Slave quarters at Rock Hall in Dickerson, c.1936. Few photographs of slave quarters existed before the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) was commissioned to document historic properties during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal. HABS photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Slave Housing

Adapted from "Slave Housing in Montgomery County," by Mark Watson, The Montgomery County Story, Vol. 27, No. 3.

Most Americans picture slave housing on a plantation—but the reality of the places in which enslaved people lived is as varied as the places in which they worked. Yarrow Mamout lived in Georgetown, in an urban area. After he was freed, he purchased and lived in his own house, on Dent Place near Q Street. In other more rural areas of the county, enslaved people lived in small houses on farms.

Examples of slave quarters still remain visible today and the structures themselves provide important evidence of slave life in Maryland.

Unfortunately, no farms or plantations from the earliest settlement period—the early 1700s—remain intact in this area. However, we do know from archival records that the prevailing pattern in the Mid-Atlantic region was one of small farms, where the relatively small number of slaves lived in extra buildings, detached kitchens or in the attic and basements of main dwellings. Extra rooms or loft quarters continued to be used for slave housing in Montgomery County well into the 19th century.

This type of quarter can be seen at The Ridge, near Redland. Constructed in the late 18th century, the slave quarters are located in a loft over the stone kitchen wing of the main house. Two dormers piercing the southern slope of the gabled roof lighted the large unpartitioned room. The ceiling was lathed and plastered, but apparently the walls were left unfinished. Loft rooms in one and one-half story structures were commonly without fireplaces, warmed only by heat rising from fireplaces on the first floor.

When the first significant number of African slaves arrived in Maryland in the 17th century, men far outnumbered women. The small number of female slaves, combined with the relatively few slaves on each farm and the great distance between properties, made it difficult for slaves to meet and marry. This lessened the need on most farms for larger, family-type slave housing. Therefore, Maryland slave owners often only needed to quarter the male field hands in extra rooms on the farm.

By the middle of the 18th century, there were greater opportunities for slaves to marry, have children, and create some semblance of a family unit, although often it meant living on separate farms. Along with the establishment of extended slave families so came the need for the distinct, detached housing quarters. By the end of the 18th century in Montgomery County, single-unit slave houses were increasingly listed among inventories and tax assessments, referred to specifically as "Negro quarters" or "Negro dwelling."

Single unit quarters in the county were predominately made of logs, a construction material readily available. A good example of this type of housing can be seen at Oakley Cabin near Brookeville. One and one half stories in height the log house measures 20 by 16 feet and is partitioned into two rooms with a loft above. The log walls are unfinished and the exposed joists and floorboards of the loft room form the ceiling of the first floor. This building dates from after the Civil War, but is similar to earlier cabins like those used by slaves.

Some slave-owning farmers continued to provide housing designed to be occupied by larger groups or by more than one family. These multi-unit dwellings fall into three types: the barrack, the dormitory, and the duplex or double quarter. One such designed double quarter exists at Mount Carmel, near Dickerson. Originally the inside was partitioned into two interconnecting units, each unit with one room down with fireplace and a loft room above. Like the main house, it was made of sandstone.

In many instances, the slave houses on more wealthy farms were scaled-down, bare minimum versions of the main house. The closer the two buildings sit to one another on the property, the greater the resemblance; in these instances, the quarters serve as a visual compliment to the main house.

These were not just houses—these were homes. Each space bore the personal marks and characteristics of the enslaved family who lived there. It was a home where children were born and raised, where parents and grandparents lived and died, and where solitude and a fleeting moment of privacy and relaxation with the family could be enjoyed behind a closed door.

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Thank you to: Rita Lewi, Executive Director, Chinese Culture and Community Service Center (CCACC), Wintergreen Kunqu Society, Monica Escalante of Montgomery Hospice, The Washington Revels, Jasmine Zhou of AC Multimedia Group, Sebastian Montes, Carolyn Camacho, Karla Silvestre, Pamela Chiang and Tony Shen