It is a sweltering weekend in late August and Professor Dennis Pogue is revisiting a small, simple frame building at a private residence in Richmond, Virginia. The structure, which Pogue estimates is from the late 1850s, is in bad shape, but he has made a convincing argument for the owners not only to save it, but to seek out recommendations for how to preserve it.
The structure is one of hundreds of former slave dwellings that sit in the shadow of the stately mansions and sprawling farmsteads of Virginia. For the past 20 years, Pogue and Professor Doug Sanford, a colleague from the University of Mary Washington, have assessed and documented over 100 former slave dwellings in the commonwealth and gathered information on hundreds more. A growing online database of their work, thought to be one of the first concerted efforts to document and preserve slave quarters in the American South, is now available online through the University of Maryland’s Preservation Program.
“Our goal is to gather information on these buildings before they are lost, but it’s also an active pursuit of preservation,” says Pogue. “We hoped that by paying attention to these buildings, we’d get other people to pay attention to them too.”
The majority of the structures assessed by Pogue and Sanford are located on private property, found through a combination of state records and word-of-mouth from local historians, historic societies, even landscapers. In 2007, a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities gave them the monetary muscle to incorporate dendrochronology, a process that identifies the year that the wood used in construction was cut which, Pogue says, is an accurate way to gauge the age of structures that are otherwise tricky to date. The resulting framework—of roughly a dozen varying building types—is now used as a reference in new documentation.
Pogue’s work is an extension of a 25-year career at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, where he worked as an archeologist and, later, as a museum administrator. While Pogue was instrumental in the restoration of Washington’s mansion, the grist mill, distillery and countless other structures, his first project was the site of a slave house, an excavation that yielded what is now one of the largest collections of artifacts associated with 1700s-era slavery. Pogue’s work jumpstarted a comprehensive program around the lives of Washington’s enslaved people, including the re-creation of slave quarters in the early 2000s.
“It was truly an archeologist’s dream,” he recalls of excavating the site, located not far from the mansion. “We were able to recover old ceramics, glass, tobacco pipes, food remains. That experience was a big motivator in increasing the interpretation of slavery at Mount Vernon. With something that tangible, you can really tell interesting stories.”
It also sparked an interest in documenting the lives of the enslaved beyond Washington’s gates, something Pogue and Sanford investigated around the state in between job and teaching responsibilities. It was soon evident that, while people had been looking at these buildings for a long time, there was no systematic way of documenting them; and often, it was the same small collection of buildings.
“As we began talking to people, it became clear there were a lot more of these buildings than people thought,” says Pogue. “Most were either neglected and, therefore, in danger or had been modified by the property owner. It quickly turned from just documentation to a preservation effort.”
At one point, Pogue estimates there were tens of thousands of structures, with the vast majority eroded by time, development and a lack of understanding. The surviving structures, Pogue notes, are often the ones close to the main house, called house quarters. The proximity has led to situations of extensive alteration by the property owner, often into a guest or pool house or, in one case, a poker parlor.
“We leave judgement at the door, because these people are allowing us onto their property,” says Sanford. “Often times, they don’t know what to do with them, and we really have to make a case for preservation; that it’s an important building that should be preserved and not turned into a club house for their grandkids.”
That argument hasn’t always come easy. Pogue explains that coming to terms with the physical evidence of the darkest part of American History has been met with a spectrum of emotions.
“These buildings are divisive,” he explains. “They hold difficult, painful stories. And right now, we’re contending with a lot of issues that revisit these same themes. But for the most part, the people we go to that have dwellings on their property, when we explain the historic importance, have gotten past that. By recognizing them and embracing them, that’s an opportunity to make this story in American history stronger.”
Twenty years later, it is the stories that still drive Pogue—not just of the original inhabitants but the generations that followed, often African Americans who continued to live and work on the property. They have collaborated with a number of organizations, including Encyclopedia Virginia, a project by Virginia Humanities, to research and identify the people who lived in these dwellings and bring their stories to light. Pogue and Sanford have worked with Encyclopedia Virginia to develop virtual tours of numerous slave houses as part of the site’s section on slavery and the African American experience. The UMD database offers details of each structure, a collection of pictures and immersive Google street view tours of the interior and exterior of each structure.
“The places that Dennis and Doug document aren’t available to the general public because of their location or condition, so being able to virtually walk through and experience these places makes them impossible to ignore,” explains Peter Hedlund, Director of the Encyclopedia Virginia project. “There’s a misconception that slave houses are relegated to these big sprawling plantations in Virginia, but you’ll find them behind brownstones in downtown Richmond or Alexandria. Slavery was a pervasive institution, it was everywhere. Through their work, Dennis and Doug are preserving a narrative that might otherwise be forgotten.”
They have worked with a half-dozen owners to repair and preserve structures and are hoping to raise seed money to help other property owners in similar efforts. Hedlund explains that, while architecture historians often get lost in the physical structure of places, Pogue and Sanford never forget the people who lived there.
“I’m a strong believer in places,” says Pogue. “They have an impact that you can’t get from reading history in a book and these buildings are a critical part of the American story. The White House and the Capitol Building are also slave buildings—they were built by slaves. But it’s in these places that the story becomes more visible because it’s where these folks’ lives actually occurred. So that makes them all the more important.”