O Lord, O my Lord!O my an excellent Lord keep me from sinking down. — native a servant song

No concern has an ext scarred our country nor had much more long-term impacts than slavery. Once we storage American freedom, we must also be mindful of the long and painful battle to re-superstructure in those freedoms the faced and also continue to confront generations of african Americans. To understand the present, we have to look to the past.

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A paint depicts George Washington and also workers on his plantation. (Wikimedia Commons)

Buying and also Selling Slaves

Before the civil War, nearly 4 million black servants toiled in the American South. Modem scholars have assembled a good deal of proof showing that few slaves embraced their absence of liberty or delighted in life top top the plantation. Together one ex-slave placed it, “No work dawns for the slave, no one is that looked for. It is every night — night forever.” for many, the long night of enslavement only finished in death.

In 1841, a bounty hunter carry away Solomon Northup, a cost-free black male from Saratoga, new York, ~ above the pretext that he to be a runaway slave from Georgia. Once the bounty hunter offered him right into slavery, Northup shed his family, his home, his freedom, and even his name.

Solomon Northup to be taken to brand-new Orleans, Louisiana, wherein he to be put into a “slave pen” with other men, women, and children waiting to it is in sold. In “Twelve year a Slave,” a narrative the Northup wrote after that regained his freedom, the citizens of new York described what it was prefer to be cure as human property:

Freeman would certainly make us organize up our heads, go briskly earlier and forth, while customers would feel of ours heads and arms and bodies, rotate us about, ask united state what we can do, make us open our mouths and also show our teeth.... Occasionally a man or woman was taken back lo the tiny house in the yard, stripped, and also inspected an ext minutely. Scars top top a slave’s earlier were taken into consideration evidence that a rebellious or unruly spirit, and hurt his sale.

By law, slaves were the personal property the their owners in all southerly states other than Louisiana. The slave master organized absolute authority end his person property together the Louisiana legislation made clear: “The master may market him, dispose the his person, his industry, and his labor; can do nothing, own nothing, nor acquire anything yet what need to belong come his master.”

Slaves had actually no constitution rights; they might not testify in court against a white person; they could not leave the plantation there is no permission. Servants often uncovered themselves rented out, supplied as prizes in lotteries, or as wagers in map games and also horse races.

Separation indigenous family and friends was more than likely the greatest fear a black person in slavery faced. Once a understand died, his slaves were often sold for the advantage of his heirs. Solomon Northup himself saw a sorrowful separation in the brand-new Orleans servant pen as soon as a servant buyer purchased a mother, however not her little girl:

The child, sensible of some unavoidable danger, instinctively fastened she hands about her mom neck, and also nestled her small head upon her bosom. Freeman sternly notified to it is in quiet, yet she did not heed him. He captured her through the arm and also pulled her rudely, yet she clung closer come the child. Then through a volley of an excellent oaths he struck her such a heartless blow, that she staggered backward, and also was favor to fall. Oh! just how piteously climate did she beseech and also beg and pray the they not be separated.

Perhaps the end of pity, the the person who lives did market to acquisition the tiny girl. However the slave broker refused, speak there would certainly be “piles of money to it is in made of her” when she got older.

Slave Labor

Of every the crops grown in the South before the polite War consisting of sugar, rice, and also corn, cotton was the chef money-maker. Numerous acres had actually been turn to cotton production adhering to the creation of the cotton gin in 1793. As more and more cotton lands came under cultivation, particularly in Mississippi and also Texas, the need for servants boomed. By 1860, a mature male slave would cost between $1,000 and $2,000. A mature woman would offer for a few hundred dollars less.

Slaves functioned at all sorts of work throughout the slaveholding South, but the bulk were field hands on relatively large plantations. Men, women, and also children offered as field hands. The owner decided when slave children would enter the fields, usually in between the eras of 10 and also 12.

The noodle picking season beginning in August to be a time of difficult work and also fear amongst the slaves. In his book, Solomon Northup explained picking noodle on a plantation along the Red river in Louisiana:

An plain day’s work-related is 2 hundred pounds.... The hand are compelled to it is in in the cotton ar as soon as if is light in the morning, and, v the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their pin money of cold bacon, they are not allowed to be a minute idle till it is also dark come see.... The day’s job-related over in the field, the baskets room “toted,” or in various other words, brought to the gin house, wherein the noodle is weighed. No matter exactly how fatigued and weary he might be ... A slave never approaches the gin-house with his basket the cotton but with fear. If the falls short of weight ... He knows the he must . And if he has actually exceeded that by ten or twenty pounds, in all probability his master will measure the next day’s task accordingly.

Only as soon as the slaves finally finished working for your master could they go back to their own crude cabins to have tendency to your own family members needs.


An illustration that slave’s life native a song book published in 1881. (Wikimedia Commons)

‘The Quarters’

Slave households lived in overfilled cabins called “the quarters.” normally bare and simple, this shelters were cold in winter, warm in summer, and also leaky as soon as it rained. Servant food was adequate yet monotonous, consisting mostly of corn bread, salt pork (or bacon), and molasses. The master also usually noted a winter and also a summer collection of clothes, often the cast-offs the white people. Sickness was common and also the infant fatality rate doubled that of white babies.

