Where Slavery Slept
A few dozen remaining slave quarters remind us of a dismal chapter in our county's past.
Such arrangements, however, were reserved for the domestic servants of the wealthier Montgomery County residents. Most owners held fewer than 10 slaves, the majority of whom worked the fields; for them, the accommodations were decidedly more meager. Single male farmhands often were lodged above or adjacent to free-standing farm buildings—meat houses, barns and stables. At Needwood Mansion, an 1857 manor house situated near Redland and now housing Montgomery County Department of Parks, the second story of the estate’s stone icehouse was put to use as slave quarters. The upper room, accessible by an exterior staircase, measured 12 feet by 18 feet. The stone walls were coarsely plastered and a stove flue rose from one wall, about the only indications of human habitation.
Stand-alone quarters for families and groups of slaves often were found on the larger Montgomery plantations, sometimes in a village setting, with rows of identical buildings. A pattern was followed: The closer the quarters were to the main house, the more they resembled the master dwelling in finishes and materials. If the “Big House” was of brick or stone, so were the quarters, albeit scaled-down and constructed purely for aesthetic reasons, the owner not wanting unsightly buildings cluttering the view of the rear yard. The farther from the main house, however, the cruder the dwelling.
The Oakley Cabin on Brookeville Road, just west of the town of Brookeville, is now a museum operated by the Montgomery County Department of Parks. It was built in the 1820s as one of three slave dwellings that sat some 400 yards in front of the main house. Notched oak and chestnut logs, hewn square, the interstices daubed with clay and straw, were stacked atop a fieldstone foundation prised from the surrounding land. Inside the 21-by-15-foot cabin were three rooms, two down—the communal area with a wood floor and a hearth at one end—and a sleeping loft above reached by a boxed staircase. The arrangement, though scant, was decidedly more luxurious than the typical quarters for field hands.
Although wood was the primary building material—as it was for the majority of dwellings in the county—stone and brick quarters did exist. But, being generally more costly to build than log or wood frames, they were found primarily in the yards of the wealthier farmers. At historic Far View, near Brookeville, the stone quarters mirror the Oakley cabin in size and floor plan, with a centered door and flanking window on the northern bay nearest the chimney end matched by a door and window in the southern facade. The quarters offers few other indications of its slave inhabitants, having been converted by its private owners to use as a modern guest house.
Some slaves lived in long, multiunit quarters, often barracks-style, with up to a dozen men, women and children—related and not—living together in an open space that afforded no privacy. Others lived in dormitories, with the interiors partitioned into a common space and a series of small chambers. In 1848, a slave owner in the county advertised the sale of one such dormitory on his plantation near Brookeville, a quarter “25 by 15 feet, log, one and one half stories, divided into seven rooms, lathed and plastered above.”
At Riverview, an early 19th-century estate near Seneca, a large stone quarters, dormitory in style, was built on an L-plan next to the main house, forming an open-ended, U-shaped courtyard. The date “1835” is inscribed in the lintel of the main door. The longer leg of the quarters, about 16 by 30 feet, was believed to be the sleeping area; the shorter leg served as communal space. Other traces of the slave inhabitants were erased in the 1950s, when the building’s interior was substantially altered in its conversion as a youth hostel, offering overnight shelter to hikers and bikers along the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
Duplexes were also common arrangements for county slaves, with two units built together, connected by continuous exterior walls. At Mount Carmel, near Dickerson, just such a double quarters was built of local stone, 36 feet in length and divided into two separate living units, each with its own exterior entrance, both with one room down and a loft above. Stone fireplaces with brick stacks rise from the ends of the quarters; one is incised with the date “1833.” John Trundle, who owned the estate in the early 19th century, willed Mount Carmel to his daughter, Mary E. Gott, in 1836, shortly after the quarters were constructed. At the time of emancipation, Mary owned 10 slaves—seven of whom were members of a single family, the Halls, including the matriarch, Fanny, and her six children, all living together in the double quarters. Evidence of their occupation was obliterated when these quarters, too, were remodeled into a guest cottage.
Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.