Historians estimate that by the time of the Civil War, there were more than 46,000 agricultural plantations in the American South, each one worked by an enslaved population of at least 20 individuals. Yet slavery was not just a rural phenomenon. What are now called “urban plantations” were also prevalent in Southern cities before emancipation.
Perhaps the most notable and largest such plantation is the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston. Home to William Aiken Jr., the son of our town’s namesake, the residence itself was the main feature of a compound encompassing a whole city block. To the rear of the main house are two flanking dependencies with work stations on the first floor and slave quarters on the second.
This symmetrical arrangement of structures, what some historians now refer to as “the architecture of slavery,” highlighted an enforced hierarchy of power. The slave holder’s residence, the largest and most decorated building, dominates the urban compound; what is more, it is the only structure that looks out to the larger world, the only one with a public face. The work spaces and slave quarters to the side and back of the main house face inward as if to reinforce the fact that those who work and live therein must inhabit a world circumscribed by their masters.
On a recent visit to Wilmington, North Carolina, I visited yet another example of the urban plantation. Now operated as a house museum, the Bellamy Mansion was once the home of Dr. John Bellamy and his family. A physician by profession, Bellamy owned agricultural land outside the city, including extensive pine forests where enslaved people worked at his turpentine distillery. Before the Civil War, Bellamy was one of the wealthiest men in Wilmington, and he decided to build a town residence that befitted his status in the community.
Construction on his mansion and ancillary buildings began in 1859; it took two years before the family could move into the big house and relocate nine of their slaves to the two smaller buildings to the rear. True to architectural precedent, both of those buildings, featuring work space on the first floor and living space on the second, faced the main house; in fact, to the rear of both buildings was a brick wall separating Bellamy’s property from that of his neighbor. Those who lived and worked in both structures were thus offered no view of a life beyond that of service to the Bellamy family. Furthermore, the two brick buildings to the rear of the compound, one of which now serves as a visitors’ center and gift shop, are quite plain in comparison to the opulent exterior and interior of the mansion itself.
This is, I have always thought, one of the great ironies of antebellum architecture. Although most of the skilled work done on the great plantation houses of the South was accomplished by enslaved labor, those very workers lived most often in spaces far less commodious and adorned. Luckily for the purpose of historical accuracy, however, there are extant records regarding just how much of the construction of the Bellamy Mansion is owing to free black and enslaved artisans. Furthermore, Bellamy’s son John Jr. acknowledged in 1934 that in Wilmington “nearly all of the principal antebellum carpenters, masons, plasterers, and interior finishers” were African-American.
These artisans brought to life the architects’ vision of a four-story, 10,000-square-foot residence with classical and Italianate elements, crowned by a rectangular belvedere or observatory. On three sides, 25-foot Corinthian columns frame the two main floors; there is also a semi-subterranean basement and, on the fourth floor, attic chambers, including a play room.
Today’s visitor can tour almost every square inch of the house, admiring the stamped brass valances atop the windows as well as the elaborate wood- and plasterwork on the two main floors. Those with an interest in engineering will marvel at the indoor plumbing system and the extent to which the architects – there were two, both transplanted Northerners – promoted ventilation throughout the house.
The principal slave residence to the rear is also open to the public; the first floor features a five-seat privy, and the second floor contains three rooms, all of which probably accommodated eight of the nine slaves at this location – the carriage driver and butler would have lived above the stable.
Located on Market Street about five blocks up from the riverfront in Wilmington, the Bellamy Mansion is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Guided tours are given on the hour at a charge of $10 for adults and $4 for children from 4 to 12 years of age. For more information, visit the house museum at www.BellamyMansion.org or call 910-251-3700.
A recipient of the Governor’s Award in the Humanities, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. More information on the fascinating history of this region can be found in his books “Circling the Savannah” and “Hidden History of Aiken County.