The need for plantation labor at St. Mary’s Manor was the primary reason Dr. Brome acquired slaves, and therefore occupied the majority of the time for the enslaved blacks who lived on the plantation. While most of his slaves labored in the fields, it is likely that Brome used  some of them for other chores and activities. Most of these activities were represented on the landscape, and can be grouped into two general areas: agricultural and domestic labor.

Agricultural Labor

The majority of Brome’s workforce was dedicated to the growing of agricultural crops and raising livestock. The plantation ran a diverse crop yield: in 1850 and 1860, it produced wheat, corn, oats, wool, potatoes, butter, and hay, and added tobacco in 1860. They also raised horses, cows, oxen, sheep, pigs, and other types of cattle. In 1850, wheat was the primary crop, resulting in 2,700 bushels. In 1860, wheat production rose to 3,500 bushels in addition to 40,000 pounds of Maryland tobacco. Brome’s increased labor force between 1850 and 1860 accounted for the extra labor that would be needed for tobacco.

Agricultural work constituted the majority of a field slave’s day, although it varied depending on what type of labor system Brome used. In most cases, slaves either worked in a gang or task labor system. The former meant that slaves would labor from sun-up to sundown. The latter meant that slaves were given specific tasks to complete during the day, and were given their own time once those tasks were completed. It is unclear which system Brome used, although most who participated in wheat and tobacco growing systems typically employed the gang labor system. Such arrangements meant that laborers had little free time during the day, instead working all day in the fields and barns. Typically, these systems allowed for Sundays off for most of the laborers.

These barns made up the agricultural complex at St. Mary’s Manor.

The barns were located close to the slave quarters, making them easy to access and ensuring the activity that took place in them could be easily observed by Brome: all of the living and working structures were located in close proximity to each other. Included in the complex of barns was a tobacco shed and a granary, as well as a work yard for carrying out agricultural tasks. Dendrochronology and historical documents suggest that these two barns were built in the 18th century, and had been used by the previous owners of the land. One, known as the Mackall Barn, still stands, and currently serves as an exhibit on the history of Maryland agriculture.

Agricultural labor was physically demanding, and likely took a severe toll on the health and well-being of the enslaved. Additionally, extended periods of time spent in the fields limited opportunities for laborers to spend social time with their families and community. Slaves often resisted their bondage by conducting their work slowly, conserving energy while also costing their owners money. This resistance had to be tempered, however: working too slow could result in serious punishment, via the whip or the slave trade.

Domestic Labor

A smaller portion of the Brome labor force would have worked as domestic servants. These individuals would have worked in and around the manor home, and likely been under the direction of Brome’s wife, Susannah. While these slaves experienced certain benefits, such as access to leftover food and clothing, they also operated in close proximity to the Brome family, meaning that their daily actions were more closely monitored.

Architectural evidence indicates that Brome organized his home into a public and private side: the east side of his home, therefore, consisted of the kitchen, outbuildings, and led to the barns and slave quarters. While domestic slaves certainly worked in the western portion of the home to serve food, clean, and tend to bedrooms, the eastern portion was where cooking, washing, and other activities took place. The kitchen, which occupied the furthest eastward side of the house, had an attic room above it where it is likely the cook and other house servants may have slept.

Archaeological evidence corresponds to this orientation of household activities surrounding the manor home. The far side of the house had very little in the way of artifact concentrations, suggesting that this portion of the yard was not used for household activities aside from entertaining and public visibility. The southeastern side of the home, however, had large concentrations of artifacts collected around the kitchen, meat house, and carriage house, including distinguishable trash pits. This suggests that these areas were highly active, and likely used by the servants in the tasks of laundry, trash disposal, and other household activities.

Identifying work spaces gives a glimpse into the lives of domestic slaves. In particular, it indicates the delicate balance of close proximity and separation slaves maintained within and around the manor home. In many ways, slave work spaces reflect relationships they likely had with their owners. Because they lived and worked within the manor home, enslaved workers were privy to the private lives of their owners, yet unable to actively participate within them. Instead, this proximity was used to gain valuable information about politics, to learn how to read or write, or to procure higher quality food or objects either as contraband or hand-me-downs.

This map shows the concentrations of bottle and table glass on the eastern side of the manor home, identifying the work spaces that were largely occupied by enslaved African Americans. Concentrations of ceramics largely coincide with these concentrations (map from Miller 1983).

1 Comment

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