Broomsticks and Material Cultures of Cleanliness in American Slavery

African-American Women with Brooms of Bambusa (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

In 1901 preeminent Black Sociologist W.E.B. Du Dois published an essay entitled, “The Home of the Slave,” which detailed his findings about plantation landscapes, the architecture of slave cabins, and his reflections on the difficulties Black people faced in maintaining a domestic space under American slavery. He noted that the system’s brutalities were not only manifested through labor, but that an enslaved person’s denigration was woven into the plantation’s environment and its architecture. Essentially, “The Home of a Slave” was equated to familial destruction and personal demoralization. Du Bois’s essay was an innovative venture because it explored the material culture of slavery when few white scholars believed African American history was worth intellectual pursuit. However, he presumed that enslaved people were so dejected by their bondage that they developed a “lack of hygiene customs,” since Black families were often ruptured “and the traditions of the white environment never learned.” Like others of his time, he was especially critical of Black southerners’ perceived unhealthy behaviors, believing slavery produced a culture of degenerate habits.

In certain respects, Du Bois’s contemporary assertions are understandable. He used his scholarship to uncover how the legacies of enslavement contributed to the difficulties Black people still confronted into the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, he rarely granted enslaved people any agency and he did not acquire testimonials from people who experienced slavery. However, examining how former enslaved people spoke of the broomstick’s value in forming and maintaining a culture of cleanliness challenges such assumptions. It also reveals how enslaved people consciously upheld a sanitary domestic space.

Maintaining a clean environment provided order to a life often chaotic, and enslaved people used the surrounding materials to manufacture their brooms. Though enslavers usually provided tools for economic production, enslaved people were required to furnish their own utilities for personal use. Such sentiments are reflected in the narrative of Della Fountain, who recounted, “We had no brooms…so we made brush brooms to sweep our floors.” She believed that the object used by the enslaved was distinct from the standard broom of white people. Fountain’s broom was an earthy object that proved especially valuable for the needs of her community. Sometimes the narratives reference the use of “sage brooms,” which seemed to comprise a collection of “broom sage” straws found throughout the rural South. A member of the grass family, broom sage is the high golden grass that grows in abandoned pastures or unused fields, sometimes growing from four to five feet in height. It provided the perfect material for constructing a light and effective tool for sweeping dirt, pollen, and other allergen-inducing materials from one’s cabin without significant physical strain. Such brooms were also easy to store, as they could be placed underneath larger objects, like a bed, and not crowd the already tight living quarters.

The nomenclature for such objects depended upon the local dialect, as one respondent from Missouri claimed they swept their floors with “brooms made of weeds, which we called broom weeds.” Others simply called them “straw brooms.” The title given to these materials reflects an emphasis on the practical nature of naming and the use of specific vegetation for broomstick construction. Many former enslaved people used the term “broom corn” when referring to those made from sorghum, while others frequently referenced the use of “brush,” or “brush broom,” as the main material. Solomon Lambert, formerly enslaved in Arkansas, claimed on his plantation the brush broom served as the matrimonial object when enslaved couples “jumped the broom,” but the tools used to sweep the floor were made from “sage grass cured like hay.” He does not provide any distinctions in their aesthetics or construction, but does suggest that each version was used for different occasions.

Regarding their assembly, the broom straws were “tied together” in a form where the whisks were tightly bound together toward the top of the object, making a handle, and the bottom half was not constrained by the string, allowing the ends to loosen and expand outward. The straw was also cured before it was tied. Young people were often commissioned by their elders to gather the materials to make the brooms, and the process of assembling the tool was focused and methodical. Considering that enslaved people “raised everything” they “lived on,” gathering materials for broomsticks was a crucial aspect of plantation maintenance. Millie Evans remembered that she gathered broom sage for the community’s “winter brooms,” which reflects forethought in collecting larger amounts of storable items to last through colder months.  Storing sage for future curing guaranteed that if the current brooms were lost or damaged other materials were readily available for manufacturing.

The broom was used for various purposes both within and outside the slave cabin. Inside the home they were used on the cabin’s dirt floor. These floors usually comprised a form of wet earth that is firm enough to stand upon. The reason for installing dirt floors is not entirely clear, though it was likely simpler and cheaper than installing wood panels. One simply pours mud mixed with a thickener into the foundation of the home and allows it to expand over time. One respondent claimed dirt floors were the “style” upon his plantation, and enslaved people kept them “clean an’ white” with consistent sweeping. Though their cabins presented difficulties in matters of cleanliness, enslaved people persistently cleaned their cabins and garnered a sense of pride in their work.

The broom’s multifaceted use extended beyond the cabin’s interior and into the surrounding vegetation. Like Black populations in the Caribbean and West Africa, enslaved people in the US viewed the front yard “as an extension of the house, where most of the daily domestic activities outside of work occurred.” Formerly enslaved Tennessean Annie Young noted her job comprised doing dishes and sweeping the yard, specifically keeping the “yard clean wid weed brush brooms.” Though it might seem self-defeating to sweep outdoors one must consider the structure of the plantation. Beyond staple crops, plantations manufactured products garnered from animals who roamed within the confines of its fences, especially in the areas surrounding the slave quarters. Though Young provided little detail, she mentioned raising chickens, notoriously dirty animals, in addition to her immediate tasks. Sweeping chicken feces and the feed likely used to fatten them was an important aspect of maintaining a space that was not only visually pleasing, but necessary to curtail the diseases they harbored.

Though important for the immediate purpose of cleaning, the broomstick unveils a larger point about slaves’ social and cultural lives. It provides a reference point for understanding how enslaved people, despite being devoid of legal rights to property, independently constructed an object that allowed them to control certain areas of their environment. As Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg argue, the ability of enslaved women to claim “certain parts of the quarter yards” enabled them to continue a tradition extending back to West Africa. Despite a legal structure that curtailed their mobility and autonomy, broomstick manufacturers engaged in a creative production that allowed their community to maintain a sense of control over their environment, even if it was only for a few brief moments.

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Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.

Comments on “Broomsticks and Material Cultures of Cleanliness in American Slavery

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    Beautiful article. Thank you for taking the time to research this issue.

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    This is an excellent piece. Thank you for the education.

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