Slave Housing

The accommodation provided for slaves usually consisted of wooden shacks with dirt floors. According to Jacob Stroyer they were built to house two families: "Some had partitions, while others had none. When there were no partitions each family would fit up its own part as it could; sometimes they got old boards and nailed them up, stuffing the cracks with rags; when they could not get boards they hung up old clothes."

A slave family outside their cabin.
A slave family outside their cabin.

Another slave, Josiah Henson wrote that "Wooden floors were an unknown luxury. In a single room were huddled, like cattle, ten or a dozen persons, men, women, and children. We had neither bedsteads, nor furniture of any description. Our beds were collections of straw and old rags, thrown down in the corners and boxed in with boards; a single blanket the only covering."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)

This mode of living is no doubt adopted for the express purpose of brutalizing the slaves as much as possible, and making the utmost difference between them and the white man. Slaves live in huts made of logs of wood covered with wood, the men and women sleeping indiscriminately together in the same room. But English people would be perfectly surprised to see the natural modesty and delicacy of the women thus huddled together; every possible effort being exerted, under such circumstances, to preserve appearances--an unchaste female slave being very rarely found.

(2) Olaudah Equiano, The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African (1789)

Their huts, which ought to be well covered, and the place dry where they take their little repose, are often open sheds, built in damp places; so that when the poor creatures return tired from the toils of the field, they contract many disorders, from being exposed to the damp air in this uncomfortable state, while they are heated, and their pores are open. This neglect certainly conspires with many others to cause a decrease in the births as well as in the lives of the grown negroes.

(3) Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson (1849)

We lodged in log huts, and on the bare ground. Wooden floors were an unknown luxury. In a single room were huddled, like cattle, ten or a dozen persons, men, women, and children. All ideas of refinement and decency were, of course, out of the question. We had neither bedsteads, nor furniture of any description. Our beds were collections of straw and old rags, thrown down in the corners and boxed in with boards; a single blanket the only covering. Our favourite way of sleeping, however, was on a plank, our heads raised on an old jacket and our feet toasting before the smouldering fire. The wind whistled and the rain and snow blew in through the cracks, and the damp earth soaked in the moisture till the floor was miry as a pig- sty. Such were our houses. In these wretched hovels were we penned at night, and fed by day; here were the children born and the sick - neglected.

(4) Jacob Stroyer, My Life in the South (1898)

Most of the cabins in the time of slavery were built so as to contain two families; some had partitions, while others had none. When there were no partitions each family would fit up its own part as it could; sometimes they got old boards and nailed them up, stuffing the cracks with rags; when they could not get boards they hung up old clothes. When the family increased the children all slept together, both boys and girls, until one got married; then a part of another cabin was assigned to that one, but the rest would have to remain with their mother and father, as in childhood, unless they could get with some of their relatives or friends who had small families, or unless they were sold; but of course the rules of modesty were held in some degrees by the slaves, while it could not be expected that they could entertain the highest degree of it, on account of their condition. A portion of the time the young men slept in the apartment known as the kitchen, and the young women slept in the room with their mother and father. The two families had to use one fireplace. One who was accustomed to the way in which the slaves lived in their cabins could tell as soon as they entered whether they were friendly or not, for when they did not agree the fires of the two families did not meet on the hearth, but there was a vacancy between them, that was a sign of disagreement.

(5) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket be considered such, and none but the men and women had these. This, however, is not considered a very great privation. They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day's work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day; and when this is done, old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed - the cold, damp floor - each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets; and here they sleep till they are summoned to the field by the driver's horn.

(6) Walter Hawkins, From Slavery to Bishopric (1891)

The system under which he laboured forbade consideration and gave little practical sympathy to a weary slave, and when it was time to rest, what had the slave to sleep upon? The sleeping apartments, if they could have been called such, had little regard for decency. Old and young, male and female, married and single, were glad to drop down like so many brute beasts upon the common clay floor, each covered with his or her own blanket, their only protection from cold and exposure. How much of rest had a slave? The night, however short, was cut off at both ends: slaves worked late and rose early. Then part of the night was spent in mending their scanty clothing for decency's sake, and in cooking their food for the morrow--in fact, they were whipped for over-sleep more than for drunkenness, a sin which the masters rarely reproved.

(7) Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857)

Our family consisted of my father and mother - whose names were Robert and Susan Steward - a sister, Mary, and myself. As was the usual custom, we lived in a small cabin, built of rough boards, with a floor of earth, and small openings in the sides of the cabin were substituted for windows. The chimney was built of sticks and mud; the door, of rough boards; and the whole was put together in the rudest possible manner. As to the furniture of this rude dwelling, it was procured by the slaves themselves, who were occasionally permitted to earn a little money after their day's toil was done.

(8) Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831)

My new master was one of the owners or holders of the salt ponds, and he received a certain sum for every slave that worked upon his premises, whether they were young or old. This sum was allowed him out of the profits arising from the salt works. I was immediately sent to work in the salt water with the rest of the slaves. This work was perfectly new to me. I was given a half barrel and a shovel, and had to stand up to my knees in the water, from four o'clock in the morning till nine, when we were given some Indian corn boiled in water, which we were obliged to swallow as fast as we could for fear the rain should come on and melt the salt. We were then called again to our tasks, and worked through the heat of the day; the sun flaming upon our heads like fire, and raising salt blisters in those parts which were not completely covered. Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone, afflicting the sufferers with great torment. We came home at twelve; ate our corn soup, called blawly, as fast as we could, and went back to our employment till dark at night. We then shovelled up the salt in large heaps, and went down to the sea, where we washed the pickle from our limbs, and cleaned the barrows and shovels from the salt. When we returned to the house, our master gave us each our allowance of raw Indian corn, which we pounded in a mortar and boiled in water for our suppers.

We slept in a long shed, divided into narrow slips, like the stalls used for cattle. Boards fixed upon stakes driven into the ground, without mat or covering, were our only beds. On Sundays, after we had washed the salt bags, and done other work required of us, we went into the bush and cut the long soft grass, of which we made trusses for our legs and feet to rest upon, for they were so full of the salt boils that we could get no rest lying upon the bare boards.