Carving out a life after slavery

A desk made by a formerly-enslaved man in the post-Civil War South

Writing desk, attributed to William Howard, c. 1870, yellow pine, tobacco box and cotton crate wood, 154.31 75.88 x 60.17 (Minneapolis Institute of Art). Speakers: Dr. Alex Bortolot, Minneapolis Institute of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

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Howard, Desk

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Key points

  • Cotton was grown in the South, but often shipped to manufacturing plants in the northern states, making it an important crop for the American economy broadly. While this desk illustrates the tools that would have been familiar to its creator William Howard (a freed slave and laborer on Kirkwood Plantation), its refined decoration also demonstrates a range of influences and interactions that extended far beyond a southern plantation.
  • Cotton was labor-intensive and the financial success of plantations such as Kirkwood was dependent on slave labor. Following the Civil War and abolition of slavery, some southern states passed highly discriminatory and restrictive laws known as Black Codes; these laws enabled the exploitative practice of sharecropping, which kept African Americans indebted and reliant on landowners in the South.

Go deeper

See this object in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia)

See a similar desk attributed to William Howard at the Wadsworth Atheneum

Read about the Black Codes in the Reconstruction era

Learn more about sharecropping in the South

Find out what life was like for African Americans in the years following the Civil War

Use primary sources to learn about slavery and the economic role of cotton in the U.S.

More to think about

In this video, the speakers use the term “enslaved people” instead of the commonly used term “slaves.” Why do you think the speakers made this choice, and do you think such subtle shifts in language can be important?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.