Osnaburg Fabric: Garment for the Enslaved

It was the osnaburg nightshirt that failed to keep Moses Grandy’s enslaved brother warm when he died of exposure while trying to find a yoke of steers that had wandered into woods of the Great Dismal Swamp during the winter of 1795. That coarse, yet thin fabric had not been enough to keep the enslaved child warm- the elements of winter’s cold air and his steadily weakening body from the previous floggings committed on him by slaver Mr. Kemp assured that death would soon remove the lad from slavery’s grip.[1]

Osnaburg fabric was part of the imposed uniform for the enslaved. It was cheap, relatively durable, and unremarkable enough to fit the status of unfreedom deployed onto enslaved people. As each day dragged on usually working fourteen hours per day in warmer months, enslaved people donned the drab fabric, however on Sunday- an enslaved person’s one day of rest, they would transform the fabric into a Sabbath Day ensemble that they could be proud of. Enslaved people combined their talents at improvisation with precious little into an aesthetic of what middling classes and planter elites would find objectionable.

The forced migration of enslaved captives placed them in alien locales across the Americas where they had to conform to European garb from the very beginning. The articles of enslaved dress are often outlined in the descriptions of runaway slave ads in order to increase the livelihood that the enslaved person could be identified by their clothing- “a strong Oznabrig shirt” or “linsey-woolsey” dress were often worn as enslaved people attempted their flight to freedom.[2]

Osnaburg is part of a family of poor quality textiles- made from coarse inexpensive linen with the main object being durability; a sturdiness appropriate for the unending toil comprised from the forced agricultural, pastoral, and manual labor performed by enslaved people. While working enslaved women wore osnaburg dresses “reefed up” with a cord drawn tightly around the body, along the hips in order that their work would get done unencumbered from long dress hems. Booker T. Washington, a former enslaved person himself, recalled his experience wearing the fabric, describing osnaburg as feeling like “a hundred pin points in contact with the flesh” His older brother eased Booker’s discomfort by “breaking in” the shirt for some days before transferring the garment to him.[3]

 Because enslaved people were responsible for making their own clothing, they knew which root, tree bark, leaf and berry that made red, blue, green and other colors. It was this knowledge that allowed enslaved women to use the dyed cloth to enhance the drab appearance of osnaburg in order to have something nice to wear on Sundays to church.[4]

Travelers and commentators of the nineteenth century complained about the propensity of enslaved people to dress “above themselves” to engage in elaborate finery clearly inappropriate to their lowly station in life. Nevertheless osnaburg fabric exists still today as a cultural remnant and reminder of the fabric relegated to the class of people also known as chattel.



Grandy, Moses, “Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, “Late a Slave in the United States of America” .London: Gilpin, 1843


White, Shane and Graham, “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, Past and Present No. 148. Oxford, 1995

[1] Moses Grandy, Narrative in the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a Slave in the United States of America (London: C. Gilpin, 1843), 9

[2] Shane and Graham White, “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, Past and Present No. 148 (August 1995), 154.

[3] Ibid, 174

[4] It should be mentioned that church attendance was mandatory on many plantations during the antebellum era for enslaved people. Pastors were often Euroamerican and sermons were carefully constructed to dissuade enslaved people from insurgent activity-church was a method of control for enslaved people. In many locales enslaved people had a separate clandestine church meeting for themselves in the outlying woods of the plantation. In these gatherings enslaved people practiced their faith in a manner of their choosing.

Art Break: Elizabeth Catlett’s Art Legacy

“The granddaughter of former slaves, Catlett was raised in Washington, D.C. Her father died before she was born and her mother held several jobs to raise three children. Refused admission to Carnegie Institute of Technology because of her race, Catlett enrolled at Howard University, where her teachers included artist Loïs Mailou Jones and philosopher Alain Locke. She graduated with honors in 1935 and went on to earn the first the first M.F.A. in sculpture at the University of Iowa five years later.”

Read more here and here

(featured image is titled “I have Given the World My Songs”)


Art Break: Remembering Charles Dawson’s Graphic Artwork

“One of Chicago’s leading black artists and designers in the 1920s and ’30s, Charles Clarence Dawson is best known for his illustrated advertisements for beauty schools and products, such as Annie Malone’s Poro College and Valmor Products, which were targeted to the city’s burgeoning black population. Enterprising, self-assured and a tireless “Race Man,” Dawson made powerful contributions to the efforts of black artists in the city to achieve recognition.”–Daniel Schulman

Read more  here and here

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Notes on David Blackbourn’s “Conquest of Nature”

“The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany,” by David Blackbourn tells the story of how Germans transformed their landscape over the course  of 250 years.[1] The modification of the landscape included reclaiming marshes, draining wetlands, stream restoration, and dam construction. These hydrological projects, Blackbourn informs, changed the face of the land and embodied the ushering in of the modern Germany to come.

