ed. by Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg. University of Virginia Press, July 2017. 186 p. ill. ISBN 9780813940052 (h/c), $32.50
Reviewed November 2017
Popular culture depictions of slavery in antebellum North America imply the practice was limited to plantations and rural areas. To date, only two comprehensive volumes have been written on the subject of urban slavery in North America that counter this popular narrative: Richard Wade’s Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860 and Claudia Dale Goldin’s Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820-1860: A Quantitative History. Edited by Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg, Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America picks up where these previous discussions of urban slavery left off, and is the first book devoted exclusively to the effects slavery had on urban architecture and landscapes.
As noted in the introduction of this volume, which doubles as a literature review, urban slavery is a topic that has been thoroughly under-studied by historians. This collection of essays presented by Ellis and Ginsburg covers wide ground both in geography and in subject matter. It draws an overarching narrative that urban slavery played an important role in the shaping of and transforming of North American urban landscapes.
A total of seven essays written by academics from a wide range of disciplines fill the book. John Michael Vlach’s essay “Urban Slave Housing in the North” looks at examples of slave quarters in New York and New Jersey, where a pattern of architectural exile of slaves existed. Indoor servants were quartered in the attics of large scale mansions, while slaves assigned to outdoor tasks lived in cabins or sheds on the mansion grounds. In his essay “Architecture of Urban Domestic Slavery in the Chesapeake and Jamaica: Comparative Evidence,” Edward A. Chappell discusses similarities and variations between the types of living quarters that housed slaves in the Chesapeake region of Virginia and those in Jamaica. In both urban Chesapeake and Jamaica slaves often shared living space with their owners, commonly sleeping in the basement or garret rooms of homes.
Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America will be of interest to readers of many subject areas, including Architecture, Urban Studies, History, African American studies, and Geography. The essays are well written, concise, and suitable for both graduate and undergraduate audiences. Illustrations and photographs are clear and accompany their corresponding work nicely. The book ends with a curated bibliography of works on antebellum slavery, architecture, urban design, and society, making it an excellent source for further reading. Given that it is the first volume to deal with urban slavery and its effects on urban architecture and landscapes, this is a highly recommended purchase for academic and architectural libraries and would be suitable for purchase by public libraries.