How Southern Architecture Is Tied to Slavery
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

How Southern Architecture Is Tied to Slavery

This  is the second part of a conversation between Rev. Solomon Peck, an early abolitionist teacher and missionary to Beaufort, SC, and Miss Susan Walker, who came with another group called the Gideonites.

"All right.  I'm ready to believe anything now.  Why the two front rooms?"

"A gentleman's parlor and a lady's parlor, of course.  The lady's parlor is on the opposite side of the central hallway from the dining room, because the ladies depart from a dinner first, and they don't want the men traipsing through their room to get to their own sitting area.   The gentlemen linger over brandy and cigars, and then move to their own parlor, which is connected to the dining room. There they can tell ribald stories without  offending the gentler souls. The room behind the ladies' parlor, by the way, is usually used for the planter's office, or as a family sitting room."

"All that sounds most refined, but where's the kitchen? You know as well as I that in New England, the kitchen becomes the heart of a home."

"Of course it does.  That's the only warm spot much of the year.  Here, cold's not all that severe.  The bigger problem is fire. Southerners have a separate cook house, out in the slave quarters, which fill the back yard.  All food is cooked there and brought into the dining room, so there's no danger of dinner boiling over and burning the whole house down.  At most, in the really elegant houses, there may be a separate warming room, in the cellar, directly below the dining room.  Dishes can be kept warm there, and then brought up the back stairs to be served."

"But that arrangement means you would need a whole staff of servants to cook and deliver meals, and. . . . Oh!"

Again, Reverend Peck smiled at Susan.  "You just realized why this is a slave-based economy, didn't you?"

"Yes! I guess I did."

"The houses here were staffed by a separate group of hand-picked slaves -- the most intelligent, the most domesticated, the most obedient ones they could find.  The house slaves had to be absolutely trustworthy and devoted to their owner families, because they were entrusted with the upkeep of the homes while the families were out at the plantations.

"That scheme worked fairly well when life moved at its normal slow rate, and everyone knew when the master and his family would be in residence.  But when the planters and their families fled, when the Union Army marched in and told the slaves they were free, when the world was turned upside down, the scheme fell apart.  We are left with the framework of a slave society, but not the wherewithall to use it as it was meant to be used.

"Without slaves, how do you get by?"

"Well, in my case, I didn't need a great deal of cooking, because I didn't plan to entertain. But I had to hire an old black woman to cook for me, in exchange for her room in the old slave quarters.  And when I do have company -- as now -- she brings some of her relatives around to help."

"So you're really still using slave labor?"

"No. I'm paying ex-slaves to work as my employees.  There's a huge moral difference."

"All right.  Of course there is.  But I wonder.  Do they see it that way, or do they see you as the new Massa?"

"A good question, and one you will have to answer for yourself.  And make no mistake.  You fervent abolitionists will have to use the ex-slaves to work for you, too. The way this whole city was structured, you won't find any white workmen.  We employ the blacks because there's no other way to get work done. Most of the confusing elements  you see now in the city of Beaufort are the direct result of the war.  Not all damage is caused by guns.  Sometimes the worst damage is caused by the rending of the social fabric."