Blackbourn in writing about how landscape shaped modern Germany details a metanarrative of how Germany developed as a nation state.  He describes two views of  Germany’s modernity story in terms of internal improvements. Blackbourn writes:

“Call them the optimistic and pessimistic approaches, one an account cast in the heroic mode, the other a modern morality tale of just deserts. The first tells a straightforward story of progress. Growing human control over the natural world meant new land for colonization and more food to support a growing population…”[2]

Here Blackbourn introduces readers to the ways that Germany’s landscape modification efforts were interpreted through history. The pessimistic version is outlined in greater detail here:

The “conquest of water led to a decline in biodiversity and brought damaging invasive species…Hydrological projects also wiped out human communities, and with them valuable forms of knowledge: carefully calibrated ways of living with and from the water.[3]

The author notes that neither framing is sufficient for showing the complexity of the German conquest of nature…

Ultimately Blackbourn is concerned with “the long-term consequences and manipulating and mechanizing Germany water sources” and in so doing provides a more complete historical account of past.




[1] David Blackbourn, The conquest of nature water, landscape and the making of modern Germany(London: Pimlico, 2007). 2

[2] Ibid, 7

[3] Ibid, 11

Reconstructing the structure of cultural assertion: Kadesh AME Zion Church in Edenton, NC

In September 2003 when Hurricane Isabel ravaged the eastern NC coast and traveled inland to Edenton, NC it left insurmountable effects of damages in its wake. It was a tremendous loss for the two-hundred and ninety-one year old town as most of the local economy depended on historic tourism.  As the town began to rebound from the wreckage and piece their community back together, there was one historic structure that was very slow in regaining its previous eminence: Kadesh African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Gothic Revival building built in 1897 by Hannibal Badham, a former enslaved carpenter. The church suffered so much disrepair that the congregation had to move. Even in 2017, the church has yet to be restored to a habitable state. As a center of religious and social life for Edenton’s African American community during the turn of the century as well as the church’s contribution to the founding of Edenton Normal and Industrial College the architectural gem deserves a place in the historical record.[1] As a Gothic Revival Style structure it carries the architectural significance that beckons the eye- for this reason the idea of a digital reconstruction/rendering would capture the essence of the historic structure and highlight its beauty. It would also highlight the life and times of those who built it.

Of the many forms of conveying digital historical studies, the 3D Modelling form proves to be most useful in rendering a study on Kadesh. “Such an engaging view of [its] past [would] increase public interest” in the structure, inform the public of the social history surrounding it, and possibly could lead to a resurgence in restoring the structure.[2]  Additionally the adjacent Edenton Normal and Industrial College* could be rendered to bring this structure’s history to the forefront.

The interpretive scope of this project would include the social history of African Americans in the town of Edenton in the late nineteenth century, the town’s response to restoring the structure, the inclusion/exclusion of the structure’s history in the town’s tourism industry and biographical sketches of the Badham family. Such a focus encompasses watershed moments in race relations in the United States and would serve as a microhistory situated in coastal North Carolina.

AUTHORS NOTE: I drew the sketch below back in December 2015 when I was thinking about the ways that enslaved people’s descendants tried to create community in a still unforgiving landscape. Kadesh immediately came to mind.

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[1] Lauren Walser Hurricane-Battered Church Still in Need of Repairs PreservationNation Blog http://blog.preservationnation.org/2013/05/15/hurricane-battered-church-still-in-need-of-repairs/#.Vg2vIOxViko (accessed 9/26/2015).

*Edenton Normal and Industrial College was founded in 1895 as a school for the town’s African American population. It closed in 1925 and was demolished in 1940.

[2] Diane Favro Digital Immersive Reconstructions of Historical Environments Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol 71. No. 3 September 2012

Jazz Break: Vijay Iyer Trio

An historian is also a writer and given the rigors of the daily grind, personal commitments, and other distractions it can often be difficult to clear the mind to write. For me, I am most productive when I am in a cafe with music in my ear. It is not so simple however – it can’t be just any sort of music…it has to be good of course, but able to set an intellectual scene in my mind. So ballads won’t work, polyphonic rhythmic melodies also won’t work(lest I begin to dance in public and forego writing altogether)…Jazz often creates my intellectual scene. Vijay Iyer’s music is amazing.

