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We Have Made These Lands What They Are: The Architecture of Slavery




“This is our home. We have made these lands what they are,” declared a group of newly emancipated South Carolina blacks in 1865. Over and over again, writes historian John Michael Vlach, recently freed enslaved people “expressed a surprisingly intense connection to their former places of servitude.” Many wanted to return after emancipation.


Not only did slaves build the “big houses” of their owners brick by painstaking brick, clear their inhospitable lands and plant their fields into fertility, but they hammered together their own families’ humble quarters and buried their kin in their own crude graveyards marked by craggy, unidentified fieldstones. Understandably, after centuries of uncompensated toil, many felt the need to hold onto what little they believed was rightfully theirs.

I’ve spent the past two years documenting ante-bellum southern plantations and slave dwellings through text and image. As a journalist I am drawn to storytelling through words, and as a visual artist I respect the way an image can bring a text alive. As a filmmaker I’m refreshing the documentary form working instead with still imagery. And as an African-American, I aim in my process to explore the many significant links between my peoples' past and present.

Through extensive research in six states I’ve uncovered ledgers, diary entries, accounting logs, letters, slave auction records, transcribed WPA-era interviews and countless books to compile a continuous, though patchwork, narrative of the history of the American slave economy. By coupling words with impressionistic images I aim to give voice and life to the crude, quotidian realities behind the grand, sweeping staircases and Spanish Moss of sugar-coated tourist lore.

A variety of voices - slave-owners and slaves - come together chronologically here to form a solemn chorus to the dirge of American slavery. What results is a complexity of feeling and nuanced understanding of an institution that still defines us. Matters weren't so black and white, so to speak. One slaveowner felt true and deep love and compassion for her slaves. Another planned a church wedding for one of his enslaved. Former slaves wanted to return to their plantations after abolition. Many slaves felt love for their ladies of the house. Others wanted to kill them.


We begin in In Belle Grove, Virginia, where early 18th century financial records detail (in pound sterling) the building materials enslaved people used to finish the sweep of a staircase, or the maintenance of a barn. (VITRIOL)

Two South Carolina runaway slaves are the subject of a detailed 1761 manhunt plea issued by Middelton Plantation owner, Henry Middleton. (CARGO)

A group of between 200 and 500 enslaved men dressed as soldiers and heavily armed with cane knives and axes attempted a mass rebellion in 1811. Their fate was decided at Destrehan Plantation outside of New Orleans. (SPOT)

In 1832, in the Feliciana country of Louisiana, the female proprietor of Evergreen Plantation laments how much she loves her Negroes. (LOVE HIM)

1839 finds English actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble trying to navigate and document the cruel, inhumane conditions of slave life on a Georgia rice swamp where she is the improbable mistress of the operation, Butler Plantation. (DEW AND DAMP)

In 1847, the master of Middelton Plantation arranges for the marriage for one of his slaves to an enslaved woman from a neighboring plantation. (WIFE)

By war’s end in 1865, reports come in to Magnolia Plantation’s owners that their grand South Carolina house has been burned to the ground by its own negroes. (REMAIN)


These are a but handful of examples of the stories behind 18 fresh images that continue the series that I initiated with “Don’t Knock at the Door, Little Child,” which was on view at the Josee Bienvenu Gallery in Chelsea, New York in 2015. That series of six photographic prints with letterpress text is now in the collection of the Tennessee State Museum.


Keris Salmon
June 25, 2016
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We Have Made These Lands What They Are: The Architecture of Slavery
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