"In the Neighborhood": Towards a Human Geography of US Slave Society

Penn State University
Published September 3, 2008

Anthony Kaye questions the monolithic category of "community."


For over thirty years, historians in the United States have written about slavery in terms broached by John Blassingame's path-breaking book The Slave Community (1972). Blassingame, George Rawick, Lawrence Levine, and many other contemporary scholars brought slave culture and society to the foreground of historical writing.1 Community, after all, was a key word in the new social history. For revisionist historians "community" signaled a broad attack on a consensus history.2 In scores of community studies, these scholars showed that working people were not the acquisitive individuals of consensus history but struggled for autonomy from the transformations of capitalism and its agents by establishing broad, durable solidarities among themselves.3

Historians of the slave community found a similar pattern. They documented, in brilliant detail, the extended black family, a distinctive African American vernacular culture, a spectrum of resistance from rebellion to running away, and a humming informal economy. Based on these accounts, scholars made two broad claims. First, a universal solidarity defined the slave community. George P. Rawick, who edited the WPA slave narratives upon which much of the new scholarship drew, wrote as if the Deep South were one vast slave community from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard. "[I]n the deep South, the area of the larger plantations, [runaways] could go from slave quarter to slave quarter and find shelter and food." Second, the slave community was autonomous. Slaves devised their own family structures, an African American culture, and methods of resistance free from owners' influence. For these scholars, what defined the slave community was autonomy and solidarity.4

Natchez District of Mississippi, circa 1840, Stephen D. Weaver, 2007.
Natchez District of Mississippi, circa 1840 (large version)

Attending to the human geography of slavery builds upon the slave community scholarship, and moves beyond it. Testimony in the pension files of former slaves who served in the Union Army reveals that slaves talked about their society not in terms of "community" but "neighborhood." In the Natchez District of Mississippi, neighborhood meant adjoining plantations because that was the arena of slaves' everyday routine. And if we consider slave society from this standpoint, what is most striking is not the monolithic character of the slave "community," but its plurality. Scholars such as Deborah Gray White, Brenda Stevenson, Michael Johnson, and Michael Gomez have pointed out how slave society was divided along lines of gender, between town and country, and African ethnicity.

The human geography of rural neighborhoods demarcated another faultline. Slave society was not a single community but an archipelago of many neighborhoods, each with its own history and solidarities and with complicated relationships to other neighborhoods. Moreover, slaves were compelled to share the neighborhood terrain with owners, who were inextricable fixtures here. So the categorical separation of autonomy vastly oversimplifies a complex human geography of slavery where slaves and owners were compelled to contend and collaborate with one another constantly on the overlapping, interlocked terrain of neighborhoods.

To examine how neighborhoods change our understanding of slave society, consider the ways this social terrain shaped one woman's life. Mary Ann Helam was born in Kentucky. Like thousands of other slaves during the 1830s, she was forced into the Second Middle Passage that sent over 750,000 slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South between 1830 and 1860.5 The traffic in human property continued after slaves arrived in their new locales. Recent work on the slave trade suggests that local sales vastly outnumbered inter-regional sales between the Upper and Deep South.6 Helam had one owner in Kentucky, and three owners in Mississippi. Slave trading continually brought new people in, shifted prior residents out, and put every neighborhood in a perpetual state of flux.

Kinship was the strongest tie binding slave neighborhoods. In Mississippi, Mary Ann Helam named her first-born daughter Chassy after her own mother back in Kentucky. Mary Ann and Chassy were sold together to a second owner in Mississippi. They were separated, however, when Mary Ann was sold to her third owner in Mississippi and Chassy was sold back to Kentucky. Mary Ann Helam was luckier than most newcomers to find even one familiar face in her new neighborhood. Rose Ballard, who also belonged to Helam's first owner in Mississippi, had arrived on the Brown place several years earlier. Now, Ballard could ease Helam's way into her new neighborhood.

The neighborhood, in turn, helped reconcile Helam to new family ties. In 1845 Helam's owner asked her to marry a man he had just bought, William Madison. She refused. Her owner would not take no for an answer. "I was told to marry this man by my master. I got 50 lashes on my back to make me marry him." And so she married, in a wedding at Belle Grove Church, "a colored peoples church," she noted. Helam and Madison stayed together over twenty years, until he died in the Union army in 1866. By her account, their neighbors helped turn this forced concubinage into an enduring marriage. Her friend Rose Ballard married the same day, and Helam and Madison named their son Sidney, after Rose's husband. The rest of the folks at Belle Grove that day, Helam noted, were slaves "in the neighborhood."

Slaves also made neighborhoods through struggle. Indeed, slaves struggled with owners over neighborhood space itself. Slaves constantly sought passage to adjoining places, and owners resorted to a host of instruments and agents — the whip, the ball and chain, slave patrols, overseers, packs of dogs, and passes — to control slaves' mobility and social space.

Yet slaveholders had to live with slave mobility. Enslaved teamsters carted cotton and provisions between plantation and town, usually without supervision, for days at a time. And planters knew not to provoke a contest of wills every time slaves sought to visit adjoining plantations. Slaves understood their owners' dilemma and capitalized on it, getting passes to travel in the neighborhood when they could, and traveling surreptitiously when they had to.

Slaves forged alliances along neighborhood lines. This geography of solidarity is starkly revealed in slaves' encounters with runaways. Fugitive slaves routinely lay out in their own neighborhood, where folks could be relied on for food and support. Food rations to slaves were hardly generous, so feeding runaways frequently required theft, which risked penalties ranging from a whipping to sale. Confrontations between slaves and runaways were often confrontations between neighbors and fugitive strangers. Indeed, plantation records, slaveholders' diaries, and newspapers are filled with instances of slaves capturing runaway strangers to protect themselves and their neighbors from the risks that went with harboring them. Capturing fugitive strangers drew neighborhood boundaries dramatically; runaways acknowledged these boundaries furtively, by avoiding contact with slaves outside their neighborhood whenever possible.