Read more about Iyer’s music below:


Notes on Darwin’s Origin of Species


The nineteenth century was rife with cataclysmic changes in economics, technology, and science. An increasingly diversified market of goods and services, new inventions, and population shifts were just some aspects of the rapid innovation and progress made during the 1800’s. Additionally the ideological discourses thrived with print material that challenged, provoked and brought new insights into the public mind. No other publication shook the foundation of how people saw the world more than Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. This book collapsed the relative peace between religion and the sciences, threatened the Victorian social order, and made Darwin himself vulnerable to reproof from traditionalist practitioners in his field.  For this reason Darwin’s work can be quite radical during the Victorian period.

Charles Darwin writes, “changed habits produce an inherited effect…with animals the increased use or disuse of parts…has marked influence…Hence if man goes on selecting and thus augmenting…he will almost certainly modify unintentionally other parts of structure.”(Darwin 14) Here Darwin speaks to the variability of characteristics among living things domesticated and compares them with attributes of the same species in a “state of nature” (the wild). Darwin said, “I fear great evil from vast opposition on all subjects of classification. I must work out hypothesis and compare with results. If I acted otherwise my premises would be disputed.” Here Darwin gives his reasoning for his scientific approach with his extensive time spent gathering evidence and traveling the world to assure the validity of his results.

Correct as Darwin’s theories may have been, religious authorities during the nineteenth century would not readily accept Darwin’s theory of species change. Though Darwin’s use of descriptive examples draw from zoology, botany, morphology  this evidence supported how selective breeding affected species change; the church’s stance on the biblical origins of creation ran counter to Darwin’s evidence.  This would disturb the so-called “harmony” between sciences and the church. If God made all living things in seven days then Darwin’s theory would be considered heresy. In spite of such an implication, Darwin was committed to methodological practice.

“A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase.” (Darwin 63) Here Darwin’s theory of natural selection gives example to the chaotic state of the natural world. Darwin writes on that “In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing considerations always in mind-never to forget that every single organic being may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life’ that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or old, during each generation or at recurrent intervals. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little and the number of species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.” (Darwin 65) This explains to Darwin’s reader the state of struggle in which living things have to endure in order to survive. These things being clear and rational, unfortunately implied a subtext that would cause the Victorians to bristle. Such a naturalistic, chaotic world was anathematic to one that was controlled by the eyes of an all seeing God. Darwin did not mention a divine presence in this passage. It was wholly material the laws within the state of nature. It seemed a merciless world that was not dependent upon the powers of prayer- but dependent only on survival. Such a world could presumably translate to some readers that a Judeo-Christian ethos was inconsequential when the true powers of fate lay in the uncontrollable laws of nature.

When Darwin wrote of the importance of the “largeness of area” he gave his readers some hope of how a species could “endure” for a longer length of time. Again there is no mention of a divine presence that ensures the safety of a living thing- only certain conditions that have proved “favorable” to the organisms he has studied over time. To think of “largeness of area” in human terms, one thinks of the types of dwellings the poor would find themselves living. The influx of immigrants into Ellis Island during the nineteenth century forced them into crowded tenements because of their lack of resources. Additionally on plantations, the enslaved were placed into one room cabins where one or two families would reside. Applying Darwin’s thesis it is no wonder that many of them suffered disease, abject poverty and due to their social location, social death.

Ironically as time would progress Darwin’s ideas would reach an audience that could reason with his evidence and apply the variables found in a “state of nature” to human beings.

Social Darwinism would find a large following in the United States. This theory attempted to explain human progress and posited that “like animals, society evolved adapting to the environment. Herbert Spencer’s term “survival of the fittest” kept the strong and cast out the weak. Such a belief system would impact how some policy makers viewed government intervention with those rendered indigent. Reform would “disturb” the nature’s intended purpose: to obliterate the weak and leave the strong. Such a thought pattern would jibe well with the capitalist ideology of the nineteenth century and exemplifies how easily scientific evidence can be used politically in service to whatever hegemonic impulse served those in power.

For the Victorians, any aspect of knowledge that threatened the status quo was dangerous- Darwin’s evidence implicitly highlighted a natural world devoid of manners, form and ceremony. The state of nature was a dangerous place that relied purely on instinct. Since many of the rules of Victorian behavior were undergirded by a Judeo-Christian ethos, Darwin’s ideas were subversive. But in Darwin’s view it was truth as he had studied, researched and written about. Keepers of conservative tradition, Victorians, and the religious establishment would all oppose much of the content in The Origin of Species.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Croce, Paul. Nineteenth Century Science and Religion. Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History 1999