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Documenting Slave Structures and Tenant Cabins

Jason Church setting up laser scanner at Magnolia Plantation.

Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Services National Center for Preservation Technology and Planning. Today we join Catherine Cooper as she speaks with Jason Church, Chief of Technical Services at NCPTT. In this podcast they talk about his new project scanning and documenting slave and tenant cabins across the United States before this vernacular architectural form disappears.

Catherine Cooper: This is Catherine Cooper. I’m here with Jason Church, Chief of Technical Services at NCPTT. Jason, it sounds like you’ve got a very ambitious new project. Would you like to tell us about it?

Jason Church:Thanks for sitting down and talking with me today, Dr. Cooper. Yes, we have a very different project than what NCPTT has done in the past. Most of my work has been cemetery related or research and materials. And we started a documentation project. We started it this summer. We had two US ICMOS interns, Ina Sthapit and Sukrit Sen and myself, worked for 10 weeks here in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana along the Cane River, and we documented existing slave dwellings and tenant cabins. So we were able to document nine standing structures that, most of them, not all, but most of them were constructed and were used as slave cabins before the tenant farming systems started, and then they were occupied most of the time by the same families or descendants of the same families really until the late 1960s, is sort of this different labor field.

And for those who don’t know what tenant farming is, and that’s one of the big parts of this project, is to bring awareness to the tenant farming system that existed all through the South. Even the mid-Atlantic States. When the civil war ended and slavery was abolished, we still had to have this large labor force in America to drive the economics and the agriculture that we had. And Hollywood and common mythology would lead us to believe that everyone sort of happily shook hands at the end and the slaves were freed, and that’s really not what happened. Realistically, what happened was most of the slaves, not all, but most of them, had nowhere to go. They had no skillset other than what they had learned to do and sort of were stuck in the same area. People generally didn’t just walk down the road and go to a big city and start all over again.

Most people stayed right where they were at and plantation owners took advantage of this by saying, “Well, you can do your same job, you can live in your same house, and I’ll pay you now.” But the reality of that economics was, “I’ll pay you for the same labor that you did as a slave, but however, now you have to pay me rent for the house that you live in. You have to pay me for the clothes you’re wearing, you have to pay me for the food you’re buying.” And that sort of started a new type of slavery, of economic slavery. So these people a lot of times were stuck on the same plantation in that they agreed it was: you work the fields, and you get a percent of the share at the end of the year. And a lot of times, you never quite made it…

Slave cabin along the Cane River in Natchitoches.

As one gentleman, who grew up as a sharecropper farmer told me that every year, he heard the same thing: “You’re one bale short this year. If you’d just made one more bale, you would’ve made money and been out of debt.” But the reality is, it never happened for most people. So you were constantly in debt, so you had to stay and work the same field, the same job for generations. And you owed money because you had to pay rent, you had to buy food, you had to buy clothes and cloth, but you also had to buy the seeds and the fertilizer and rent the mule to harvest and work your part of the farm or your share of it. And all of that would be deducted from what you were going to earn at the end of the year. And the reality for most people, and this wasn’t just an African American thing, there were lots of white sharecroppers and tenant farmers as well. But the reality is for most, if you had an illiterate workforce, who’s to say that you ever really kept track of how much you spent and how much you earned.

So this system lasted from the end of the Civil War, really up through the 1960s and late sixties even. And really what ended that system of tenant farming was that mechanized machinery for harvesting and planting became cheap enough to replace the workers, which were close to free anyway. So now it was cheaper for the farmer not to support this large labor force. And you might have 50 or 100 people working a single farm, you could go down to maybe three or four people and mechanized equipment. So the reality of that is in the late sixties and early seventies when everyone was essentially evicted, you got a mass migration a lot of times to cities, a lot of youth went into military at that point, Vietnam was happening. So it was an easy economic driver to leave. What happened then was if you don’t have this labor force, you don’t need the houses that they occupied. So a lot of tenant farmers and slave cabins were torn down in the sixties and seventies. And after that we’ve lost the majority of them, so a lot of them were purposely tore down then. But the reality is most have been demolition by neglect since then. So, we have very few of them left.

