FADING EVIDENCE: Last of the slave dwellings
By Joel Anderson
It is impossible to look at the walls of a house, however humble, and fail to imagine those who once lived there.
The fragile wooden shacks I've photographed for the past two years once were home to slaves in the United States. These walls offered the only privacy in the lives of the enslaved during the few hours they spent there each night, brackets to their days of labor and abuse.
Out of the tens of thousands of slave houses only a tiny minority remain. Almost all have disappeared leaving nothing but foundation stones behind. A few survived in the decades after slavery as homes for sharecroppers and other poverty level workers. Some have been repurposed as everything from rental units to guest houses despite cries of sacrilege and disrespect of their history. A handful have been rebuilt and reclaimed for use as educational tools. A scattered few are crumbling away in silence even now.
Small and plain, the slave dwellings were built in a similar style regardless of the location. The contrast is especially strong in locations where the grand plantation houses are within eyesight.
America has a troubled relationship with its past and as visible evidence the slave cabins cause discord today, with some opponents openly expressing their desire to see the past disintegrate and with it reminders of that time period.
I'm photographing with an 8x16" film camera and printing silver gelatin photographs in the darkroom. Some I am altering with bleach to visually communicate the sense of fading away of the structures.
There are slave dwellings throughout the country beyond the expected southern states. In this ongoing project I intend to seek out those slave structures that are on private lands and unrestored, and photograph them and their environment before they are gone.
I am inspired by Joseph McGill, a historian who has set a goal of sleeping in every existing slave dwelling in the country as a way to honor his ancestors and keep this history visible, and Jobie Hill, an academic whose work has focused on slave dwellings, both the location and preservation of the buildings, and their effect on those who lived in them.