Museum Studies Chair Explores Slavery in the South through Architecture
by Liesbeth Powers, student newswriter
WACO, Texas (June 25, 2018) – A Baylor University museum studies and historic preservation scholar is interested in sharing more comprehensive stories about Texas’ past, including slavery, using architecture as his guide.
In a recent book, “Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America” (University of Virginia Press, 2017), Kenneth Hafertepe, Ph.D., museum studies chair and professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, authored a chapter on “Urban Sites of Slavery in Antebellum Texas,” which focuses on the architectural impact of slavery during the Antebellum period. Hafertepe gained an interest in the way enslaved people lived in the city after studying “vernacular” architecture – or the architecture of everyday life – and the contributions of different ethnic groups.
“I struggled finding much about the slaves who were doing the work in those houses,” Hafertepe said. “There were definitely slaves in Austin and Galveston and Houston and Waco, and the day-to-day experience of slaves was not well documented.”
In a time period with less documentation, people in political power or with wealth were more heavily documented and those who were poor or enslaved were not, Hafertepe said. His book chapter is aimed to get a fuller picture of a big house and the workings of growing cities in the South.
Hafertepe was shocked initially by one of the images included in the chapter, a watercolor painting by Friedrich Rothaas titled “George Allen’s Residence House, Houston Texas,” which depicts a well-dressed family in their backyard while a male slave flies a kite.
“It is an odd thing when you think about all the pain and suffering of slavery, to see this image of what seems like a carefree black person,” Hafertepe said. “When you look at that, you think, ‘There’s a message that is being sent by the person who is creating an image like this.’ You have to look at the evidence that you can find and integrate them. They may seem to say one thing on the surface, but what is it really saying underneath that? What were they wanting you to think about that?”
Another surprising notion to Hafertepe was the renting of slaves in urban settings. About 90 percent of the slave population worked on plantations in the South, Hafertepe said. The jobs of female slaves did not differ strongly from the rural to urban setting, but slaves with skills like carpentry or blacksmithing were rented in the short term or by contract for longer.
“It reminds us again of the injustice of slavery,” Hafertepe said. “Not only does the owner own the physical body of their slave, but they also own the work that they do every day.”
Plantation owners had very little personal interaction with slaves while urban slave owners would be in closer, long-term quarters with their slaves. This did help to humanize them, Hafertepe said, but did not make emancipation any more of a celebration for slave owners.
“Unfortunately there was still a tendency to want to keep the former slaves down,” Hafertepe said. “I think really it’s a testament to former slaves’ determination to create their own lives and their own communities after the war and to succeed on their own terms.”
Hafertepe believes that it is important to continue conversations about America’s history of slavery, especially in regard to the current controversy surrounding Confederate monuments. Some arguments claim they support heritage, but, Hafertepe said, monuments need to be discussed in terms of the actual lives that slaves lived during the Civil War era and beyond.
“Monuments of Robert E. Lee or other Confederate leaders are not objective historical statements. They’re actual later monuments that are celebrating them and celebrating what they did,” Hafertepe said. “It’s not just a question of heritage, it’s assuming that those statues were objective, when in fact they had a very particular view – that segregation was perfectly fine and that slavery was perfectly fine. Obviously, it’s still a live issue right now, and I think that it is important to wrestle with the tragedies and complexities of Texas history and American history.”
Hafertepe hopes to write a book on the material culture of Texas between 1836 and 1876, the 40 years between Texas’ independence from Mexico and the end of Reconstruction. There is a need for a more inclusive study of Texas buildings and other forms of material culture, Hafertepe said.
“If you look at most of the histories of Texas buildings and Texas homes of the 19th century, they tend to be about the nicest, biggest, most formal buildings, which tend to be the houses of the very wealthiest. It’s kind of lifestyles of the rich and famous,” Hafertepe said. “That gives you a skewed picture of what Texas was like at that time. It seems to me that there just has not been a book that really tells the story of all of Texas – that Texas is a whole bunch of different stories of people of different races, classes and genders.”
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