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Celebrating National Accomplishments
Spring 1997, vol. 2(1)

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*  Unwritten History of the Free African American Village of Springfield, Georgia

(photo) Archeologist excavating site in Springfield, Georgia.

"In the Southeast alone the number of recorded sites has gone from under 10,000 in 1970 to over 200,000 today [and] while modern field crews only rarely approach those of the New Deal era in size, the quantity and quality of the data far exceed that collected in earlier times."

David G. Anderson

by J.W. Joseph

"Those who are curious to know where Springfield stood, at the time of which I am speaking [1798], have only to take their position at the intersection of Broad and Marbury Streets, in the city of Augusta, and they will be in the very heart of old Springfield. Sixty steps West, and as many East of this position, will measure the whole length of this Jeffersonian Republican village, which never boasted more than four dwelling-houses; and Broad-street, measures its width, if we exclude kitchens and stables."

--Georgia Scenes, Characters, & Incidents &c. in the first half century of the Republic, by Augustus B. Longstreet

Georgia chronicler Augustus Longstreet, like many of his contemporaries, suffered from a social and historical form of deutronopia—quite literally, color-blindness. For at the time Longstreet wrote of, Springfield was more than four dwelling houses, kitchens, and stables. It was also the home to some 98 free African Americans, one of the larger communities of its kind in the Old South.

The history of southern free African Americans before the Civil War is unwritten largely because it was not written. Contemporary Southern historians, like Longstreet, were reluctant to acknowledge free African Americans, who by their very existence challenged the legal and social basis of Southern slavery. Legally prohibited from property ownership in Georgia and many other southern states and relegated to a life that was neither slave nor free, free African Americans left scant traces in the documentary record—few of the deeds, wills, inventories, tax accounts, census enumerations, diaries, and letters that historians use to reconstruct the past. In the historical record, they are, in many respects, invisible.

Historical archeologists, using traditional archeological techniques combined with oral and written history, can provide a rare glimpse of free African American life. And thanks to the preservation dictates of the federal archeology program, that is exactly what they have done for Springfield, which left its mark along the banks of the Savannah River.

In the early 1990s, the city of Augusta planned to build a conference center, hotel, and office complex along the Savannah river front, funded in part by a federal urban development grant. The grant brought the project under the jurisdiction of section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires that federally funded projects take into consideration their effect on significant historic resources. When an initial survey of the property revealed that it was once the location of the free African American community, then-state historic preservation officer Elizabeth Lyon required that the city fund an excavation prior to construction.1 The city contracted the study to the private firm of New South Associates.

Springfield appears to have come into existence following the Revolutionary War. The history of the Springfield Baptist Church, drawn largely from oral accounts, states that the congregation moved to the outskirts of Augusta in 1783.2 The end of the war was a critical juncture in the history of African Americans, with thousands gaining their freedom. Historian Phillip Morgan notes that in South Carolina alone nearly 25,000 African American slaves heeded the British call to abandon their plantations for the protection of the English Army. While many were re-settled in Novia Scotia, Sierra Leone, and other foreign locales after the war, others remained in the southern United States.3 Many found refuge in the cities, which provided economic opportunities not available in the countryside.

Southerners of the era were members of a class society in which manual labor was deemed inappropriate for whites. Free and enslaved African Americans thus provided much of the work force, particularly in the port cities of Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, and Augusta, where shipping and trade required a considerable expenditure of human energy.

