'Joining Places' explores slave neighborhoods in the old South

painting of African family walking with tools

Over the last 30 years, American historians have made substantial progress in revising our understanding of slavery. In his book, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South, Anthony Kaye reinterprets and builds on these advances to create a vivid portrait of antebellum slave life.

Kaye, an assistant professor of history at Penn State, uses the concept of neighborhood as his lens. Relying heavily on U.S. pension records, a vast and largely untapped reservoir of testimonies of ex-slaves, he explores the many ways in which slaves carved out and maintained their own social spaces. Neighborhoods, Kaye argues, were central to slaves' sense of place, and in turn, of identity. His main focus is the Natchez District of Mississippi, one of the wealthiest bastions of King Cotton, but he demonstrates that similar conditions were prevalent across the South.

Slave neighborhoods, Kaye shows, grew out of the day-to-day activities of work, courtship, socializing, worship, and resistance. Slaves literally made paths between neighboring plantations, broadening their horizons and creating opportunities. The bonds they formed coalesced into a social network, the orbit of slaves' lives.

The strongest of these bonds, not surprisingly, were intimate relationships. Kaye catalogues an entire spectrum of such relationships, from "sweethearting" to "taking up" to living together to marriage. Under constant threat of separation, families relied on the neighborhood to sanction and protect these unions, articulating norms and giving its blessing. "As neighbors fastened bonds between men and women, they clinched the most binding ties in the neighborhood," Kaye writes. To further strengthen these ties, slaves often drew slaveholders into recognizing and even participating in their weddings, "a tactic slaves used to good effect in other struggles as well."

Slave resistance, Kaye demonstrates, took many forms, from outright violence or escape to calibrated cooperation, and often occurred on a neighborhood scale. "Keeping neighborhoods intact often lay at the crux of slaves' well-documented knack for pitting drivers, overseers, and owners against one another," he writes.

Slave neighborhoods, Kaye concludes, were complex and dynamic, "ingenious creations" maintained in the face of constant hazard. "Men and women routinely were transferred and traded, their ties ruptured or forever broken, yet neighborhoods, with all the associations they encompassed, endured and prevailed."

Anthony Kaye, Ph.D., is assistant professor of history in the College of the Liberal Arts and a faculty affiliate of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, aek12@psu.edu. Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South was published by the University of North Carolina Press in September 2007.

Last Updated March 17, 2008