By 1830 slavery was primarily located in the South, where it existed in many different forms. African Americans were enslaved on small farms, large plantations, in cities and towns, inside homes, out in the fields, and in industry and transportation.
Though slavery had such a wide variety of faces, the underlying concepts were always the same. Slaves were considered property, and they were property because they were black. Their status as property was enforced by violence -- actual or threatened. People, black and white, lived together within these parameters, and their lives together took many forms.
Enslaved African Americans could never forget their status as property, no matter how well their owners treated them. But it would be too simplistic to say that all masters and slaves hated each other. Human beings who live and work together are bound to form relationships of some kind, and some masters and slaves genuinely cared for each other. But the caring was tempered and limited by the power imbalance under which it grew. Within the narrow confines of slavery, human relationships ran the gamut from compassionate to contemptuous. But the masters and slaves never approached equality.
The standard image of Southern slavery is that of a large plantation with hundreds of slaves. In fact, such situations were rare. Fully 3/4 of Southern whites did not even own slaves; of those who did, 88% owned twenty or fewer. Whites who did not own slaves were primarily yeoman farmers. Practically speaking, the institution of slavery did not help these people. And yet most non-slaveholding white Southerners identified with and defended the institution of slavery. Though many resented the wealth and power of the large slaveholders, they aspired to own slaves themselves and to join the priviledged ranks. In addition, slavery gave the farmers a group of people to feel superior to. They may have been poor, but they were not slaves, and they were not black. They gained a sense of power simply by being white.
In the lower South the majority of slaves lived and worked on cotton plantations. Most of these plantations had fifty or fewer slaves, although the largest plantations have several hundred. Cotton was by far the leading cash crop, but slaves also raised rice, corn, sugarcane, and tobacco. Many plantations raised several different kinds of crops.
Besides planting and harvesting, there were numerous other types of labor required on plantations and farms. Enslaved people had to clear new land, dig ditches, cut and haul wood, slaughter livestock, and make repairs to buildings and tools. In many instances, they worked as mechanics, blacksmiths, drivers, carpenters, and in other skilled trades. Black women carried the additional burden of caring for their families by cooking and taking care of the children, as well as spinning, weaving, and sewing.
Some slaves worked as domestics, providing services for the master's or overseer's families. These people were designated as "house servants," and though their work appeared to be easier than that of the "field slaves," in some ways it was not. They were constantly under the scrutiny of their masters and mistresses, and could be called on for service at any time. They had far less privacy than those who worked the fields.
Because they lived and worked in such close proximity, house servants and their owners tended to form more complex relationships. Black and white children were especially in a position to form bonds with each other. In most situations, young children of both races played together on farms and plantations. Black children might also become attached to white caretakers, such as the mistress, and white children to their black nannies. Because they were so young, they would have no understanding of the system they were born into. But as they grew older they would learn to adjust to it in whatever ways they could.
The diets of enslaved people were inadequate or barely adequate to meet the demands of their heavy workload. They lived in crude quarters that left them vulnerable to bad weather and disease. Their clothing and bedding were minimal as well. Slaves who worked as domestics sometimes fared better, getting the castoff clothing of their masters or having easier access to food stores.
The heat and humidity of the South created health problems for everyone living there. However, the health of plantation slaves was far worse than that of whites. Unsanitary conditions, inadequate nutrition and unrelenting hard labor made slaves highly susceptible to disease. Illnesses were generally not treated adequately, and slaves were often forced to work even when sick. The rice plantations were the most deadly. Black people had to stand in water for hours at a time in the sweltering sun. Malaria was rampant. Child mortality was extremely high on these plantations, generally around 66% -- on one rice plantation it was as high as 90%.
