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Agricultural Buildings Project

Photographs by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. © 2016 Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


Extensive research on slavery has been conducted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation over the decades. Since 1980, the Architectural Research Department has been actively conducting architectural surveys and historical research of domestic slave buildings, making it the second largest collection of documented slave houses. The vast knowledge of the architectural historians and the immense level of detail put into the drawings and reports make the collection at Colonial Williamsburg (CW) unparalleled.

Fieldwork forms the core of research at CW. The architectural historians use houses they have studied in the field to develop a narrative about architectural change in the region. Their approach to fieldwork is different from that of their predecessors, in that they are interested in representative examples of poor work as an admirable expression of skillful craftsmanship. As evidence, they offer equal value. Fieldwork involves three overlapping efforts: recognizing changes, sorting out dates, and discovering variability that reveals human choice and ideology. All three focus on historic use and meaning. The objective is to read the physical evidence as a means of understanding past intentions and patterns of behavior. This approach is sometimes called building archaeology because it involves uncovering and recording layers of evidence. The Chesapeake House book, published in 2013, is a compilation of essays and illustrations documenting their research over the past thirty years (UNC Press: The Chesapeake House).

For three years in a row (2014, 2015 and 2016) I have been awarded the Fellowship in African and African American History and Culture from the National Endowment for the Humanities We the People Grant and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. I am currently working with the Architectural Historians to digitize the entire Agricultural Buildings Project collection so that the collection can be included in the Slave House Database. To date I had scanned 5,141 measured drawings, field notes, photographs and written reports. These scanned files are extremely valuable because the majority of them represent unpublished documents.

CW Website