A person who is held in bondage to another; one who is wholly subject to the will of another; one who is held as possession; one who has no freedom, but who is and services are wholly under the control of another”, this is the definition of a typical slave. What comes to your mind when you hear the word slave? What do most people picture in their head when they hear the word “Slave”? Most people automatically see different color when the word slave is mentioned. People in this society don’t recognize or acknowledge people for who they are, but what they do. Stereotyping is just in peoples nature, it is easier to label some one by class, than by strength of character. Stereotyping, is how people describe each other. A Seven-Eleven owner is automatically Indian, a Mexican must be a gang member, a rich black person is for sure a drug dealer, a Persian must own a gas station, and the list goes on and on. For the same reason, when people hear the word slave, they picture a big, muscular, charcoal colored African, working in a field somewhere in the south under the control of a white man.
Slaves and slavery has been around for ages, way before America was founded. But a new form of slavery emerged with the discovery of the New World. There is many different aspects slavery, and each of these topics had its own effect on the history. Womens role in slavery, Plantation slavery and the Underground Railroad are a few topics that are extremely important in the history of slavery.
What role did women play throughout the years? Slave families had a tendency to be unstable, due to the nature of the institution of slavery. Masters could sell members of the family away if they desired, or could separate the family on the plantation, making them work in different areas. Despite this instability, the family tended to be a central part of a slaves life, it gave them something to hold on to. Women played a significant role in the development of this family.
Slave owners often did not differentiate between genders on the field, and thus the women often ended up working alongside men in fieldwork. However, within the slave community, there was a difference. The men usually did the chores such as trapping and hunting animals for food, while the women did more of the domestic duties. While these domestic duties tended to add more work to the slave womens day, the domestic work was a way for women to rebel against the master to a degree. Women did these work to keep themselves and their families healthy, and would on occasion help a runaway slave by providing for him or her. These responsibilities were in some ways a joy to slave women, since they offered a degree of personal fulfillment. One slave women, Mary Colquitt, remarked that her grandmother and mother had often stayed up late sewing clothes for the children, saying, Dey done it cause dey wanted to. Dey wuz working for deyselves den.(Jones,29) Ironically, this work caring for themselves and their families also benefited the slave owners, since healthy slaves meant that the masters could get more work out of them, and thus make more money when the crops were harvested.
The family was important to most slave women, and they had ways of making sure that they stayed together, though these werent foolproof. A women assigned to the Big House when the rest of her family was on the fields could rebel, thus making a mistresss life miserable by literally doing nothing. This would often cause the mistress to send the women to the fields, which is what she wanted anyway, so she could be with her family. (25) Another way a young women slave could make it possible for herself to stay with her family was by getting pregnant at an early age. Masters refrained from the selling of women that demonstrated fertility, because they would be able to get larger labor force from these women. Also, slave families with young children were more likely to be kept together. In these ways, women gained some control over keeping their families together as a unit.
Women slaves also represented an authority figure within their families and communities. Wives were often able to provoke otherwise non-aggressive husbands into acts of rebellion against the master. In addition, mothers often educated their children, teaching them how to sew or do other household chores that they would need to be able to do for their families. Elder women often held important positions within the community as well. These women often learned herbal medicine, and were viewed as the ‘doctors , which was especially important since the white doctor did not visit often. Ned Chaney said of his Granny Silla, “Ever’body set a heap of sto’ by her. I reckon, because she done ‘cumullated so much knowledge an’ because her head were so white.”(40-41).
Female slaves understandably did not want their children to become slaves, if it was possible at all to avoid it. Thus many women tried to escape with their children. Some felt that they’d rather kill their children than have them become slaves. A good example of this is Margaret Garner. She and her husband and children escaped with a group of other slaves in the winter of 1856, when the Ohio River was frozen over. They made it to the other side of the river (into freedom), but there their pursuers caught up with them. When it became evident to Margaret that they would not remain free, she attempted to kill her children and herself. She slit the throat of her little daughter, but was restrained before she could complete the task. She was then returned to her master, after a Commissioner decided that she was still legally a slave, but she drowned in a Not only did the women fall victim to slavery, but also the African men who were shipwreck while being sent back to Kentucky.
Not only did the women fall victim to slavery, but also the African men were shipped over from their mother country to work the fields of the New World. The warm climate, boundless fields of fertile soil, long growing seasons, and numerous waterways provided favorable conditions for farming plantations in the South (Foster 63). The richness of the South depended on the productivity of the plantations (Katz 3). With the invention of the cotton gin, expansion of the country occurred. This called for the spread of slavery (Foster 64). Their white owners controlled slaves, owned by one in four families, from birth to death. 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 58).
