Alabama Folkways Articles

December, 1994

Folk House Has African Roots

by Henry Willett

The shotgun house, a folk architectural form is, prototypically, long and narrow with a gable-ended entrance, one-room wide, and two or three rooms deep. Some say the shotgun house is so named because one can fire a shotgun through the front door with all the shot exiting through the back door without ever having touched a wall.

From Mobile to Huntsville, there are literally thousands of shotgun houses scattered throughout Alabama. It is found in both rural and urban areas of Alabama, often in African-American communities and neighborhoods.

The origins of the shotgun house have always been something of a mystery, despite the frequency of its occurrence. Architectural historians have often chosen either to ignore the question of the shotgun's origin, or to label it an expression of Greek Revival style adopted from the urban storefront or shop into a dwelling.

More recent research by folklorists and cultural geographers makes strong arguments for African origins in the case of the shotgun house of the American South. In this country, the shotgun house had its beginnings in New Orleans in the early nineteenth century after thousands of free blacks came to New Orleans from Haiti following the revolution of Toussiant L'Overture.

In 1810 New Orleans, the free black population was as large as the white population. The Afro-Caribbean cultural influences on the material landscape can be noted in numerous ways, including architectural styles. The early New Orleans shotgun house parallels its Haitian counterpart in every detail, from height and floor space, to door and window placement. The Haitian shotgun form was a blend of West African architectural styles with West Indian aboriginal architectural styles.

As the shotgun house evolved through the nineteenth century, it was "prettied up" with decorative elements borrowed from popular tastes of the times, from Greek Revival to Victorian gingerbread. One can find a number of examples of late nineteenth century shotgun houses in Mobile.

From West Africa to the Caribbean to the Gulf Coast of the Southeastern United States, this folk architectural style evolved into the vernacular shotgun house. Most fascinating of all, the name of the house type, "shotgun," may be a corruption of "togun," the African Yoruba word for "house."