So we decided at NCPTT that this was a national needs sort of, we were losing this whole vernacular architecture style and this whole way of life is disappearing with these buildings. So we wanted to try to document what we can, what’s still standing, not only to preserve the architecture, which is what we do, but also preserve the memory of not only the enslaved but of the tenant farmers that work these fields and lived in these houses. So the project started when I moved to Natchitoches. I saw all these, I had no idea, just these very cute little vernacular structures that dotted the landscape going down Cane River.

Capturing an oral history with former sharecropper Elvin Shields.

And I noticed every year there were less and less of them. And I actually didn’t even know what they were. And I was fortunate enough to run into a gentleman Elvin Shields, who is a historian here a Natchitoches who explained he himself grew up at Oakland Plantation and was a tenant farmer until he went off to Vietnam. And he sort of explained the story to me and brought my awareness to not only the structures but that way of life. And Mr. Shields estimated that there were around 800 of these houses just along the Cane River, what we call Downriver, so in that area. And right now there’s about two dozen left. With more and half of those being owned by the National Park Service. So we know those are protected. Park service owns them, they’re maintaining them, they’re preserving them. So we’re very worried about the other ones. So we started this project to sort of document them while we could and for the documentation for right now what we’re doing is using a FARO laser scanner to do 3D models of the interior and exterior of the houses.

And it really is a race against time. One of the houses that we scan… And unfortunately we didn’t get a very good scan because it was so overgrown. We scanned it on a Tuesday, we were told on Thursday it collapsed. And when it went, it didn’t just quietly fell over. As it leaned enough, the wall exploded. We had wood 20 feet out into the yard splintered. So these things, when they go, they go. And we were able to capture that in a 3D scan. It would’ve been nice to have gotten a better capture. We were not able to capture the inside of it because it was just too unstable. And it was really heart wrenching when it went, when the walls came down to find out it was furnished. And to me it was really heart wrenching to see that kitchen table, this really rough hewn board table sitting in the kitchen… Just how many people ate at that? And how many stories, and… I could just picture people sitting around and enjoying life and talking and telling each other about their day and all of that is now gone.

That’s really why we’re trying to capture them as we can. We accomplish that. All the scans are on YouTube, on NCPTT’s YouTube page and our website, we were able to capture nine of the structures last summer. That’s sort of the beginning of it, is to capture those and mostly to be able to start telling the story of the tenant farmers through their architecture.

Catherine Cooper: So you said that this was the start of the project, what’s next for it?

Jason Church: So we really started the project to A: We had just gotten a laser scanner, we’d never used it for anything. That was our first project, and part of it was these are very simplistic, very small structures. So it was a perfect case study in simplicity for a laser scan. But we wanted to make sure that we could learn to use the equipment and accomplish something in our backyard that would make a difference. Once we had sort of gotten it down pat, we knew what we were doing. We want more, more, more.

Interior of cabin at Oakland Plantation.

We want more slave cabins, more tenant houses. We want to travel all over Louisiana, all over the South, the mid Atlantic. So right now what we’re looking for is literally, who has structures that are still standing? The more original, the better. Unoccupied is perfect, that way we can do the inside and outside. We have been contacted by other National Park units. We will be going in the fall to scan other National Park sites that have slave cabins. There are a couple of SHiPO agencies that have contacted us with slave cabins that we’re going to document. And that’ll be great, and I’m excited to capture ones that are Park Service and state owned, but those are also protected and they’re not going anywhere. The Park Services is not going to let any of their structures fall down and state agencies aren’t either. So one of the things we would really like to find are private homes. Ones that are owned by people who will give us permission to come and document them. And if they have the history behind them, even better.

So really what we’re looking for now is wanting people to contact us. We’re going to set up a website where people can email us and say, “Hey, we’ve got this structure we’d love for you to come,” to really anything. If your house museum has one, we’d love to know about it. If you are a private individual that still has them on their property, we would love to hear about it. We’re happy to cut away the brush, long as they stable enough for us to be able to set the laser inside it. We’re good. We did a lot of work with machetes and clippers this summer to sort of prepare the sites for scanning. We’re more than happy to do that, but just trying to find any and all of them. We’re really going to start scanning again in the fall. So basically what we’re doing right now is lining up permission and sites, trying to find ones in sort of clusters and areas that we could travel to.

