Constructing freedom : African American housing in Hampton Roads, Virginia 1830-1910

Purvis, Laura Russell, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Nelson, Louis, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
McInnis, Maurie, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard Guy, Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, University of Virginia

In May 1898 Dr. Hollis Burke Frissell, the current Principle of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton Virginia, noted in his annual school report that "Nothing is more essential at this period in the history of the [African American] race than the development of the home." Indeed, the need for housing had become symbolic of the transition from slavery to freedom as the nineteenth-century came to a close. Thousands of freed men and women sought shelter and land in Hampton as the Civil War and its aftermath fundamentally reordered Virginia society. The African American population of the surrounding cities and counties, as far north as Richmond and as far south as the North Carolina border, poured into the Union controlled villages and military installations surrounding the famous port at Hampton Roads along the confluence of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. These enslaved people brought with them knowledge of building trades and construction, and the strength to adapt to an uncertain freedom. The center of this activity was initially at Fort Monroe, where masses of African Americans were granted their freedom and found housing in military barracks or makeshift structures. As the Civil War progressed, and neighboring Hampton village was abandoned by Confederate forces as a burned ruin, this newly free population moved outside the Fort's walls and constructed towns with any materials available. Much of the free Hampton population implemented this model of reuse and adaptation in rural settings as a result of regional forced relocation programs. However, Hampton remained a cultural center for the free population and the establishment of Hampton Institute in 1868 again drew African Americans from the surrounding region to programs focused on elementary education, vocational skills, and cultivation of domestic life. The constant movement and change that characterized Virginia through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and after, was expressed by former bondsmen and women through the homes they constructed.

Through slavery, war, and emancipation, nineteenth-century southern African Americans used buildings and property as a source of communal stability and individual identity. The challenge of locating or constructing shelter was among the most immediate concerns that consumed the first season of freedom for thousands of emancipated slaves. In slavery, African Americans had limited control over their living conditions, but usually constructed their own quarters under the watchful eye of a master or overseer. Emancipated men and women were challenged with the task of defining their own freedom, and scholars have extensively researched the harsh conditions and social changes experienced by the enslaved and free. African American housing has been discussed as a setting in which events took place; a setting to be acknowledged and valued rather than analyzed as a distinct and problematic aspect of slavery's legacy.

MA (Master of Arts)
African-American housing, Virginia 1830-1910, Hampton Roads

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-02-18 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:33:55.

All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: