Meet the Iowa Architect Documenting Every Slave House Still Standing

Jobie Hill has visited 700 former residences. Many have been abandoned. Some have become storage space. Others are B&Bs.

by Sabrina ImblerFebruary 26, 2020
Image: A slave house at Ivy Cliff in Bedford County, Virginia. This site was documented by the Virginia Slave House Project, which chronicles the architecture of slavery in the commonwealth. Virginia Slave Housing Project

The current residents of the historic Mount Zion home in Warren County, Virginia, were rifling through the attic of their garage when they found a yellowed fragment of paper. It was the corner of a larger document, soiled by mold, water, and time. But the snaking cursive writing on it was still legible. It was the bill of sale for an enslaved girl named Chalotte (more likely Charlotte, with the letter “r” long faded away).

An African-American family standing in front of former slave quarters at the Hermitage Plantation in Savannah, Georgia. Public Domain

The discovery of the bill in the garage was both extraordinary and unsurprising. Because long before the building was a garage, it was the home of enslaved African Americans.

In 2017, the residents shared Charlotte’s bill of sale and one other—denoting an unnamed man who was sold for $650—with Jobie Hill, a preservation architect from Iowa City. Hill had come to Mount Zion to do fieldwork for her project Saving Slave Houses, hoping to document the condition of the Mount Zion garage to see how much of the building’s history has been preserved.

Since 2012, Hill has surveyed hundreds of structures that she believes once served as a home to enslaved African Americans. More often than not, the buildings bear no visible trace of their past; many have been converted into garages, offices, or sometimes—unnervingly—bed-and-breakfasts. In some cases the structures have fallen into ruin or vanished entirely, leaving behind a depression in the ground.

Henry Robinson, who was formerly enslaved, was interviewed for the WPA Slave Narrative Collection, taken between 1937 and 1938. Library of Congress/Public Domain

Hill is determined to build a first-of-its-kind database that honors and preserves these spaces in more than memory, and to unite the houses with the stories of people who once inhabited them. As she sees it, such a repository is long overdue. “There has never been a national survey of slave houses, except for the one I’m trying to do,” Hill says.


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