A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A forgotten room in a Brooklyn farmhouse bears witness to the spiritual lives of slaves.
For three years, our Brooklyn College team has investigated the ways in which the Lott family responded to the changing landscape of their Brooklyn farmhouse from the early eighteenth century into the 1980s, excavating around the house, examining the structure itself, perusing archives, and tracking down descendants. We have chronicled our work here, on ARCHAEOLOGY's website, reassembling jumbled stratigraphy to better understand the construction sequence at the house. A privy yielded dolls, pipes, a gold pocket watch, and the upper plate of a woman's false teeth. We recovered endless quantities of clam and oyster shells and ceramics. Through it all, one question haunted us. During the eighteenth century, according to census data, the Lotts owned more slaves than most other families in the town of Flatlands, now Marine Park. On the Lott property, an x-inscribed plate hinted at slave use, but we had discovered no direct evidence of where--or how--those slaves might have lived.
Finally, this past winter, we found it: a forgotten room that would reveal key evidence of the persistence of African religious rituals among slaves in New York. While surveying the interior architecture of a lean-to connected to the salt-box section of the house, we noticed a small trap door in the ceiling of a closet. The trap opened to reveal three tread-worn steps leading to a boarded-up door. To each side of the steps we saw a doorway leading to a windowless, cramped garret room roughly ten feet square. We were standing in a forgotten second story of the lean-to.
Re-used boards, some with bits of wallpaper from a former incarnation, make up the floor, secured in place by rose-headed square-cut nails, suggesting pre- or early-nineteenth-century construction. Candle drippings speckle the floorboards by the stairs. One room has a mortared-over oven. We had finally found the living quarters for at least one of the Lotts' slaves. Beneath the floorboards, another surprise awaited us: corncobs, a cloth pouch tied with hemp string, half the pelvis of a sheep or goat, and an oyster shell.
Another thread in this story comes from the Lotts themselves. Two descendants, Catherine Lott-Divis and Carol Lott McNamara, who did not know each other as children, grew up hearing stories about a second-floor room in the main section of the house with a door leading to a small storage space in the eaves of a gambrel roof. The space is accessible only through a bedroom closet. Catherine and Carol separately recalled a family legend that the room was used as part of the Underground Railroad in the 1840s. It is known that the Underground Railroad did run through Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx to circumvent Manhattan, where strong economic and social ties to the South made it less hospitable to runaway slaves.
H. Arthur Bankoff is chairman and professor of anthropology and archaeology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY), director of the Brooklyn College Archaeological Research Center, and archaeological advisor to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Christopher Ricciardi is a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University. Alyssa Loorya is a Ph.D. candidate at CUNY's Graduate Center.