This Iowa Architect Is Documenting Every Slave House Still Standing

Written by Ann Brown
Iowa architect Jobie Hill is documenting every slave house still standing in the U.S. She has visited 700 former residences. Photo: An African-American family standing in front of former slave quarters at the Hermitage Plantation in Savannah, Georgia. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Jobie Hill, an Iowa architect, is documenting every slave house that is still standing and she has visited more than 700 so far. These former slave houses have either been abandoned or re-purposed into a range of things from storage spaces to bed & breakfast inns

A preservation architect from Iowa City, Hill started her documentation in 2012. “There has never been a national survey of slave houses, except for the one I’m trying to do,” she told Atlas Obscura. Her survey is entitled “Saving Slave Houses.”

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“What Jobie is doing is great, and certainly necessary,” said Joe McGill, the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, which offers overnight stays in former slave cabins. “These are buildings history has long overlooked, because they do not make the white male a hero.”

Hill came up with the idea while researching her master’s thesis in preservation architecture during a summer internship at the Historic American Buildings Survey, a federal program established in 1933.

The purpose of “Saving Slave Houses” is to document the architectural features of historically significant U.S. buildings. “But it also recorded 485 slave houses that remained standing across the Antebellum South in the 1930s and ’40s,” Atlas Obscura reported.

“It’s the closest thing to a national survey of slave houses that we have,” Hill said.

Sometimes it’s hard to find slave houses. The structure of these buildings varies from one-room cabins to dormitory-style housing. 

Hill’s new mission is to visit every slave house identified on the Historic American Buildings Survey to see if it’s still standing, and if so, how it’s been preserved. “Most of the sites recorded are located on private property, so Hill always writes to the current property owner to explain why she wants to visit,” =Atlas Obscura reported. “People living in the homes that once belonged to slave owners often have an idea of what the smaller structures on their property were used for, but seldom know that some enslaved people lived where they worked.”

Hill has learned that several former slave homes are now bed-and-breakfasts, mainly along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Some of these B&B owners are transparent about their former use such as the Prospect Hill Plantation Inn in Louisa, Virginia. The inn has named its rooms after former enslaved occupants such as “Uncle Guy’s Loft,” with a rate of $165 to $215 a night. The description reads: “Originally the sleeping quarters for fifteen field-hands, this private upstairs room … is both cozy and quaint, while still feeling roomy and relaxed.”

Other B&Bs fail to reveal their origins, like the B&W Courtyards in New Orleans which describes itself as “old servants quarters.”

“I have mixed feelings about how the buildings are used,” Hill said. But she’s quick to point out that when a building is being used—however, it’s being used—it’s also being preserved. Vacant or abandoned buildings deteriorate over time—a surefire route to eventual demolition.

Since 2012, Hill has documented about 700 buildings at more than 140 sites in six states. In 2017, Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana digitized a new trove of slave narratives, representing 229 stories from 17 states, according to Atlas Obscura.