The Southern Swept Yard

“Children Sweeping Yard in South Carolina.” Taken in June 1939, this photo from the Library of Congress shows four African American children sweeping the yard in front of their South Carolina tenant house.

Important features of the swept yard were summarized by archeologists Barbara Heath and Amber Bennett in their 2000 article, "The Little Spots Allow’d Them: The Archeological Study of African American Yards.” They note that African, Caribbean, and African-American yards today serve as locations for spiritual and artistic expression. Swept yards are common features of West and Central African domestic compounds, and the practice of sweeping carries spiritual as well as social dimensions. Among the Bakongo of Central Africa, “sweeping is an ordinary ritual gesture for ridding a place of undesirable spirits” in a landscape populated by day with the ghosts of witches and others who have not been accepted into the villages of the dead, and by night with the ancestors.  The authors note that this African practice of yard sweeping has continued into the 20th century among African Americans from rural Maryland to the hills of Jamaica. Sweeping is explained as a way to keep the yard free from insects and provide a comfortable area for social activities, but may preserve spiritual meaning as well.

In Texas, there is historical and archeological evidence for the practice of yard sweeping in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the Richland Chambers Reservoir archeological project in northeast Texas, oral history researchers noted that almost all of the informants who were interviewed keep their yards swept. Furthermore, archeological evidence of yard sweeping was clearly visible in at least four farmstead sites and present but less evident in five others. The researchers concluded that the practice “did not seem to be strongly associated with any specific socioeconomic group or temporal period.”

Virginia archeologist Garrett Fesler notes that “few African Diaspora archaeological projects have attempted to study yards.” This is unfortunate, she believes, because the yard is such a critical area for understanding African American sites :

We have come to learn that Anglo Americans and Europeans centered their livelihood inside their homes, whereas Africans and African Americans orbited outside their houses, sometimes by hundreds of feet, and spent comparatively little time indoors. For archaeologists to concentrate their excavations inside dwelling foundations at a site occupied by people of African descent is another case of letting the core take precedence over the periphery.

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