Slave Life
The warm climate, boundless fields of fertile soil, long growing seasons, and numerous waterways provided favorable conditions for farming plantations in the South (Foster). The richness of the South depended on the productivity of the plantations (Katz 3-5). With the invention of the cotton gin, expansion of the country occurred. This called for the spread of slavery (Foster).
Slaves, owned by one in four families, were controlled from birth to death by their white owners. Black men, women, and children toiled in the fields and houses under horrible conditions (Katz 3-5). The slave system attempted to destroy black family structure and take away human dignity (Starobin 101). Slaves led a hard life on the Southern plantations.
Most slaves were brought from Africa, either kidnapped or sold by their tribes to slave catchers for violating a tribal command. Some were even traded for tobacco, sugar, and other useful products (Cowan and Maguire 5:18). Those not killed or lucky enough to escape the slave-catching raids were chained together (Foster). The slaves had no understanding of what was happening to them. They were from different tribes and of different speaking languages. Most captured blacks had never seen the white skinned foreigners who came on long, strange boats to journey them across the ocean. They would never see their families or native lands again. These unfortunate people
were shackled and crammed tightly into the holds of ships for weeks. Some refused to eat and others committed suicide by jumping overboard (Foster).
When the ships reached American ports, slaves were unloaded into pens to be sold at auctions to the highest bidder. One high-priced slave compared auction prices with another, saying, “You wouldn’t fetch ‘bout fifty dollas, but I’m wuth a thousand” (qtd. in Foster). At the auctions, potential buyers would examine the captives’ muscles and teeth. Men’s and women’s bodies were exposed to look for lash marks. No marks on a body meant that he or she was an obedient person. The slaves were required to dance or jump around to prove their limberness. Young, fair-skinned muttaloes, barely clothed and ready to be sold to brothel owners, were kept in private rooms (Foster).
It was profitable to teach the slaves skills so that during the crop off-season they could be hired out to work. Although they were not being paid, some were doing more skilled work than poor whites were. The better behaved slaves were allowed to be carpenters, masons, bricklayers, or iron workers. The construction of bridges, streets, canals, railroad lines, public buildings, and private homes was made possible by using slave labor (Cowan and Maguire 5:44).
Slaves had no rights. This was done to keep them from revolting against their masters or attaining too much power (Katz 3-5). They were not allowed to communicate with each other or have meetings of any sort. To leave the plantation, a worker was required to have a pass signed by the master and overseer. Slaves could not own property, although some masters authorized it. Knives, guns, or any kind of weapon was not allowed. Forced separation of family members was a constant, dreadful threat (Foster). “It was de saddes’ thing dat ever happen to me,” one slave recalls of the sale of her sister, whom she never saw again (qtd. in Foster). Blacks received harsher criminal sentencing than whites, regardless of the crime (Cowan and Maguire 5:17). Marriage between slaves was not legally recognized, but owners encouraged it because a more stable environment was created. Married couples with children were less likely to attempt escape. Unfortunately, there usually was not a suitable mate choice among the slaves, so most remained single (Starobin 7).
Rebel slaves would recruit Indians, poor whites, and anti-slavery persons to attack all white men, women, and children (Starobin 123-26). These uprisings occurred with at least one major revolt per generation (Starobin 98). Most rebellions were led by skilled artisans and industrial workers. The slaves depended on midnight surprise attacks and support from many (Starobin 124). They would set fire to buildings; while the whites were extinguishing the flames, angry slaves would assault them from behind (Starobin 123-26). Owners were forced to “sleep with one eye open” in case the large masses of slaves decided to uprise (qtd. in Foster).
On a much smaller scale, slaves expressed