The work of free African Americans was also highly valued because of their skills as craftsmen and craftswomen. In Charleston, where free African Americans accounted for 15 percent of the work force, they comprised 25 percent of the city's carpenters, 40 percent of its tailors, and 75 percent of its millwrights.4 An 1819 Registry of Free Persons of Color from Augusta indicates that 81 percent of the free African-American males were employed as either tradesmen or watermen. These categories included such jobs as carpenters, barbers, saddlers, blacksmiths, hostlers, boaters, boat pilots, and boat hands. Cities also provided work for free African American women as seamstresses, cooks, washers, weavers, and house servants.5 Indeed, statistics indicate that economic opportunities for free African Americans were greater in the South than in the North in the period before the Civil War.6

Despite the opportunities, life in the cities was not easy. Various state and local laws and regulations prohibited free African Americans from owning property, and in some instances from renting. As tensions between the North and South mounted and the "slave question" became more vocal, the limited freedoms of African Americans, enslaved and free, were further restricted. In Georgia, laws sought to curtail slave manumission, prohibited African Americans from preaching unless their moral character could be vouched for by three ordained white ministers, placed fines and penalties on interracial sexual encounters and relationships, prohibited African Americans from being employed by druggists (for fear they might use such employment to obtain poisonous drugs), placed a $100 tax on free African Americans entering the state, required free African Americans to be represented by a white guardian, and ultimately legislated that a free African American could be sold into slavery for such crimes as "wandering or strolling about, or leading an idle, immoral, or profligate life." Other laws sought to control social behavior, including prohibitions and penalties for the use of insolent language, for attending military parades, for keeping a light on in a dwelling after 10 p.m. (to avoid late night gatherings that might plot insurrections), and for the use of canes and pipes in public (such items were symbols of upper class white status; however, the law exempted blind or infirm African Americans who used canes).7

In light of this context, discovering the remains of a free African American house was an important find. The house, dating from the period 1820 to 1850, was recognized because of its rectangular pattern of post impressions surrounded by small pit features containing historic artifacts. The remains were found during the excavations along the Savannah, on land owned by white real estate speculators during the first half of the 1800s. The river banks, which were especially flood prone, would not be substantially developed until late in the century. Given the restrictions faced by the free African American community on owning or renting property in Augusta, it seems likely that the Springfield community may have been settled by squatters, knowing their occupation of such marginal land would not be opposed by the legal landowners.8 Indeed, the house shows evidence of several periods of rebuilding, probably in response to flood damage, as indicated by overlapping post impressions. Both square-cut posts and round, unhewn posts were used in the house, which suggests an expedient architecture whose temporary nature was recognized by its builders.

In size and construction, the structure reflects an African building technology. Measuring approximately 10 by 20 feet, it appears to have been centrally divided into two 10 by 10 foot rooms. These dimensions and arrangement are similar to the common house type of the Yoruba in West Africa. As folklorist John Vlach has documented, this form is the historic antecedent of the shotgun house, a type commonly found in African American communities in the urban South during the second half of the 19th century. Characteristics of the shotgun house include its rectangular shape, usually consisting of two to three rooms; the lack of a hallway and placement of doorways between rooms "in rhythm" (the folk history of this structure indicates that its name originated because a shotgun blast was supposed to be able to pass directly through the house via aligned internal doorways); and the ease with which shotgun houses could be expanded by adding additional rooms to the rear (or sometimes sides). This latter characteristic appears to be West African in origin—the Yoruba, for example, do not think of houses as individual structures, but rather recognize a two-room building unit that can be combined with other similar units to form what is referred to as an agboile, or literally "flock of houses." Within this tradition, houses are organic, meant to grow as needed to serve their occupants.9

The house at Springfield, which demonstrates the migration of building techniques and designs to the New World, lends support to Vlach's interpretation of the shotgun house as an American descendant of an African ancestor. The history of Springfield, as well as that of postbellum African American neighborhoods such as Village Creek in Birmingham, suggests that this linear, rectangular form was well suited to African American urban life, where access to land was restricted.10 Urban lots are normally rectangular, with their short side oriented to the street front. Use of a long rectangular house such as the shotgun allowed for more houses to be built on urban lots, while still providing a means to expand living space through the addition of rooms.

