Rebuilding a Former Slave’s House in the Smithsonian

Few Reconstruction-era residences from communities of former slaves are still standing today. The Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture will feature the reassembled structure of one.

The home Richard Jones built for himself in or around 1875 was two rooms wide and two stories tall. Jones was a former slave, and along with his brother, Erasmus, he founded the freedman settlement known as Jonesville, in Montgomery County, Maryland. As that log house passed from Jones’s descendants to an unrelated buyer and then his offspring, it accumulated additional rooms, wooden siding, and other modern trappings. As late as the 1970s [1], the house was occupied by descendants of early Jonesville residents and still stood at the historical center of the community, which had by then been subsumed by the town of Poolesville.

[1] (National Museum of African American History and Culture)
[2] + [3] (NMAAHC)

In 2008, the owners at the time decided to tear down the house to build a new one on the property. A local preservationist alerted the Smithsonian Institution, which quickly moved to acquire the original structure. Paul Gardullo, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture [2], which opens to the public in late September, says that the acquisition filled a historical gap for the museum, whose collection also includes artifacts from the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. The house is a remarkable physical representation of Reconstruction, one that shows both the modest conditions in which former slaves lived and the social aspirations of freedmen. “It’s a two-story home,” Gardullo says. “It was a real way for this family to make a statement of moving up in the world, quite literally.”

Named for three of the families that owned it, the Jones-Hall-Sims House—or the Freedom House, as museum staff call it—stands as one of the museum’s largest artifacts. It shares a cavernous hall [3] with a segregation-era railway car and a guard tower from Louisiana’s Angola prison, items so big that they had to be installed while the museum was still being constructed; they cannot be removed.

The Freedom House, on the other hand, had to be disassembled log by log before it could travel from Poolesville to the National Mall. First, the Smithsonian carefully demolished the additions to the home [4].

[4] (NMAAHC)

The work resembled an archaeological dig, as contractors stripped away whole walls and rooms to lay bare the deteriorating log skeleton inside. The workers then proceeded to carefully digitize drawings of each timber beam, mapping out the structure so it could later be rebuilt inside the museum [5].

[5] (Eli Meir Kaplan)

In reassembling the house, the Smithsonian has emphasized its original log walls and interior joists [6], stripping away the stone chinking between the logs and other elements that bolstered the integrity and insulation of the structure. The museum’s curators wanted to expose some of the underlying construction, rather than showing the house exactly as it would have appeared in the 19th century. “We’re trying to be as true to the object as possible while also conveying that the folks who built this home knew what they were doing,” Gardullo says. “It was equal to any vernacular building of the time.”

[6] (Eli Meir Kaplan)
[7] (NMAAHC)

Museum visitors will be able to enter the house, a rare opportunity: Few Reconstruction-era homes from communities of former slaves are still standing today. What visitors may not immediately see in the house is the uncertain promise that the period held for freedmen and their families [7], who banded together in places like Jonesville—which was once a plantation—to build for the future.

Although the log houses were modest, they were equal in design to homes built by white Americans after the war. “The home itself tells the story of African American know-how, engineering, and creativity,” Gardullo says. “It’s a tangible symbol of Reconstruction.”