Q&A: Jobie Hill's "Saving Slave Houses" Project
As a graduate student in historic preservation in 2012, architect Jobie Hill began visiting and documenting dwellings built for enslaved people. She never stopped. Supporting herself with grants and consulting work for historic properties, including James Madison’s Montpelier (a National Trust Historic Site) and Monticello, Hill has traveled to 140 sites in six states, compiling her findings into a database. We recently spoke with her about this project, Saving Slave Houses, which includes educational, interpretive, and community outreach elements along with the database; learn more at savingslavehouses.org.
How did you get started on this project?
In the 1930s and ’40s, some research on slave houses was done as part of the WPA program, which included the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and the Federal Writer’s Project. I was a summer architect for HABS during and after grad school, and my master’s thesis matched the slave houses in HABS with the narratives in the Writer’s Project collection. The HABS architects and historians knew I was working on that, and some of them asked me, “How many have you seen?” I said, “One!” They took me out to see the ones they knew of in Virginia, around D.C. Once I saw these structures and documented them, I couldn’t stop. Seeing them in person and seeing inside of them takes it to a whole new level.
What motivates you in your research?
You can’t make a good argument for saving something if you don’t know how many are out there. I just started doing it. It was so fascinating to me, and I learned so much. The only way I was really going to learn and understand was by going out there and doing it.
What is your goal for the database?
The database currently only lives with me. I’m working on trying to find a permanent home for it, so I can make it publicly accessible. In my mind, it never really will be complete, because I want people to add to it. My goal is to get it established and set up, and [then have it] be a central repository for information.
What is it like to be in one of these spaces?
A lot of people think the work I do would be hard and depressing, but I don’t see slave houses as sad places. To me, slave houses represent strength, perseverance, resistance, accomplishment. Enslaved people survived things that very few people could survive and were able to create strong family bonds even though they were oppressed. It’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. That’s how I can go visit these structures day after day.