One of the worst conditions that enslaved people had to live under was the constant threat of sale. Even if their master was "benevolent," slaves knew that a financial loss or another personal crisis could lead them to the auction block. Also, slaves were sometimes sold as a form of punishment. And although popular sentiment (as well as the economic self-interest on the part of the owners) encouraged keeping mothers and children and sometimes fathers together, these norms were not always followed. Immediate families were often separated. If they were kept together, they were almost always sold away from their extended families. Grandparents, sisters, brothers, and cousins could all find themselves forcibly scattered, never to see each other again. Even if they or their loved ones were never sold, slaves had to live with the constant threat that they could be.
African American women had to endure the threat and the practice of sexual exploitation. There were no safeguards to protect them from being sexually stalked, harassed, or raped, or to be used as long-term concubines by masters and overseers. The abuse was widespread, as the men with authority took advantage of their situation. Even if a woman seemed agreeable to the situation, in reality she had no choice. Slave men, for their part, were often powerless to protect the women they loved.
The drivers, overseers, and masters were responsible for plantation discipline. Slaves were punished for not working fast enough, for being late getting to the fields, for defying authority, for running away, and for a number of other reasons. The punishments took many forms, including whippings, torture, mutilation, imprisonment, and being sold away from the plantation. Slaves were even sometimes murdered. Some masters were more "benevolent" than others, and punished less often or severely. But with rare exceptions, the authoritarian relationship remained firm even in those circumstances.
In addition to the authority practiced on individual plantations, slaves throughout the South had to live under a set of laws called the Slave Codes. The codes varied slightly from state to state, but the basic idea was the same: the slaves were considered property, not people, and were treated as such. Slaves could not testify in court against a white, make contracts, leave the plantation without permission, strike a white (even in self-defense), buy and sell goods, own firearms, gather without a white present, possess any anti-slavery literature, or visit the homes of whites or free blacks. The killing of a slave was almost never regarded as murder, and the rape of slave women was treated as a form of trespassing.
Whenever there was a slave insurrection, or even the rumor of one, the laws became even tighter. At all times, patrols were set up to enforce the codes. These patrols were similar to militias and were made up of white men who were obligated to serve for a set period. The patrols apprehended slaves outside of plantations, and they raided homes and any type of gathering, searching for anything that might lead to insurrection. During times of insurrection -- either real or rumored -- enraged whites formed vigilance committees that terrorized, tortured, and killed blacks.
While most slaves were concentrated on the plantations, there were many slaves living in urban areas or working in rural industry. Although over 90% of American slaves lived in rural areas, slaves made up at least 20% of the populations of most Southern cities. In Charleston, South Carolina, slaves and free blacks outnumbered whites. Many slaves living in cities worked as domestics, but others worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, bakers, or other tradespeople. Often, slaves were hired out by their masters, for a day or up to several years. Sometimes slaves were allowed to hire themselves out. Urban slaves had more freedom of movement than plantation slaves and generally had greater opportunities for learning. They also had increased contact with free black people, who often expanded their ways of thinking about slavery.
Slaves resisted their treatment in innumerable ways. They slowed down their work pace, disabled machinery, feigned sickness, destroyed crops. They argued and fought with their masters and overseers. Many stole livestock, other food, or valuables. Some learned to read and write, a practice forbidden by law. Some burned forests and buildings. Others killed their masters outright -- some by using weapons, others by putting poison in their food. Some slaves comitted suicide or mutilated themselves to ruin their property value. Subtly or overtly, enslaved African Americans found ways to sabotage the system in which they lived.
Thousands of slaves ran away. Some left the plantation for days or weeks at a time and lived in hiding. Others formed maroon communities in mountains, forests or swamps. Many escaped to the North. There were also numerous instances of slave revolts throughout the history of the institution. (For one white interpretation of slave resistance, see Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race) Even when slaves acted in a subservient manner, they were often practicing a type of resistance. By fooling the master or overseer with their behavior, they resisted additional ill treatment.
