Slavery in the Old South

Slavery did not begin as such; the first Africans to arrive in the United States came as indentured servants to the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. From 1619 to around 1640, they could earn their freedom working as laborers and artisans for the European settlers.

The first documented case of a person being declared a slave for life was the case of John Casor. Casor was an indentured servant to a free black man named Anthony Johnson. Johnson had been one of the original indentured servants of Jamestown and had worked to free himself.

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From evidence found in the earliest legal documents extant, it is Anthony Johnson who we now must recognize as the nation’s first slaveholder. After all, the court battle he eventually won in 1655 to keep John Casor (Ceasar?) as his servant for life, identifies this unfortunate soul as the first slave in the recorded history of our country. Claiming that he had been imported as an indentured servant, Casor attempted to transfer what he argued was his remaining time of service to Robert Parker, a white, but Johnson insisted that “he had ye Negro for his life”.  (de Valdes y Cocom, 2006) The courts upheld Johnson’s claims and Casor was remanded back to his custody as a chattel slave, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Although the case of Casor vs. Johnson was in 1955, by 1640 Maryland had become the first colony to institutionalize slavery. In 1641, Massachusetts had created the “Body of Liberties” which stated that bondage was legal and changed the conditions of the Africans: “There shall never be any bond slavery, villainage or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons doth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by Authority.” (“Massachusetts Body of Liberties” 1641)

This enabled the settlers to purchase the slaves sold to the Atlantic slave traders. The slaves were either captured by traders or more frequently, captured in wars between the tribes and sold to the slavers as punishment. They were purchased by the slave traders using glass beads, whiskey, ivory and guns.

Of the booming Atlantic slave trade, only 7% was shipped to the United States but by 1680 almost 7,000 slaves were distributed in general farming and domestic occupations in the North American colonies. It was at this time a concentration of slave labor in tobacco had begun to develop in the Chesapeake.

Although many people associate cotton crops with slaves, in the beginning tobacco, rice and indigo accounted for almost two-thirds of the slave labor. Cotton was not a major crop until the beginning of the nineteenth century. By 1850, however, the demand for cotton was so high that it rose to 64% of the crops, reducing tobacco to 12%, sugar to 5%, rice to 4% and indigo ceased to be produced in the South.

The US crop specialization had a direct effect on the size of the units on which the slaves lived and had a long reaching effect on the cultural development of the slaves as well.  Most of the housing for slaves was inadequate at best. The cabins that housed them were roughly 15 feet square and usually shared by more than one family. They were rickety, unpainted wooden structures with earthen floors, glassless windows and a large fireplace for heat and cooking. The walls let cold air through in the winter and the stifling heat in the summer. Many times the cabins were choking with smoke from fires or swarming with the summer insects.

The slave cabins were the center of the slave community and the plantations owners, for the most part, did not interfere with the slaves lives in the cabins. This, of course, was not the case at all times. Robert Carter, the Virginia planter, once chastised his overseer for whipping the slave Jerry for a disturbance in the quarters. The “offence you Charged him with,” he angrily pointed out, “was a matter in his own house, last Wednesday night when two Negro men [belonging to neighbors] were very much disposed to fight on acct of Negro Mary who lives at Jerry’s house, but thro the means of Jerry these fellows were dispersed. . . .”   (Owens, 1977, p. 137)

It was within the communities that the older slaves taught the younger ones of Africa and the land that they came from using stories and song to ensure that the knowledge was passed down. Listeners followed the stories closely, for who knew when it might be his turn to retell them, winning the admiration of companions? In these settings, the slave’s West African past frequently raised its bead. “Most of these stories,” remembered Charles Ball of his own experiences, “referred to affairs that bad been transacted in Africa, and were sufficiently fraught with demons, miracles and murders to fix the attention of many hearers.” 12 Sometimes slaves acted out various parts of the story, and often dancing, story, and music were blended into interesting folk operas. (Owens, 1977, p. 139)

Storytellers tended to be men rather than women but it is not known why this occurred. What is known is that the stories were an important contribution to the quarters harmony, especially during times when abuse, disease and long hours cause their emotions to rise and their suffering to increase to new heights. The stories covered a wide variety of “circumstances and slave and master character. Frequently they combined a wide range of emotion in the same tale; good and bad, the happy and the sad were overlapping themes.” (Owens, 1977, p. 140)

