In 1808, Nathaniel Russell moved his family to what remains known as the “Nathaniel Russell House” at 51 Meeting Street, Charleston, South Carolina. As a public declaration of his great fortune, he built the house at the cost of $80,000 when the average value of a home was $262. The house remains recognized as one of America’s most architecturally important Neoclassical houses. From the office on the first floor of the house, Russell conducted his merchant trade business while his wife and two daughters enjoyed the privacy of the oval dining room, brightly decorated drawing room, breezy withdrawing room, or commodious bedrooms. While the four Russells enjoyed free reign of the almost ten-thousand square foot mansion, eighteen bondpeople lived crammed in the second story of the brick dependency building.

 
Charlotte Helen Middleton and her enslaved nurse, Lydia, 1857. Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston.

Using the archaeological assemblages uncovered by the Historic Charleston Foundation’s 2018 excavation of the Nathaniel Russell House kitchen, I began researching in 2019 the lives and labor of the bondpeople who lived at the Nathaniel Russell house during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. This project was inspired by the enslaved nursemaid called Lydia who served as my launching point for understanding urban enslaved life in the antebellum American South. Lydia labored as a nursemaid to several generations of Russell family members, inherited as a piece of property by each generation whom she raised up and nurtured through childhood. Enslaved nursemaids are most visible in the historical record in what is known as the “nanny portrait” in which the intended subject is the white child sitting in the lap of the enslaved woman charged with their daily care (see fig. 1). alongside the material documents of Alicia Hopton Russell Middleton’s diary and other written documents, this research project will give not only an accurate understanding of Lydia’s everyday life and labor within the Russell household but will blow open the daily textures and experiences of the tens of thousands of other urban enslaved with whom she shared the cityscape.

This handprint on one of the bricks at University of South Carolina was very likely made by the bondperson who made the bricks and perhaps built the wall which still surrounds the campus. Photo credit: The Galliard Center

My manuscript project, tentatively titled Cosmopolitan Captivity: Enslavement in Urban Antebellum America, reconstructs the everyday textures of slavery in US cities during first half of 19th centuryThe American South hosts several economically and culturally significant cities, including our nation’s capital, and enslaved Blacks made up anywhere from ten to fifty percent of their population during the antebellum era. However, urban bondpeople’s significant role in shaping both regional and national economy and culture is regularly overlooked in the annals of slave experience. Cosmopolitan Captivity is a comprehensive study of urban bondpeople’s history and their historical significance, a necessary contribution in understanding and appreciating the diversity within of the institution of slavery. Demonstrating slavery in the cities was never a monolithic institution, this work is a comparative history that surveys antebellum bondage in four cities: Washington DC in the mid-Atlantic, Charleston in the “deep South,” New Orleans on the Gulf Coast, and Louisville on the Western border. 

 

Cosmopolitan Captivity is innovative both in its subject matter and its methodology. As with my first book, Provisioning Charleston: How Race Shaped Food and Eating in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2021), this project similarly challenges the limits posed by the traditional written archive. To do so, this work is interdisciplinary in methodology, drawing evidence from sensory history, material studies, archaeology, and spatial analysis. Thus, my research plans include not only visits to traditional archives specializing in the written record but also engaging with the city landscape including slave auction sites, historic house museums and their extant slave quarters, and suburban plantations. Archaeological studies and material evidence are largely neglected by historians but offer a wealth of information on bondpeople’s daily life. Material culture is often used to study the lives of enslavers— the elite caste of a society who employed grandiose homes, delicate furnishings, and supple fabrics to perform their supposed cultural and racial superiority. However, the ongoing gentrification of downtown centers, manifested in modernization projects and new construction, has resulted in a host of archaeological excavations at former sites of bondpeople’s labor and residence. The recent recovery of these thousands of fragments as documented in archaeological studies sheds new light onto the work and private lives of people enslaved in urban centers of the antebellum United States. With these new caches of evidence and my innovative interdisciplinary approach, it is possible to elevate and accentuate instead of marginalize and trivialize the history of the bondpeople who occupied these spaces. 

The two largest industries in 19th century Washington, DC were the federal government and the sale of enslaved persons.