Enslaved African Americans also resisted by forming community within the plantation setting. This was a tremendous undertaking for people whose lives were ruled by domination and forced labor. Slaves married, had children, and worked hard to keep their families together. In their quarters they were able to let down the masks they had to wear for whites. There, black men, women, and children developed an underground culture through which they affirmed their humanity. They gathered in the evenings to tell stories, sing, and make secret plans. House servants would come down from the "big house" and give news of the master and mistress, or keep people laughing with their imitations of the whites.
It was in their quarters that many enslaved people developed and passed down skills which allowed them to supplement their poor diet and inadequate medical care with hunting, fishing, gathering wild food, and herbal medicines. There, the adults taught their children how to hide their feelings to escape punishment and to be skeptical of anything a white person said. Many slave parents told their children that blacks were superior to white people, who were lazy and incapable of running things properly.
Many slaves turned to religion for inspiration and solace. Some practiced African religions, including Islam, others practiced Christianity. Many practiced a brand of Christianity which included strong African elements. Most rejected the Christianity of their masters, which justified slavery. The slaves held their own meetings in secret, where they spoke of the New Testament promises of the day of reckoning and of justice and a better life after death, as well as the Old Testament story of Moses leading his people out of slavery in Egypt. The religion of enslaved African Americans helped them resist the degredation of bondage.
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"Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race"
Letter from Henry Tayloe on the domestic slave trade
E. S. Abdy description of a Washington, D.C., slave pen
George Fitzhugh advocates slavery
A slave experience of being sold south
The case of Mrs. Margaret Douglass
Nell Irvan Painter on soul murder and slavery
Slaves and Religion
by Desiree Lee
In antebellum Maryland, many enslaved persons looked to God as a source of comfort, and used religion as a spiritual foundation through which they based their life's purpose. The primary religion during the early 1900s was Methodism, which was formed in England by the creative devotion of Anglican priest, John Wesley, and his itinerants. They planed to reform the nation, mainly through the church, and to spread holiness over the land. This reform focused on avoiding evil, doing good works, and following the ordinances of the Church of England. Wesley outlined a guide to Christian ethics in the general rules. Methodists exemplified their salvation through refraining from drunkenness, slave trading, fighting, buying illegal goods, charging excessive interest, or enjoying self-indulgence. Wesleyans were expected to obey the Bible injunctions to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and visit the sick.1
The master's position on church was very simple, but internally inconsistent. Most slave owners separated their faith from slavery. The average slave owner carried out the rules of the church when it concerned their private family relationships. They loved and cherished the word of God within their household. On the other hand, outside the household was beyond the injunctions of the church. To most masters, slaves were property and therefore could be treated any way. In some circumstances, they were treated worse than the livestock. Slave owners often felt that the rules and obligations of being a good humanitarian did not apply to slaves, which in turn justified their cruelty. However, many masters had some sense that poor treatment of slaves was contradictory to their religion. When persons of the clergy would visit, slaves would be instructed to hide the fact that they had been abused, neglected, or treated unfairly.2 This allows one to think that the master's knew that their actions were not only unethical but also unchristian.
Slaves themselves did not have the opportunity to separate their religious beliefs between personal life and their work.. Slaves took the context of the Bible into everyday life and it supported their belief that slavery was unjust and inhuman. Slaves praised and worshiped the Lord throughout the good times and the. The power of the slave's religion was so strong that often masters despised their devotion to God and sometimes resulted in more brutal acts of hatred towards slaves known to have strong religions convictions. As described by Elizabeth, a black minister: "I lived in a place where there was no preaching, and no religious instruction; but every day I went out amongst the haystacks, where the presence of the Lord overshadowed me, and I was filled with sweetness and joy, and was as a vessel filled with holy oil. In this way I continued for about a year; many times while my hands were at my work, my spirit was carried away to spiritual things."3
For many slaves, the Church and reading of the bible was their first introduction to education. Many slaves began their quest for knowledge in the church or at private readings by elders in the community. Elizabeth recounted "Both my father and mother were religious people, and belonged to the Methodist Society. It was my father's practice to read in the Bible aloud to his children every Sabbath morning."4 Slaves heavily relied on this method of teaching, using the Lord's word to make literacy possible in the black community.
