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Review: Erskine Clarke's "Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic"

Updated on December 28, 2016
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic

In a narrative of the parallel lives of the Lizzie Jones family and the Charles Colcock Jones family, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (hereafter referred to as Dwelling Place), Erskine Clarke details the parallel histories of blacks and whites at Liberty Hall to define the complexity of the relationship between masters and slaves. Clarke contrasts the white Jones family’s oppressive behavior with the enslaved Jones family’s struggles through the oppressive deprivation of the socially constructed and race-based hierarchies of the slave system. Through Clarke’s depiction of both the enslaved and the masters’ perceptions of events, the author attempts to instill a sense of the intricacy of the slave system in the six decades preceding abolition, and beyond into the years immediately following emancipation. Both brought to America as “pawns of the slave trade” and born in a land that denied them recognition of citizenship, the enslaved Jones family lives in close proximity to their white Jones neighbors, yet as shown through Clarke’s depiction, in a completely different world.[1]

Clarke resourcefully bases her narrative of the lives of the interdependent Jones families upon primary source documentation, such as the Jones family papers and correspondence (510-576), epitaphs on family graves (277,464), the writings of Charles Colcock Jones such as “A Catechism for Colored Persons”(132), records of slave auctions (16), auction advertisements (13), and church records (8), as well as hundreds of other documents of the Charles Colcock Jones collection of the Tulane University Manuscript Department. Clarke’s chronological narrative of the lives of a complex ancestral line of two separate families is heavily based on primary source evidence, and her accompaniment of excerpts of the documents spanning multiple generations of the Jones family upon which she bases her account with visual material such as photos of the people and places Clarke discusses contribute to the readers’ (whether historian or non-historian) interpretation of the Jones families’ histories.

Clarke illustrates the interdependence of the Jones families through such examples as Jupiter’s service to the Jones family as a slave driver to maintain the profitability and manageability of the Jones Family plantation, Liberty Hall, through his implementation of the task system.[2] In an exploration of the irony of the plantation’s name “Liberty Hall,”[3] Clarke examines Jones family practices such as mortgaging off slaves to settle debts as if the people being mortgaged were property, the antithesis of liberty. As shown through the writings of Charles, he believed the mortgaging of slaves to simply be a “change of investment.”[4]

Heavily focused on the religious undertones of life in the Jones family between 1805 and 1869, specifically the Presbyterian denomination the Jones family identified themselves with, Dwelling Place juxtaposes the lives of the two Jones families in coastal Antebellum, wartime, and postwar Georgia (and later Louisiana) as one family works for the other; even as Mary considered herself to be “an unprofitable servant to the great master who appointed my work and way on earth”[5] despite the clearly evident differences between southern white planter society and the subordinate Gullah slave culture on the plantations.

[1] Erskine Clarke. Dwelling Place, a Plantation Epic. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) p.3

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 352.

[5] Ibid., 462.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to the State University of NY at Oswego, for the use of their amazing library! As well as for their beautiful campus filled with scenic places to settle down with a good book and read.
Special thanks to the State University of NY at Oswego, for the use of their amazing library! As well as for their beautiful campus filled with scenic places to settle down with a good book and read.


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