly documented and preserved. By necessity, early slaves were often left to their own devices to build homes, and many reconstructed Old World living conditions as closely as time and material would allow. During the 1730s in Louisiana, on the plantation of the Marquis d'Asfeld, 160 workers lived in a cluster of 20 palmetto-roofed houses, surrounded by stakes, much as they might have lived on the other side of the Atlantic.

A few structures survive to this day which illustrate unusual, non-European designs, such as the hipped-roof "African House" at Melrose Plantation in Nachitoches, Louisiana, and the round slave quarters at Keswick Plantation in Midlothian, Virginia. Such buildings are scarce not only because time and neglect have taken their toll, but because visible expressions of independent cultural identity among slaves threatened masters from the start. Slave owners often took steps to curtail such strong statements, whether they were expressed through clothes, dances, songs or buildings. A former slave from the Georgia Sea Islands recalled in dialect the painful experience of an African-born slave named Okra:

Ole man Okra he say want a place like he have in Africa so he build 'im a hut. I 'member it well. It was 'bout twelve by fo'teen feet an' it have dirt floor and he built the side like basket weave with clay plaster on it. It have a flat roof what he make from bush and palmetto and it have one door and no windows. But Massa make 'im pull it down. He say he ain' want no African hut on he place.

Similarly, when James Henry Hammond came into possession of a large plantation at Silver Bluff, South Carolina, around 1830, he was shocked to find that the slave community there was conducting its own, unsupervised religious services in a special building erected for that purpose. One of his first acts in attempting to establish his control over the plantation was to order this separate "praise house" torn down as an improper sign of independent worship.

But if major acts of architectural independence were discouraged or punished, there was no preventing the incorporation of specific Old World traditions into New World forms. Just as black spirituals, sung in English about Christian themes, incorporated hidden meanings in their words and rhythms, so slave houses often contained cultural assertions which were overlooked or misinterpreted by Europeans. Thousands of slave home builders employed practical elements of Okra's forbidden house in the walls, roof, floor or spatial design. Such houses not only reflected West African building techniques but were also reminiscent of pre-industrial peasant housing in Europe and other parts of the world.

Though plentiful wood favored log cabin-style construction, many early artisans preferred the wattle-and-daub manner of making walls, weaving horizontal strips and vines between vertical posts and then plastering with clay. Sarah Debro, a North Carolina slave, recalled growing up in a "mud hut" without windows, and advertisements survive for black artisans who knew how to make mud walls. Since distinctive construction patterns are often considered "inferior" when associated with lower-class working people, the regional expression, "ugly as a mud wall," may derive from negative white judgments on this black building technique.

Similarly, the thatched roof, a hallmark of European rural housing for centuries, came to be frowned upon by whites in the New World who found blacks and Indians actively practicing this tradition. George McDaniel, the author of a pioneering study on the evolution of black housing in Southern Maryland, observes that thatched roofs 

required virtually no capital, were made from locally available material and probably furnished better insulation during cold winters than the thinner layers of wood shingles. Thatch was less expensive than wood shingles because the latter required the purchase of nails or necessitated that time-consuming process of making wooden "tree nails," or trundles, if nails were not purchased. Furthermore, first generation African slaves may have thatched roofs for houses and outbuildings because they were already skilled in the basic procedures for harvesting, drying and applying thatch in their homeland. African immigrants passed on the craft of thatching to their descendants, who in turn taught the next generation, continuing through the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth century in Southern Maryland and perhaps elsewhere.

The use of dirt floors was even more commonplace. Dictated in part by necessity, this folkway may also have represented a conscious choice. For while we might regard a dirt floor as simply an absence of floorboards, many traditional cultures knew how to construct a utilitarian earth surface which was as hard as concrete. While English cottagers were mixing clay with ox blood and ashes to make hard floors, West African builders boiled clay with water, adding cow dung for cohesion, and then poured the substance in place, smoothing it while wet and rubbing it with charcoal after it dried. Susan Snow, an Alabama ex-slave, recalled that, "My ma never would have no board floor like the rest of 'em, on 'count she was a African – only dirt." And W.C. Handy, the “father of the blues,” wrote: “I was born in a log cabin that my grandfather built. The logs were evenly hewn, Our first kitchen had a dirt floor which my father (an ex-slave) had beat down so that it looked like asphalt.” *

Whites who misperceived earthen floors also jumped to conclusions regarding the small size and comparative darkness of many slave houses. It was common to disparage Negro dwellings at the expense of either the "primitive" occupants or the "cruel" owner. A Polish poet visiting Mount Vernon recorded, "We entered the Negroes' huts for their habitations cannot be called houses. They are far more miserable than the poorest of the cottages of our peasants." Misery there was, but it is not clear that Afro-Americans considered small rooms with no windows to represent deprivation in their own right.