Yeah, we’ve got some lined up in Florida right now, in Tennessee… Basically that’s what we’re doing right now is looking for more structures. And we’ve had a lot of people interested, Joseph McGill with the Slave Dwelling Project and I have talked, and one of the goals that we hope for the future is to partner with him as he goes around and does his amazing work. He sleeps and camps out in slave cabins. We’d like to travel with him and document those cabins. Just trying to get more and more to be able to start building a more holistic view of what the architecture was like and what the life was like of the tenant and slave communities. So not just here in our small community in that condition, but be able to expand through the U.S.

Catherine Cooper: How far flung do you see this project becoming?

Jason Church
: Ideally, what we would like to do, sort of as part of phase two, is to be able to start a database that will list the location and of course the documentation of each of the structures. And not only that, but once the database is available to the public, we would love to crowd source it and find people, if you have historic photographs of tenant cabins or slave cabins and you know where those were taken, we could then enter those in the database as another way to document structures that are lost. So we don’t have to only document the structures that are still standing. It would be nice eventually to start being able to crowdsource that, and hear from people, and start the document ones that are already gone. And not only the buildings themselves, which is initially what drove us into this, but we’re really right now looking to collect more histories.

Now, I know realistically we’re late, and this would have been awesome 30 years ago. So really what we’re finding now are the children of tenant farmers. It would be awesome to still find tenant farmers who were still actively farming. Most of the people we found were young, maybe teens or preteens when their family quit tenant farming. And their stories are very valuable and amazing, we’re trying to document those. But yeah, definitely oral history is to go along with the structures cause that’s only half the story. I mean, the building is great, and as a preservation organization that’s what we do, but the social history is absolutely as important. So hearing from people, hearing their story, what it was like living there, what it was like living in that time period, in that community, growing up as a tenant farmer, is very important. So we’re looking right now for people who want to talk to us and tell us their story.

If we can line up people, we’ll physically do interviews as we travel, otherwise people can call us. We’ll talk to them that way. But trying to sort of piece that together into a database that we can do more of the YouTube videos like we’ve been doing, where we can talk about the social aspect in conjunction with the documentation of the building, historic photographs, any of that. We want it. We want to be able to really have a more holistic approach to what these structures look like, who lived in them, how they’re used, what the farming was like, really what everyday aspect of it was like. And eventually… So we’re doing the 3D modeling of the houses, we’d like to move into also doing blueprints and measured drawings from those 3D scans as sort of another way to preserve the structures.

Catherine Cooper: You mentioned that you are hoping to have a website up for people to be able to reach out and submit things. Before that becomes live, how can people reach you if they have photographs, or stories, or cabins, or houses that they’d like to bring to your attention?

Historic photo of tenant cabin along the Cane River.

Jason Church: That’s a great question. We have been posting things on our Facebook page here at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, people could comment on those posts. To go on our Facebook page and look and see some of the posts, there’ll be a post about this podcast, they shouldn’t post that we have made from some of the videos, you can comment on that, or you can email me directly, which is We’re just happy to talk to people about the project. It’s something that we feel passionately about. We want to talk to people about it to try to capture more and more before they’re gone. Because were literally losing them every day.

And the thing I run up against the most is, I’ll talk to people who are really interested in it and they’ll go, “Oh this is a great idea.” And they’ll tell me where the cabin’s at and we’ll get there and we’ll find what was the cabin. I’d say half of the ones that we investigated were no longer standing. And I don’t mean it was leaning, we found a pile of lumber that we could tell it was a house, or maybe one wall is still standing. The floor’s there and the walls are laying out in the field. That’s what we’re finding more than actual standing cabins. So a lot of people have told us, “Oh I was just there. You can go document it.” And then you start discussing it with them, they go, “Well, I guess it was a few years ago that checked on it.” And the cabin’s gone.

And a lot of people I’ve talked to have said, “Well, if you had talked to me two years ago, we had half a dozen, but now we tore them all down.” So we’re realizing there’s fewer than we thought, which just speeds us up even more.

Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much for talking with us today about the project and where you’re hoping to go. I hope people reach out.

Jason Church: Definitely, and go check out our website,, and look up tenant cabin, or just tenant, and the post will come up and go check them out. Check out our videos on YouTube, check out our Facebook page, and by all means, if you have resources, contact us. We’d love to hear from you.

Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast, show notes at Until next time, goodbye everybody.

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