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.

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.

Screenshot (823).png

[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