These examples make up, along with the slaves’ other folklore (music, dance), a continual dialogue that slaves kept up with one another in the quarters and elsewhere. These were more than ingredients for “pep-talk”; they served to ease the bondsman’s lot by promoting those images of themselves the slaves wished to assume in their own ranks. Children especially received this continual diet of images from the slave community, being in some measure reared on them. We can only speculate about the impact such accounts had on the slave’s self-concept but, like many other things in his life, they clearly helped to shape the responses be made to his bondage. (Owens, 1977, p. 142)

The slaves had two ways of dealing with their slavery. One was the “total institution” response, which was to accept their fate and resign themselves to being the property of the plantation owners. The other was to strive to gain their freedom, through any means necessary. Slave riots, runaways and deals for freedom were commonplace among the slave population.  It is one of the long term effects of slavery that the African-Americans of today are resistant to ideals of subservience or possession in any form.

Many of the master or plantation owners felt that to give the slaves a feeling of worth or independence was to invite freedom of thought or rebellion. Southern jails were in fact filled with slaves who struck out against bondage. Some bad killed their masters or inflicted bodily injuries on whites or fellow blacks. Others had been convicted of lesser crimes; but still others were jailed briefly by slaveholders who sought merely to control their disobedience. The frequency of this kind of discipline is not known, but even in jails slaves’ survival methods are revealing. One story is of special interest. It comes to us from a bondsman who was imprisoned in a New Orleans jail for ten months. He wrote, “I soon demonstrated that a man with a plan always had the advantage. . . . There were certain positions which were blind spots to my [jail] captors. If I occupied one of these blind spots, if I timed my next movement correctly I could do anything up to murder without my victim knowing of my presence. It became a sort of a play with me, which I enjoyed, because I made the white man helpless against me.” (Owens, 1977, p. 73)

Many of the slaveholders formed patrols that walked the grounds and made any slaves out at night account for themselves. It was both a way to ensure the slaves watched their behavior and a deterrent to uprisings that might take the owners by surprise. The patrols, however, could not be everywhere at once and as is the wont of those in charge, tended to abuse their positions. The patrols ran the risk of giving offence to planters themselves by needlessly abusing and whipping slaves. Consequently, patrols were constantly near the heart of ill-feelings between blacks (bonded and free) and whites. Many slave conspiracies were, in fact, directed against patrollers, who often went out of their way to abuse slaves in the slaves’ leisure moments, simply for the sport of it. They barged into slave social gatherings. They disrupted some religious meetings and even sexually assaulted some of the slave women. Slaves’ derogatory remarks about the patrollers abound. Both free and bonded blacks sometimes killed particularly bothersome patrol members, but they might, more typically, hurl rocks from the shelter of the woods or “stretch clothes lines across the street, high enough to let the horses pass, but not the rider. . . .” The patrollers, naturally, subsequently went about their work with added caution, fully conscious that they too were being patrolled. (Owens, 1977, p. 74)

One of the disagreements between master and slave was the wages earned by renting slaves out to neighbors or friends. The wages often did not get paid to the slaves but rather to the owners. This angered the slaves, who considered at least a portion of those wages to be their own. The owners, on the other hand, figured that any wages paid directly to the slaves would never be given to the master and so a power play was involved.

Slave uprising was a constant fear of the owners and many bemoaned the fact that they were unable to bring their slaves under their complete control. Many times beatings, cruelty and severe punishments were inflicted more for prevention purposes than for any infringement.

The news of extraordinary disciplinary measures handed out to bondsmen spread quickly to slaves on neighboring plantations. Masters generally knew that such punishment made bondsmen uneasy, and many feared that disgruntled slaves might feel justified in seeking retribution, maybe by setting fire to crops, or, even worse, harming members of local planters’ families. (Owens, 1977, p. 80)

One cannot blame the slaves for trying to gain anything they could to make their lives easier. Considered property by the slave holders, beasts of burden by the overseers and relatively helpless by their families, it was human nature to attempt to form an identity other than the one thrust upon them by the slave traders and plantation owners.

