One of the few places slaves in which had a reasonable amount of control were the areas within and surrounding the slave quarters. While they were under regular surveillance based on the plantation layout, the quarters were the spaces that families and communities were formed, children were raised, religion was practiced, gardens tended, traditions passed down, and food was cooked and shared.

In the Quarters

The plantation layout placed a number of quarters in a row spanning from the St. Mary’s River to behind the barns, shielding them from public view. It is likely that, as the number of slaves on the plantation grew, so did the amount of quarters. By 1864, there were at most nine quarters on the plantation. Among them was at least one duplex, although it is likely that there was more than one: this means that there were as many as 12 family-sized spaces.

The surviving duplex and excavated single quarter provide additional information about what the space within the quarter was like. The duplex quarter measured 17′ x 36′ 9″ and was divided by a double hearth chimney. Each side of the duplex has its own door and windows, and no passageway between them, designed to hold two separate families. The quarter was only one floor, with a loft for sleeping. The ground level that would have served multiple purposes. The building was a frame structure resting on brick foundations.

The single quarter has similar dimensions to the duplex, measuring 17′ x 15′ with a brick chimney on the north gabled end. It too stood one-and-a-half stories tall, with a loft. The building was built on brick and stone foundations, and appears from photographs to have been of log construction, not frame. It is possible that this quarter was made earlier then the duplex, as the quality of construction improved as Brome began investing more in the growth of his slave population. The chimneys are of particular interest, as the bricks appear to be reused from the 17th century St. Mary’s City chapel, the brick remains of which were likely pulled up by plows. Oral history interviews suggest that these bricks were regularly turned up in the fields throughout the 20th century. Reusing them would have increased the quality of the slave quarters significantly, while not being an extra cost for Brome.

One of the most interesting features in both quarters is the presence of brick-lined subfloor pits. Subfloor pits, also called root cellars, were common features in 18th century slave quarters, and were used as food cellars and storage for personal items. The pit in the duplex was excavated completely: further evaluation of the contents of the pit are ongoing.

Read about the excavations that were conducted at the single quarter.

The quarters themselves would have been crowded spaces. Assuming that they housed all of Brome’s slaves as well as those of his mother, Ann Ashcomb, 5 or 6 people would have lived in each quarter. Children would have slept in the lofts, making more room in the rest of the quarter for cooking, cleaning, and other chores. The quarters were one of the few spaces affording any sense of privacy. Illicit activities such as learning to read or practicing religion could occur in the quarters in private. Because of the cramped space, however, many daily activities were carried out in the yards and in-between spaces.

This photo shows the north gable end of the single quarter and its brick chimney.

An excavation photo showing the single quarter’s foundation, chimney base, and subfloor pit. The map below shows the outline of the subfloor pit in the duplex quarter.

The yard surrounding the Duplex and Single Quarter, shown here in the 1890s, were likely used to extend the household and community space beyond the interior of the quarters.

In the Yard

Historians and archaeologists have contributed to recent scholarship that suggests that slave quarter yards were the most active areas for African Americans. In many ways this built on cultural traditions; many African cultures conduct social and household activities outside of the home. In other instances, the purpose was practical. The inside of the quarter was too small and cramped to conduct many needed activities. Similarly, using the yard allows these activities to be carried out in communal fashion: cooking, washing dishes, or tending to the garden became activities that were shared among multiple households in external, in-between spaces. Identifying and marking yardspaces, which enslaved African Americans often did using the practice of sweeping their lawns, also gave them some semblance of ownership over space, by delineating areas that were distinctively “theirs.”

At St. Mary’s Manor, it is likely that similar activities took place. The arrangement of the duplex and single quarters, and the possibility of a long row of quarters, provided ample opportunity for inter-household lawn spaces to be used by members of the African American community. Preliminary archaeological analysis indicates that there was a layer of “crunchy” dirt that may be evidence of a swept yard. Further archaeological evidence should help to identify additional activity areas in both the back and front yards of these two structures.

2 Comments

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    […] shared in this exhibit. It had been home to African American families since the 1840s, when it was built as a slave cabin by Dr. John Mackall Brome, who owned and operated one of the largest plantations in Southern Maryland. Then, the home was not […]

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    July 15, 2015

    […] Read about life in the Slave Quarters at St. Mary’s Manor […]

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