According to John Vlach, a leading authority on slave builders, rooms measuring no more than 10 feet by 10 feet were usual in West Africa, and the absence of windows was a common feature. (This different cultural norm may have been due in part to the fact that more time was spent outside the home in tropical regions, and the harsh routine of slavery, requiring workers to be in the fields from "first light" to sundown, offered little incentive to change this house style.) Vlach goes so far as to suggest that the most Southern of all architectural features, the front porch, may have its strongest roots in West African houseplaces. Slowly but surely, Europeans rediscovered an element of house design which was admirably suited to the climate. *

Slave housing varied greatly in its layout and quality from time to time and place to place, so sweeping generalizations are difficult. For example, while single-family dwellings constituted something of a norm, large-scale buildings are recorded as well. For example, on the Kolly Plantation in Louisiana in 1730, whether by choice or necessity, 65 men, women and children lived in two buildings, each 33 feet long. Ten years later, following the Stono Uprising by slaves in South Carolina, the Anglican Commissary in Charleston wrote home to London regarding the living conditions of the 40,000 blacks in the region who "labour together and converse almost wholly among themselves." He observed that, "They are as ‘twere a Nation within a Nation. In all County Settlements, they live in contiguous Houses and often 2, 3 or 4 Familys of them in one House, slightly partitioned into so many Apartments.”

Naturally the examples of slave dwellings which have survived tend to be the most substantial and sturdy, such as the row of brick slave cabins at Mulberry Plantation near Charleston the two-story brick and nogging structures at Stagville Plantation's Horton Grove. But written records confirm that many workers, by the eve of the Civil War, were living in sizable communities of durable dwellings.

Few such communities have been carefully studied as vet, but thanks to Charles Joyner, we know good deal about the homes black people built for themselves in the Waccamaw Neck region of coastal South Carolina. They were typically frame structures of two or three rooms with open fireplaces and chimneys of brick or clay, According to James R. Sparkman, the single-family houses built by and for his enslaved families measured 18 feet by 22 feet, with a hall and two rooms.

Each had: 

hewn and sawed frames, milled weatherboarding, cover'd with best Cypress shingles, raised. fect from the ground, flooring closely jointed, glased lights to cach room, and large fireplaces or chimneys made of a composition of Clay, Sand and Tar, 35 substitute for brick, to which it 3 quite equal if properly done.

What is most interesting about the slave houses on Waccamaw Neck is not their construction but their layout. For they were reminiscent of small African village compounds on the one hand and suggestive of subsequent Southern mill villages on the other. Weston's 334 slaves lived in a 10-acre community built in the late 1850s and laid out along named "streets." The entire settlement was

surrounded by a 10-foot wall, "less to keep the slaves in than to keep animals out." On Robert F.W. Allston's plantation, there were a dozen houses laid out, 50 yards apart, along both sides of three separate "streets." A young Confederate soldier in the region of the Sea Island rice plantations during the first year of the war recorded in his diary a moonlight march along a narrow levee which allowed him a clear a view of the "wealthy farm" of a former governor. 'It ought to be called a village,' wrote Samuel Lowry, "as I never saw so great a number of negro houses together to be owned by one man and the whole so well fixed." Such "villages" had been in existence in varying form from Maryland to Louisiana for nearly 200 years by the time the War for Afro-American Liberation finally took place. During the preceding century, for example, a tutor at Robert Carter's Virginia plantation had observed that it was "like a town, but most of the inhabitants are black." While the early South had fewer commercial towns than the North, it had its share of residential villages, laid out, built and occupied by slaves, from the seventeenth century onward. If the plantation as a production unit was actually, as many now suggest, a "factory in the field," then these communities of workers were America's first factory villages. In 1898, when black author Paul Laurence Dunbar described a Midwest ern factory town in his protest novel, The Uncalled, there was something reminiscent in his view. "Half-way up the Hill," Dunbar wrote, "cluster the cottages of the workmen, in military regularity." Such clusters were part of a complex architectural heritage, and not all of their roots led back via Lowell in New England to Manchester in Old England. Some led southward, where Dunbar's ancestors had not only been holding up the columns on Massa's front porch; they had been building their own houses and communities for generations.

* George W. McDaniel, "Preserving the People's History: Traditional Black Culture in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Southern Mary land." Duke University, Ph.D., 1979, pp. 88, 89, 74, 75.

* See John M. Vlach, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts (Cleveland, 1978) and "Shotgun Houses," Natural History, 86 (Feb., 1977), pp. 50-57. For further material on slave and free artisans, see Robert E. Perdue, Black Laborers and Black Professionals in Early America, 1750-1830 (New York, 1975).