November-December 2009 | Features

Where Slavery Slept

A few dozen remaining slave quarters remind us of a dismal chapter in our county's past.

share this

For more than a century, the small stone building stood on the site of today’s National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, its weathered walls attesting to its early 19th-century origins. A photographer from the federal Historic American Buildings Survey captured its crumbling state in the 1940s—the chimney collapsed, a sagging center door flanked by a shuttered window, holes in the shingled roof of the story-and-a-half building admitting the rain and rotting the joists.

The nearby manor house of the estate on which the deteriorating structure once sat had long vanished. But the small stone building remained, a remembrance not only of Bethesda’s past, but of a troubling period in the county’s history: a period when slave quarters such as this were commonplace.

On the eve of the Civil War, more than 5,400 slaves resided in Montgomery County, accounting for more than one-third of all residents. Today, their quarters are often the only visible reminders of their existence. No one is certain how many slave dwellings have survived; the passage of time has obscured many buildings’ original use. But throughout the county, about two dozen documented slave quarters remain—out of the thousands that once dotted the landscape. All serve as reminders of the captive pain of an earlier generation and offer insight into lives often hidden from history.

By the 19th century, the quarters had become a symbol so firmly connected with slavery in all its horrible aspects that Harriet Beecher Stowe needed look no further for a connotative title for her incendiary novel. Sympathetic readers in 1852 well understood the implications of the “small log building close to ‘the house,’ ” the meaning behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

That novel had its genesis partially in slave life in the Bethesda area. Stowe recounted how in her work—subtitled Life Among the Lowly—the character of Uncle Tom was to some extent based on her reading of the 1849 autobiography of Josiah Henson, once a slave on the farm of Isaac Riley, not far from the current intersection of Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike. Henson described the slave housing on the Riley farm as “log huts, of a single small room, with no other floor than the trodden earth, in which ten or a dozen persons—men, women, and children—might sleep, but which could not protect them from dampness and cold.”

Those log huts no longer remain—although Riley’s house still stands at the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Tilden Lane. Now owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, it’s periodically open to the public. Attached to the unassuming, late 18th-century frame house is a wing constructed of logs that has familiarly become known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”—a mistaken appellation, perhaps, since it wasn’t actually Henson’s cabin, but used primarily as a kitchen. However, a passage in Henson’s memoir relates that, after escaping to Canada and later returning to the farm a freeman, he still spent the evening in “the cabin used for a kitchen, with its earth floor, its filth, and its numerous occupants.”

The arrangement was not uncommon. Domestic servants were often assigned sleeping areas within, above or adjacent to the service rooms of the main house—kitchens, sculleries, pantries and the like. At the Beall-Dawson house in Rockville, a substantial brick dwelling built around 1815 and today operated as a museum by the Montgomery County Historical Society, slaves lived in rooms above the kitchen wing, their quarters plain and unadorned, the plaster walls whitewashed but devoid of the finishes—mantles, chair rails and moldings found throughout the house. In addition to sleeping in these rooms, the domestic slaves carried out the daily chores of sewing, spinning, providing nursery care and whatever else was demanded. A narrow staircase led down to the kitchen below, and a slight flight of stairs went up to the second-floor bedroom in the main block, thus keeping the slaves out of sight but well connected to their expected duties of attending to the household.