Another element of the Springfield house site indicative of its African heritage is the presence of numerous small pit features in the surrounding yard. Although these pits held varying amounts of household trash, they were clearly not dug for dumping because they yielded few artifacts. Kofi Agorsah has observed that the Nchumuru of West Africa excavate yard pits to gather dirt for earth floors, for potmaking, and for other uses, then backfill them with sweepings and trash.11 The presence of artifacts amidst layers of sand at the Springfield pits suggests a comparable behavior, although it is unknown whether the dirt removed was used for floors or for other purposes. In the South, pits are often found where enslaved African Americans lived, and their appearance at Springfield indicates a common behavior.

One of the most interesting artifacts recovered was a clay tobacco pipe. The pipe, made of white ball clay, was molded in the form of a human face and detailed in gold and black paint. The figure, clearly biblical in nature, features gold cross earrings and gold beads in a braided beard. In itself, the recovery of the pipe is important because smoking appears to have been a socially charged behavior that was regulated in many southern cities. An 1802 Augusta ordinance forbade free and enslaved African Americans from smoking either a cigar or pipe in public, noting that such "privileges" were reserved for whites. Historian James Haughton, citing a similar ordinance in Savannah during the 1850s, observes that "the mere act of smoking in public by a Negro might bring a penalty of two dollars, three dollars, eight lashes or thirty lashes."12

Smoking carried cultural meaning in both West Africa and in the Old South, and it is in the expression of this meaning that southerners and African Americans clashed. In many West African societies, smoking was a measure of social rank. Ethnologist Wilfrid Hambly notes that among the Dahomey "men of importance were followed each by an attendant who carried his tobacco-pipe." Pipes and tobacco were frequent grave goods in West Africa, and wealthy Ashanti were buried with gold-ornamented pipes. Archeologist Jerome Handler reports the recovery of a Ghanian pipe from a Barbados burial as one of the few African artifacts to make the trans-Atlantic passage.13

The recovery of the pipe indicates that city ordinances did not curtail smoking among African Americans in the cities. Indeed, possession of this exquisite implement can be considered an act of defiance by Augusta's African American community.

This pipe can also be seen to express the importance of Christianity to the community, as well as to signify potentially deeper meaning. The figure—identified from the manufacturer's catalog as a Ninivien, a citizen of the Old Testament city of Nineveh—strongly resembles an excavated statue depicted in Nineveh and Its Remains by biblical archeologist Austen Henry Layard, published in 1849. Layard's excavations at Nineveh and Nimerod in the 1840s, and the recovery at Nineveh of a library of clay tablets containing the Gilgamesh Epic—which portrayed both the seven days of creation and a great flood sent by God—were considered by many as proof of the historical validity of the bible. These archeological discoveries helped fuel the Evangelical movement of the 19th century. The recovery of the Ninivien pipe at Springfield suggests that southern African Americans may have been keenly aware of these archeological finds. In particular, the story of Nineveh as told in the Old Testament prophecy of Nahum is extremely poignant when seen in the light of the Old South:

These are the words of the LORD:
Now I will break his yoke from your necks
and snap the cords that bind you.
Image and idol will I hew down in the house of your God.
This is what the LORD has ordained for you:
never again will your offspring be scattered;
and I will grant your burial, fickle though you have been.
Has the punishment been so great?
Yes, but it has passed away and is gone.
I have afflicted you, but I will not afflict you again.

Nearly a century and a half ago, southern African Americans, free and enslaved, may have seen these archeological discoveries as proof of the bible's validity, and the story of Nineveh as the promise of a just future.

In building an African house, in smoking a Ninivien pipe, Springfield's residents reaffirmed traditional cultural practices and at the same time challenged the white southerner's perceptions of status. In doing so, they helped overturn the status quo. As Springfield, like Nineveh, emerges from the ground, federal archeology is helping to write an unwritten history and bring an important but ignored people of the past into the present.14

For more information, contact J.W. (Joe) Joseph, New South Associates, 6150 East Ponce de Leon Ave., Stone Mountain, GA 30083, (770) 498-4155, fax (770) 498-3809.


