To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
contact us | site guide | search
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Enslavement

Green Hill plantation, Virginia
Green Hill plantation, Virginia
- Green Hill plantation, Virginia, photographs, 1960 (PDF)
- McGee plantation, Mississippi, ca. 1844, in Louis Hughes narrative, 1897 (PDF)
- Williams plantation, Louisiana, ca. 1850s, in Charley Williams narrative, ca. 1937 (PDF)

"De plantation was about as big any," says Charley Williams of his Mississippi birthplace where he lived with about 100 other enslaved African Americans. Although most slaves lived on small farms with fewer than 10 slaves, the large plantation with hundreds of slaves has come to define our image of the antebellum South. Here we will explore the world of the large plantation (keeping in mind that only 12 percent of slaveholders held "planter" status by owning 20 or more slaves1), but first let us look at the 1860 census data:

In 1860:2

4.5 million people of African descent lived in the United States.
 Of these:  4.0 million were enslaved (89%), held by 385,000 slaveowners.
  Of these:    3.6 million lived on farms and plantations (half in the Deep South).
    Of these:      1.0 million lived on plantations with 50 or more enslaved people.

In 1860:3

46,300 plantations (estates with 20 or more slaves) existed in the United States.
 Of these:  20,800 plantations (45%) had between 20 and 30 slaves.
     2,278 plantations (5%) had 100-500 slaves.
           13 plantations had 500-1000 slaves.
             1 plantation had over 1000 slaves (a South Carolina rice plantation).

How did a large plantation function? How did its self-contained environment its layout, buildings, isolation, and use of the land influence the lives and self-image of the enslaved? To address these questions, we first view photographs of a Virginia plantation taken in the 1960s. Keep these images in mind while reading the detailed descriptions of plantation life written by two formerly enslaved men.

  1. Green Hill plantation, Virginia. In 1860, this plantation was home to 81 enslaved African Americans. They lived in 17 cabins in "Lower Town" and worked in the tobacco and wheat fields and the numerous outbuildings of the 5000-acre plantation —barn, granary, stable, laundry, loom house, carriage house, and more. In 1960, the plantation was studied as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, and we view 21 photographs and one plot plan from this study, with commentary by anthropologist John Michael Vlach in his book Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (1993). "Look at the pictures," directs Dr. Vlach. "Pore over the drawings. Check their details. Do it carefully, and you can develop almost a tangible sense of the buildings that once sheltered the everyday routines of slaves."4

  2. Edward McGee plantation, Mississippi. For about 15 years, Louis Hughes lived on a Mississippi cotton plantation owned by Edward McGee, "one of the wealthiest and most successful planters of his time." In his narrative, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom (1897), Hughes describes the physical complexity of a large southern cotton plantation—the planter's house, overseer's residence, task-defined outbuildings, and minimal slave quarters. He details the regimented work routines of the enslaved blacks, noting the skilled craftsmen among them who fashioned most of the farming equipment. He lists the punishments meted out by the overseer that were "barbarous in the extreme" In 1865, as the Union army approached his plantation, Hughes was able to escape, soon retrieving his wife and children.

  3. John Williams plantation, Louisiana. Charley Williams, interviewed in 1937 by a writer in the WPA Federal Writers' Project, describes the 300-acre cotton and tobacco plantation near Monroe, Louisiana, where he lived and worked with about 100 other enslaved people for over 20 years. Like Hughes, Williams describes the plantation's residential and work structures, and the slave's arduous daily labor. "Bells and horns!" he remembers. "Bells for dis and horns for dat! All we knowed was go and come by de bells and horns!"
For more accounts of the plantation world of the enslaved, combine these readings with those in Theme III: COMMUNITY, #1, The Slave Family, and #2: Plantation Community. (29 pages, including the photographs.)

Discussion questions
  1. What impressions do you get from viewing the plantation photographs? What is their cumulative effect?
  2. How does the absence of people hinder and enhance the portrait of a slave's life conveyed by the photographs?
  3. Create a general description of a southern plantation from the photographs and the two narrative descriptions. Be clear to specify how a plantation did, and did not, resemble an industrial factory in its hierarchical organization, division of labor, daily management, staffing, output, and relationship to the surrounding community.
  4. How did the self-contained environment of a plantation—its layout, buildings, isolation, and use of the land—influence the lives and self-image of the enslaved?
  5. What made a plantation "home?" What made a plantation "hell"? How did a slave reconcile "home" and "hell"?
  6. How might a slave's life have differed on a farm with less than ten slaves? How would you research this more common slave environment? (See Online Resources.)
  7. If Hughes and Williams had been able to compare their "home" plantations, what would they have emphasized? Why?
  8. Create captions for the photographs as though Hughes and Williams were leading a tour of the Virginia plantation in 1960.
  9. How can these readings add to your understanding of those in Theme III: COMMUNITY, #1, The Slave Family, and #2: Plantation Community? And vice versa.

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslavement in America affect Africans and their descendants?
  •  How did enslaved peoples maintain selfhood in the slave-master relationship?
  •  What aspects of slavery did freed men and women emphasize when relating their experiences?
  •  How did a person respond to being the slave of another?
  •  What impact did slavery have on white people?

Green Hill plantation: 15 (photograpahs)
McGee plantation: 10 (Hughes narrative)
Williams plantation:   4 (Williams narrataive)
TOTAL 29 pages
Supplemental Sites
Back of the Big House, online exhibition, Dr. John Michael Vlach, George Washington University

Living Conditions of enslaved people on plantations, primary texts and resources, in Slavery and the Making of America (WNET/PBS)

Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present, Library of Congress
 -To view the Green Hill plantation data, enter "Green Hill plantation" in the search line to access 18 sets of photographs and notes.
 -To view slave quarters on other plantations, enter "plantation, slave" in the search line to access 10-plus sets of photographs and notes.

African-American Archaeology, History, and Cultures, website listing including U.S. plantations, from the African Diaspora Archaeology Network

African American Life at Stratford Hall plantation, Virginia (birthplace of Robert E. Lee), by Jeanne Calhoun, Robert E. Lee Memorial Assn.

The African American Experience at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

African American residents of the Levi Jordan Plantation, Texas

Enslaved Laborers at Haile Homestead, Kanapaha Plantation, Florida

Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, including an interactive plantation map

Somerset Place, North Carolina, including photographs of archaeological escavations and re-creations of the slave quarters

Louis Hughes, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom, 1897, full text in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library)

Charley Williams, WPA narrative, 1936, full text, Library of Congress

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

1 John Michael Vlach, "The Plantation Landscape," in American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader, ed. Keith L. Eggener (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), p. 101.

2 Colin A. Palmer, Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America, Vol. I: 1619-1863 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2002), pp. 57-58, 60.

3 Correspondence with John Michael Vlach, Professor of American Studies and Anthropology, Director of Folklife Program, George Washington University, 30 October and 13 November 2007.

4 John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), p. xiii.

Image: Green Hill Plantation & Main House, State Route 728, Long Island vicinity, Campbell County, Virginia, 1960. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, detail of image HABS VA,16-LONI.V,1-1.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. An Enslaved Person's Life   2. Sale   3. Plantation   4. Driver
  5. Labor   6. Master/Slave   7. Resistance   8. Runaways

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © 2007 National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: March 2007