Female slaves were not treated with any more care than the males. Data on the cotton-picking rates of pregnant women and nursing mothers provide still another illustration of the degree to which planters succeeded in utilizing all those in the labor force. Down to the last week before birth, pregnant women picked three-quarters or more of the amount that was normal for women of corresponding ages who were neither pregnant nor nursing. Only during the month following childbirth was there a sharp reduction in the amount of cotton picked. Some mothers started to return to field work during the second or third week after birth. By the second month after birth, picking rates reached two-thirds of the level for non-nursing mothers. By the third month, the level rose to over 90 percent. (Fogel, 1989, p. 28)

Many slaves tried to use their talents to make life more bearable for themselves and their loved ones. A slave with musical talent could be used to entertain the master and others, sometimes earning extra money or goods. It was also used to keep up the spirits of the other slaves when times were unbearable. It was the slave’s gift for entertainment that helped provide solidarity to the ranks of bondsmen when long hours of work and discipline made life agonizingly uncomfortable. Instrumental music and songs of all kinds were vitally important in these periods. To relieve their tensions bondsmen might join together in song and dance and conversation. (Owens, 1977, p. 166)

The diets of the slave was one of the areas that caused much distress. Most of the time it was inadequate and nutritionally deficient. Meat was scarce and many times the only meat to be had by the slaves was given to them by the master. Unfortunately, it was not known whether it was spoiled or not until the slaves got sick from eating it. Some slaves grew vegetables but had no decent way to store them away from insects and rodents.

Small slaveholders especially were sometimes unable to guarantee stable amounts of food far their bondsmen’s diet. They purchased some food items from large plantation holders. We do not know the extent of this inter-plantation trade, but further investigation could move us closer to a fuller understanding not only of matters of diet but of the extent and quality of slaves’ and masters’ community life and cooperation. Perhaps as a partial consequence of these arrangements, one farmer believed that “four pounds of clear meat is too much. I have negroes here that have bad only a half pound each week for twenty years. . . .” 5 Food rations also underwent changes with the season, particularly in warmer months when many slaveholders thought it best to cut allowances of meat. (Owens, 1977, p. 51)

Disease was a great worry as well and the meager diets and hard labor did not enable the slaves to fight off disease. Pneumonia and other respiratory diseases were common as were infectious childhood diseases and cholera epidemics. The unsanitary conditions in which the slaves worked and lived did not help them fight of disease either.

With all that, it is amazing to discover that although slaves had a higher mortality rates than the whites, it was not by a huge margin. Both masters and slaves lived in an age of low standards I diet, hygiene, public health and medical skill.

In one instance, officials of a railroad company knowingly or unknowingly fed spoiled goods to hired slaves. Upon discovering what had happened the bondsmen’s owner “kicked up a dust about feeding the negroes with Spiled meal–.” In this instance, the fact that many bondsmen in the neighborhood were already sick apparently did not encourage the railroad officials to take special precautions. The slaves probably ate the spoiled items because they were the only food available, not a rare occurrence. But such lack of caution was not limited to isolated instances. Certain kinds of neglect often reached incredible levels in the feeding of imprisoned slaves. Henry Bibb, housed in a slave pen in New Orleans for three months as punishment for attempted escape, wrote, “I have often seen the meat spoiled when brought to us, covered with flies . . . and even worms . . . when we were compelled to eat it, or go without any at all.” (Owens, 1977, p. 52)

Families of slaves were in constant danger of being divided. Planters usually evidenced concern and not a little ambivalence, as several historians have preferred to put it, when reaching the decision to split up a black household. The practice was in sharp contrast to what many felt to be right, though planters consistently overcame nagging doubts. An agent representing John Mc Donogh of Louisiana complained to him that a slave trader “refused to give me a little negro boy and girl from belonging to the Mulattresses, claiming that be could not separate the families. . . .”

He added bluntly, “It was a poor reason. . . .” It cannot be denied that the slave family took a tremendous beating; its members were sold to satisfy creditors and purchased to increase personal wealth. Yet the historian U. B. Phillips has written that the “domestic slave trade was merely a readjustment of population within the United States. . . (Owens, 1977, p. 182)

The long term effects of slavery are still felt today. Both the racial implications and the burden of the African- American to receive and keep the rights that were denied them for so long have made the slavery issue one that stays in the forefront.