Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies
The Racialized Politics of Home in Slavery and Freedom
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
to 5:00 PM
315 Humanities Building
In 1895 Margaret Murray Washington presented an affecting scene to readers of the Christian periodical Lend a Hand: “Look for a moment into a log cabin in Alabama. There is only one room, 12x10… In this hut live the father and mother, and in here their eight or ten children are born and reared and die.” A material remnant of slavery, the southern one-room cabin was at the center of the problem and solution to Jim Crow America. By focusing their efforts on homes like the Alabama cabin, black activists believed that there would “be fewer thrusts at the immorality of the race [and thus] there will be less lynchings of negro men and women.”(1) W. E. B. also argued that the problems afflicting black Americans were directly connected to their homes. “[T]he problem of the Negro's house,” Du Bois maintained in a 1901 Southern Workman article, “assumes considerable importance from its bearing on the other Negro problems.”(2) Debates transpiring in courtrooms and churches, in electoral politics and citizenship claims, related directly to black homes.
While most historians interpret the motivations of the black freedom struggle—including the acquisition of legal freedom and citizenship—as public and traditionally political issues, this project places black homes at the center of the narrative. Scholars often overlook how the rights of home—including privacy, freedom of movement, and the security of self and family in one’s dwelling—suffused the private and public politics of nineteenth-century Americans. Black women and men sought solutions to violent social injustices by drawing on a long tradition of resistance and activism that began before the opening of ballot boxes, government offices, and citizenship. They sought freedom and rights through the home.
This dissertation uses a wide range of material, visual, and textual sources to demonstrate how enslaved and free black Americans gave meaning to their lives, shaped their hopes, and sought individual and social change through their dwelling space, structure, and objects. Home was a concept, space, and structure that shaped the meaning and experience of slavery and liberty. Throughout the long nineteenth century, the black home functioned simultaneously as a symbol that could destroy or invigorate the racist social structure that undergirded slavery. In physical dwellings throughout the American South, black men and women fought to build privacy and security into their dwellings and lives, even as white southerners racialized these rights for white families only. Looking across the chasm of war and emancipation uncovers the crucial role of home to evolving notions of freedom in the tumultuous long nineteenth century. Revealing the connections between race, home, and liberty, this project reorients the narrative of the black freedom struggle towards the domestic spaces and objects that shaped the politics of nineteenth-century Americans.
(1) Margaret Murray Washington, “The New Negro Woman,” Lend a Hand 15, no. 4 (October 1, 1895), 257, 260.
(2) W. E. B. Du Bois, "The Problem of Housing the Negro; I. The Elements of the Problem,” Southern Workman 30, no. 7 (July 1901), 391.