As a terrain of both solidarity and struggle, neighborhoods proved rough going for slave rebels seeking to muster sufficient forces across a wider geography. In the spring of 1861, as slaveholders in the Natchez District mobilized for war, slaves around Second Creek in Adams County plotted insurrection, building upon neighborhood solidarities, yet constrained by the limits of this social terrain.

Slave Neighborhoods along Second Creek, Stephen D. Weaver, 2007
Slave Neighborhoods along Second Creek
Plotters worked their neighborhood ties, especially kinship. From Brighton Plantation, the central locus of the conspiracy, Orange and Harvey, father and son, carried the planning to adjoining Waverly and Grove. Orange imagined the rebels making a circuit through his neighborhood, beginning at Brighton, then on to adjoining places, Waverly, Fair Oaks, Beau Pres, Forest, and back to Grove. These rebels made some progress in striking the necessary alliances between neighborhoods. And yet, if the conspiracy advanced along neighborhood lines, it also came undone here. Drawing slaves from other neighborhoods into the plot proved difficult.

Charles Davenport's testimony many years later in the WPA narratives offers a glimpse of what one recruiter ran up against at Aventine Plantation, on the other side of Second Creek. "One night a strange nigger come en he harangued de ole folks but dey wouldn't budge." When the sheriff rode up, the recruiter fled. He was captured and hanged the next day. On Aventine, like any unfamiliar neighborhood a rebel tried to enlist, the call to insurrection demanded slaves risk all on the word of a stranger and understandably left them unmoved. What ultimately ended the conspiracy was not divisions between slave neighborhoods but the inherent dangers of sharing this terrain with slaveholders. The risks of discovery caught up with the plotters when Brighton men were overheard by a white boy, who alerted planters to the conspiracy. A self-appointed "Vigilance Committee" crushed the revolt; at least twenty-seven slaves were hanged.

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If pension-record and archival testimony offers ample evidence of slaves creating neighborhoods through everyday social relations — contending with owners and other slaves, socializing, making crops and making families — human geography uncovers some of the complexities of place-making among slaves on the ground. Scholars of human geography are interested in understanding how people turn space into place and social space into places invested with meaning.

Storytelling, for instance, is a brilliantly productive mode of place-making.7 Creating and circulating stories became an important means of making neighborhoods, as the many narratives in the pension files, gathered decades after slavery, attest.

Human geography makes much of the permeability of boundaries and the fluidity of all social spaces. In the antebellum South, the centers and margins of slave neighborhoods constantly shifted, for example, as slaves threw new land into cultivation at owners' behest, turned wild places into cotton rows, laid bare hideaways for runaways and sacred places for clandestine worship, and compelled fugitives and Christians to find new sites for these and other forbidden activities. Neighborhood was an important space in slave society, but it did not delimit the boundaries of experience.

Human geographers offer historians different ways to think about agency.8 People turn spaces into places. Historians of slavery have written reams about the agency of slaves, invariably in terms of intent. To be sure, slaves made their neighborhoods, but not necessarily because they intended to make neighborhoods. Intention is not what agency is all about. People's actions, much of the time, effect society with unintended consequences. I never found evidence of one slave telling another she was going over to the next plantation to make a neighborhood. Slaves went over to the adjoining plantation to court, or work, or worship God, or to talk, "to go visiting," as they often put it.

Human geography offers a shifting conception of space that breaks down the tired dualism between agency and structure; a false opposition that represents another bequest of the liberal intellectual inheritance. The agency-structure dichotomy insists that the autonomous individual invariably confronts the institutions, conventions, and mores of society as obstacles to be avoided, evaded, or overcome. Yet many institutions obstruct as well as enable agents. Neighborhoods facilitated slaves' social life, by demarcating arenas for courting, religious fellowship, and social solidarity. But neighborhoods also constrained social life by prescribing activities to customary places, even if the boundaries were not impermeable.9

Human geography helps us move beyond the slave community with a range of concepts premised on the give-and-take between people's everyday practices, consciousness, and society. When we consider how deeply places are inscribed on people, how deeply people inscribe themselves on places, and how deeply people's sense of themselves is informed by their inscriptions upon place, the separation between the individual and society at the crux of the duality of agency and structure ceases to make much sense. So does the notion of slaves' autonomy from owners and from slavery itself. If we take seriously how people made and remade places, often with entirely different ends in mind, we can begin to understand in new ways what slavery was like on the ground, how slaves exercised and contended for power, as well as the complex and reflexive processes in which they fashioned themselves and their society as they made and remade their neighborhoods.

This essay is adapted from Anthony E. Kaye, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Thanks to Allen Tullos for his encouragement and editorial acumen.

About the Author

Anthony E. Kaye is an assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. He is currently working on a book for Hill and Wang about the Nat Turner revolt of 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia.
  • 1. John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) George Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972); Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  • 2. Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955).
  • 3. See, for example, Herbert G. Gutman, Work, Cutlure, and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-Class and Social History (New York: Knopf, 1976); Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976); Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).
  • 4. George Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup, 110. See also, for example, Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985); John M. Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
  • 5. Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 161-63.
  • 6. Steven Deyle,  Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 145, 157-73, 291-96, Appendix B.
  • 7. Nicholas J. Entrikin, The Betweenness of Place: Towards a Geography of Modernity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
  • 8. Formative works in the literature of human geography include Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991); David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, new ed. (1982; London: Verso, 1999); Doreen B. Massey, Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); Linda McDowell, Gender, Identity and Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Yi-fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977); Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
  • 9. Giddens, Constitution of Society.

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