Most churches were local organizations where the pastors were the major figures of authority often aided by an assistant pastor. The rest of the congregational organization was subordinate to the pastor. Deacons generally assisted the pastor, and were charged with leading devotional services and taking up offerings. They were also in charge of the church building by keeping the keys and cleaning it. Church mothers were generally older women who were assigned to the "motherly" role. Their duty was to help the pastor, support church programs, and to keep the children and young women in line. Churches also had associated ministers who joined the church as members. They were not assistant pastors, but are ministers without churches of their own. They assisted the pastor and were assigned to preach, take up offerings, and take charge of the pulpit. There were also churches that had missionaries or evangelists. These were women who are not ordained ministers, although they possessed a missionary license and legally received ministers benefits, such as reduced fair on railroads. They were charged with visiting the sick and doing good will throughout the community. Another important position in the church was the position of the secretary. Usually held by women, they acted as bookkeeper, treasurer, and secretary all in one. The church secretary kept accounts of the money, minutes of church meetings, and church services. In addition, they were a number of secondary organizations within single congregations such as Sunday school, Junior Church, the Pastor's Aid Society.5 This organization not only strengthened the church but the community as well.
Many of the slaves' leisure activities centered around religious rituals. The Dorseys, who owned Charles Coles, conducted regular Catholic Church services in a chapel, erected on the farm for that sole purpose. Slaves were taught the catechism, and some were taught to read and write by the priests. Baptisms and Christenings were special occasions. On the Dorsey plantation, children were baptized and their names recorded in the Bible when they were born. When slaves died, their funerals were conducted by priests, but when the slaves were buried, they had plain stones to mark their graves, as opposed to the Dorsey's marble headstones. The graves were surrounded by cedar trees and well cared for.6
James V. Deane witnessed many slave weddings. Often, the Master acted as Reverend and held the broom, which the groom and bride would jump over to complete the marriage ceremony. Deane also attended the White Methodist Church, which had a slave gallery. The slaves participated in singing with the white church members. However, on some plantations slaves were involved in the church but did not receive the same consideration as the white members. Deane saw many colored funerals that had no service. There would only be a grave built and a wooden post to show where the slave was buried.7
Richard Macks attended church regularly, though he claims not to have been a member of the church. Slaves went to the white church, sat in the rear and if there were no room, many would either sit on the floor or stand. There was a colored preacher, but slaves were either baptized or christened by the white preacher. A graveyard was present on the property, and the slaves would have headstones and cedar post to show where they were buried. Parson Williams recalls that when a death occurred, rough box would be made of heavy slabs and the dead slave would be buried on the same day they had died. The ceremony was brief, if there was any. Grieving slaves sang a few spirituals and then return to their cabins. Some of the spirituals that were sung were "Roll de stones away", "You'll rise in the skies", and "Ezekiel, he's comin' home."8
Slaves found hope and the escape form the brutalities of life in the daily practices of religion. The slaves gained most of their knowledge about religion at camp meetings which they attended with their masters. Slaves enjoyed these social gatherings, and often sold food and whisky to both the black and white communities. Many slaves imitated their master's shouting at both the camp meetings and at their own religious services. Slave preachers could often reproduce the emotional sermons delivered by the white ministers. The slave's services were similar to the whites in many ways. They served as a meeting place for friends and sweethearts, furnished ways for exercising power and leadership, and were times for socializing. Most slaves recognized the brand of religion their masters taught included racial inequalities. Constrained by those limitations, the bondsman formulated new religious ideas and practices in the relative privacy of their own quarters.9
The "shepard" of the black flock was the slave preacher. Intelligent and resourceful, they were some of the few who could read. They were remarkable men of character and personality. They were able to unify the blacks, consoled the sick, the weak, and the fearful, and were able to uplift and inspire slaves. Suffering with their flocks, they understood their troubles and the pain in their hearts. The slave preacher often acted as a counselor and arbiter in the quarters. "10