1. In concert with the lead federal agency responsible for a project, each state historic preservation officer is responsible for project review and consultation on the significance of cultural resources and the ways to mitigate adverse impacts to them. Georgia is blessed with one of the nation's strongest minority preservation programs, started by former SHPO Elizabeth Lyon and Deputy SHPO Carol Griffith, which continues a vigorous program of recognizing and preserving minority historic resources under the leadership of current SHPO Mark Edwards.

2. Betty Anderson, Springfield Baptist: Church History, published by the Springfield Baptist Church, Augusta. See also Edward J. Cashin, Old Springfield: Race and Religion in Augusta, Georgia, the Springfield Village Park Foundation, Augusta, 1995.

3. Phillip D. Morgan, "Black Society in the Lowcountry, 1760-1810," in Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, edited by Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, pages 83-142. University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1986.

4. David R. Goldfield, "Black Life in Old South Cities," in Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South, edited by D.C. Campbell, Jr., and Kym S. Rice, pp. 123-154, the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, and the University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1992.

5. Statistics from the 1819 Augusta Registry of Free Persons of Color are presented in the Springfield Report "And They Went Down Both Into the Water": Archaeological Data Recovery of the Riverfront Augusta Site (9Ril65) by J. W. Joseph, New South Associates, Stone Mountain, Georgia, 1993.

6. See the work of Leonard P. Curry, whose Index of Occupation Opportunity indicates that free African Americans had access to the greatest range of occupations in the cities of the lower South. The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow of a Dream, the University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981.

7. An excellent overview of the laws governing African Americans in Georgia is provided in an unpublished masters thesis by Dan Durrett, entitled "Free Blacks in Selected Georgia Cities, 1820-1860," Department of History, Atlanta University, 1973.

8. African Americans' use of marginal lands includes squatter occupations on lands that were not favored for other developments, and the use of lands whose legal status was unclear. The latter was also probably a factor in the settlement of Springfield, as the community was established on the lands of British loyalist Colonel James Greierson, a casualty of the Revolutionary War. For several years after the war, the status of Greierson's property was uncertain, as the state of Georgia moved to confiscate the land of loyalists. See also Joan Geismar, The Archaeology of Social Disintegration at Skunk Hollow, a Nineteenth-Century Rural Black Community, Academic Press, New York. Skunk Hollow was an African American community established on the border between New Jersey and New York where the legal status of the land was in limbo for many years because of a boundary dispute between the states.

9. Folklorist John Michael Vlach is highly regarded for his important work on African American architecture and the decorative arts. His works include: "Sources of the Shotgun House: African and Caribbean Antecedents to Afro-American Architecture," an unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Folklore, Indiana University, 1975; "The Shotgun House: An African Legacy," in Pioneer America 1976: The Afro-American Tradition in the Decorative Arts, Cleveland Museum of Arts, Cleveland, 1978; and Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery, the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1993.

10. Architectural and historical documentation of the Village Creek neighborhoods, conducted by Mary Beth Reed for the Mobile District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, showed that the shotgun form was favored in cities because it allowed more houses per lot. See Mary Beth Reed, "More Than What We Had": An Architectural and Historical Documentation of the Village Creek Project Neighborhoods, Birmingham, Alabama, New South Associates, Stone Mountain, Georgia, 1989.

11. Emmanuel Kofi Agorsah, "An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Settlement and Behavior Patterns of a West African Traditional Society: The Nchumuru of Banda-Wiae in Ghana," unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles.

12. Richard H. Haughton, "Law and Order in Savannah, 1850-1860," Georgia Historical Quarterly LVI(3-4). 1972.

13. Wilfrid D. Humbly, "Use of Tobacco in Africa," in Tobacco and Its Uses in Africa, Field Museum of Natural History, Leaflet 29, Chicago; Jerome S. Handler, "A Ghanian Pipe from a Slave Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies," West African Journal of Archaeology 11:93-99.

14. The community's flame continues to burn through the efforts of the Springfield Baptist Church, home of the nation's oldest active African American congregation and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I am particularly indebted to the help of Isaac Johnson, who heads Springfield's preservation efforts, for his support, insights, and encouragement.