In honor of Black History Month, JHU Museums’ curators have prepared a series of blog posts about the enslaved community at Homewood in the early 1800s. Today’s post examining the roles of enslaved workers in dining and entertaining at historic Homewood is the second post in a series of three. To read the first blog in the series, click here.
When visitors tour Homewood Museum, the Dining Room is used as a space to illustrate how the Carrolls relied on enslaved workers to promote their social standing in the eyes of their dinner guests. As elite, white Americans, the Carrolls’ status hinged on their ability to exploit the labor of unfree people of color to create for themselves a domestic environment of luxury and comfort.
Dining Room at Homewood Museum, Will Kirk (photography); 2018, The Johns Hopkins University Museums.
For the Carrolls and their guests, dinners at Homewood were elegant events. The Carroll family would have had breakfast and supper in their bedrooms or Back Parlor, but dinner took place in the formal Dining Room. Because dinner guests traveled long distances and with difficulty, guests were often invited to stay for days, adding to the workload of the enslaved workers at Homewood, including the Ross and Conner families. The Carroll family and friends spent afternoons and evenings at the Dining Room table, going through many courses of food and wine before socializing in the Reception Hall and Drawing Room. The vast array of food and drink showed that the Carrolls had wide-ranging economic connections–-wine imported from Madeira, spices from the Far East–-and local significance–-roasted canvas-back duck, corn-stuffed goose, oysters, and terrapin soup were regional favorites. Table wares and furnishings further emphasized the owners’ display of wealth and taste.
We do not yet know who the cook was at Homewood. At homes of this stature, cooks could be either paid workers or enslaved people. Both men and women were trained as cooks. We do know, however, that enslaved men and women worked long hours to create this entertaining space-–from cleaning the wares and rooms to prepping the food, waiting on the guests, hauling the wine from the cellar, moving furniture, and lighting candles. The variety of tasks and the long hours needed to prepare the lavish table setting and multi-course meals impacted all of the enslaved men, women, and children, who were not allowed to consume the types of foods they were serving. Instead, the Carrolls provided enslaved individuals rations of cornmeal and pork. In the little free time enslaved people were granted outside of their work duties, they likely toiled to grow and gather vegetables, fruits, fish, and grains to supplement the rations of pork and cornmeal that the Carrolls’ overseer distributed.