In his sermons the slaves often saw the invisible hand of God working for their freedom and retribution against the whites."11 The slave preacher had special verbal skills and his sermons excited the emotions of the slave people. Josiah Henson recalled "When I arrived at the place of meeting, the services were so far advanced that the speaker was just beginning his discourse, from the text, Hebrews chapter 9; 'That he, by the grace of God, should taste of death for every man.' This was the first text of the Bible to which I had ever listened, knowing it to be such. I have never forgotten it, and scarce a day has passed since, in which I have not recalled it, and the sermon that was preached from it."12 The sermons of the black preacher were singular performances, marked by call and response. His allusions to earthy trials and heavenly rewards were followed by groans and acceptance phases. Since the black preacher himself was enslaved he had to make some painful compromises in order to minister to all the needs of his people.13
While often in a position to aid slaves, black preachers sometimes ended up supporting the institution of slavery. Black ministers were often trained by white clergy who were continually suspicious of insurrection Under the surveillance of whites, black ministers often joined their masters in preaching obedience and submissiveness to slaves, because they did not want to get flogged themselves. Others did so because whites rewarded them with money, relief from labor, or with manumission. Most black ministers believed that they were giving real advice on how to avoid the lash in their world. Other black preachers valued the rewards and the respect white masters gave them for voluntarily advising the slaves to be obedient.14
The slaves' religious principles were colored by their own longings for freedom. They were often based on half-understood sermons in the white churches, passages from the Old Testament describing the struggles of the Jews, beautiful dreams of a future life of freedom, enchantment and fear, and condemnation of sin. The deepest emphasis in the slave's religion was on change in their earthly situation and divine retribution for the cruelty of their masters. James Penningotn explained "the only harm I wish to slaveholders is, that they may be speedily delivered from the guilt of a sin, which, if not repented of, must bring down the judgment of Almighty God upon their devoted heads. The least I desire for the slave is, that he may be speedily released from the pain of drinking a cup whose bitterness I have sufficiently tasted, to know that it is insufferable.15
Slaves believed they had a special relationship with the Lord both individually and universally. They often expressed their love for the lord through music, church sermons and private sessions of prayer. Slaves had a emotional involvement with God every week. In contrast to most white churches, a meeting in the quarters was the scene of constant motion and singing. While singing, the congregation and the choir kept to the time of the music by swaying their bodies or by patting their hand or tapping their feet. Their singing was accompanied by a certain ecstasy of motion, clapping of the hands and the tossing of the heads, which would continue without interruption for about thirty minutes. One would lead off in a recitative style, others joining in the chorus.16
The emotions of the slaves often appeared in the spirituals. Spirituals were songs of sorrow and hope, of agony and joy of resignation and rebellion. They were the unique creations of the black slaves. The spirituals were derivations from Biblical lore and served as a means of intra-group expression in a hostile environment. Because of this subversive quality, they naturally contained few explicit references to slavery.17
Often combining secular and sacred themes, narrating personal experiences and uplifting the personal spirit, spirituals often served as accompaniments to labor or with the details of life. Spirituals also developed from the search of loved ones that were either sold or killed, and could also be a secret form of communication. Whenever the slaves would decide to meet for a dance, prayer meeting, or any unauthorized social event they would sing songs with hidden meanings that the average white man would not understand.18 For example:
I take my text in Matthew, and by Revelation,
I know you by your garment.
Dere's a meeting here tonight.
Dere's a meeting here tonight.19
Religious services and recreational activities provided the slave with welcome respites from incessant labor. They not only gave slaves joy and companionship, but also allowed them to gain some status in the quarters, as well as a measure of hope. By engaging in religious activities slaves could, for a while, take their minds off of the misery, and hopeless condition in which they lived. Despite their weakness as individuals, religion helped slaves feel stronger and safer as a group, and protected under the eyes of God.20