The lives of black people under slavery in the southern were managed by a internet of customs, rules, and also laws well-known as “slave codes.” Slaves can not travel without a written pass. They to be forbidden to learn how to read and also write. They can be searched at any kind of time. They might not to buy or sell things there is no a permit. They can not very own livestock. They were topic to a curfew every night.

Marriage among slaves had actually no legit standing and constantly required the approval that the master. Generally, slaves can marry rather living at your plantation, or at bordering ones. Solomon Northup found the complying with rules during his enslavement in Louisiana:

Either party can have as countless husbands or wives as the owner will certainly permit, and also either is in ~ liberty come discard the other at pleasure. The regulation in relation to divorce, or come bigamy, and so forth, is no applicable come property, the course. If the wife does no belong top top the same plantation with the husband, the latter is allowed to visit her on Saturday nights, if the distance is not also far.

Slave Resistance

In “Twelve years a Slave,” Northup report one instance in which a young slave woman called Patsey was brutally whipped because that visiting a neighboring plantation without permission:

The ache cries and shrieks that the tortured Patsey, mingling v the loud and angry curses that Epps invited the air. She to be terribly lacerated — I may say, without exaggeration, precise flayed. The lash was wet through blood....

13th revised (1865)

Neither slavery not involuntary servitude, except as a punishment because that crime whereof the party shall have actually been duly convicted, chandelier exist in ~ the joined States, or any kind of place topic to their jurisdiction.

How go the slaves react come the whippings, the unlimited labor for others’ profit, the absence of freedom? Some choose Nat Turner rebelled. In 1831, the led a slave rebellion that left nearly 60 white people dead in Virginia. Such insurrections were relatively rare in the South. White world outnumbered slaves in many places, possessed firearms, and also could contact on the power of the federal government to suppress rebellions. Nevertheless, servants everywhere discovered other ways to resist their bondage. Lock sabotaged tools and also crops, pretended illness, and also stole food from the master’s own kitchen. The many effective means that a slave could retaliate against an owner was to run away. It is approximated that 60,000 black world fled slavery prior to the civil War.

Solomon Northup test to run away yet failed. Then, in 1852, a white carpenter v abolitionist sentiments met Northup and learned around his kidnapping. The carpenter wrote numerous letters to brand-new York state officials on behalf of Northup. In response, the branch of new York sent out an agent carrying records proving that Northup was a complimentary black man. After a court hear in January 1853, a Louisiana referee released Northup from his bondage. He finally returned home to his wife and also children.

When Solomon Northup composed the narrative of his experiences in 1853, he left small doubt around his feelings toward slave owners: “A day may come — it will certainly come... — a disastrous day of vengeance, as soon as the master in his rotate will cry in vain for mercy.”

For Discussion and Writing

In 1850, a Southern servant owner could have claimed something like this: “Our slaves are like youngsters who should be cared for and disciplined. They room content and also are actually far better off than complimentary white laborers functioning in northern factories.” just how do you think Solomon Northup would have responded to these remarks?What was the legal condition of slaves and also their families?The 13th amendment was ultimately ratified in 1865, long after most other countries in the people had abolished slavery. Why execute you think enslavement lasted so lengthy in the American South?Today techniques such as slavery seem to united state unjust and unthinkable. As soon as students that the future read around our civilization in their history books, will certainly they be horrified by any type of of the conditions we find acceptable? What causes public opinion come change?

For more Reading

Boles, john B. Black Southerners, 1619–1869. Lexington, KY: University press of Kentucky, 1984.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The strange Institution. brand-new York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

A C T ns V ns T Y

Runaway Slaves

1. In this task and based on the reading, the course will produce narratives of six slaves who have run far from different southern plantations in 1850. After forming little groups, entrust each team one of the complying with profiles. Each have to work cooperatively to write a narrative of one of the adhering to runaway slaves:

Jackson, age 25, a ar worker with numerous scars top top his back.

Polly, period 18, a ar worker that is 8 month pregnant.

Eliza, period 15, a residence servant whose mommy was sold to an additional master one year ago.

Thomas, period 12, a steady boy who desires to learn just how to read and also write.

Hattie, period 45, a cook whose master recently died.

Marcus, age 70, a coachman and butler that has functioned for the same family all of his life.

2. The following questions space intended to assist the groups develop their slave narratives. Every solution should be composed in an initial person together if the runaway slave had answered himself or herself.

a. What is your name and also how old space you?

b. What was it prefer to be sold?

c. What was your work day like?

d. What to be your family life favor in the servant quarters?

e. What was it like to be punished for violating a slave code regulation?

f. What was it choose to withstand your master without his learning it?

g. Why did you operation away?

3. who in each group should now take top top the function of the runaway slave and also read the group’s an initial person narrative come the rest of the class.


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After all the narratives have been read, host a course discussion ~ above what seemed to be the worst part of enslavement in the American South. This could likewise be the topic of an essay assignment.