Those not killed or lucky enough to escape the slave-catching raids were chained together (Foster 64). 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 63).
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 wouldnt fetch bout fifty dollas, but Im wuth a thousand (Foster 67). At the auctions, potential buyers would examine the captives muscles and teeth. Men and womens 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 62).
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 ironworkers. The construction of bridges, streets, canals, railroad lines, public buildings, and private homes was made possible by using slave labor (Cowan and Maguire 54). Slaves had no rights. This was done to keep them from revolting against their masters or attaining too much power (Katz 4).
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 72). It was de saddes thing dat ever happen to me, one slave recalls of the sale of her sister, whom she never saw again (Foster 72).
Blacks received harsher criminal sentencing than whites, regardless of the crime (Cowan and Maguire 51). 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 127).
Rebel slaves would recruit Indians, poor whites, and anti-slavery persons to attack all white men, women, and children (Starobin 123). These uprisings occurred with at least one major revolt per generation (Starobin 98). They would set fire to buildings; while the whites were extinguishing the flames, angry slaves would assault them from behind (Starobin 126). Owners were forced to sleep with one eye open in case the large masses of slaves decided to upraise (Foster 81).
On a smaller scale, slaves expressed their hate by refusing their duties, performing slow and sloppy work, sabotaging machinery and tools, and resisting the white culture forced upon them (Starobin 98-99). Some attempted to run away. They sought refuge in mountains and swamps. Professional slave catchers used bloodhound dogs to track down runaways. Very few runaways escaped to freedom. Captured slaves would be beaten, burned, or killed as an example to other slaves (Foster). Whipping was the most commonly used form of punishment for disorderly slaves (David 68). Rewards were handed out to the fastest and most productive cotton pickers. One might receive extra food rations or a new set of clothing. Overwork pay was another favorable prize, but few slave owners used this method (Starobin 7).
A slave was considered lucky if he got to be a house servant. House servants were considered the aristocrats of slavery (Ploski and Williams 1438). They were the best behaved and most submissive, occasionally even the mixed offspring of the master himself. The house servants were raised in belief that they were superior to other slaves in status and importance (Starobin 63). Intimate friendships often formed between master and messenger (Ploski and Williams 1438). Young black boys and girls were sometimes adopted into the family (Katz 4-5). House slaves were allowed to practice trades such as tailoring and masonry. Some were permitted to study music and teach. Duties of the housekeeper were managing the house, caring for the children, and driving the buggy; they basically catered to the masters requests (Ploski and Williams 1438). A slave owner might enlist the help of his servant to spy on overseers and tattle on other slaves (Starobin 63). Most house slaves lived in the same house as the master (Ploski and Williams 1438). The majority of house servants were women; therefore, they were open and vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Field hands met a much harsher fate. Unrelieved horror and vicious cruelty described the day-to-day life of a field hand (Katz 3). They were in charge of sowing, reaping, and planting commercial crops like cotton and tobacco under the watchful eye of unmerciful overseers (Ploski and Williams 1437). They worked in all weather conditions from sunup to sundown every day. Slaves were rarely used to grow grains such as wheat, rye, and barley because they were considered unsuitable to handle it (Katz 4-5). Field laborers cared for equipment and kept gardens in shape (Ploski and Williams 1437). But the masters kept food, clothing, and shelter at bare minimum to reduce costs (Starobin 7). Often workers were given a small shack with no windows, a bare dirt floor, and a leaky roof. Several families might live in one crowded room. They were allowed corn or rice, maybe a bucket a week, and rarely received meat as a food staple. The field slaves were very malnourished. The slaves were given one set of clothing to wear for years, and most did not have shoes (Ploski and Williams 1439). As a result of the poor living conditions, disease and death rates were kept high (Starobin 7). Most adult slaves were worked to death in eight to ten years (Ploski and Williams 1437). Slavery was a terrible institution. It took peoples lives and tore them apart. Many black people suffered for decades. Slaves were exposed to prejudice and inhuman treatment. They lived in unthinkable conditions, stripped of their dignity and rights as human beings. Slavery changed the path of history forever.
Last but not least, the Underground Rail Road was a major part of slavery in American history. The term “Underground Railroad” actually comes from a runaway slave, who while being chased swam across a creek and was out of the owners sight. The owner said, “…must have gone off on an underground railroad (Bennett 195). The importance of the Underground Railroad was the on going fight to abolish slavery, the start of the civil war, and it was being one of our nations first major anti-slavery movements.
The history of the railroad is quite varied according to whom you are talking. Slavery in America thrived and continued to grow because there was a of labor. Cultivation of crops on plantations could be supervised while slaves used simple routines to harvest them, the low price at which slaves could be bought, and earning profits as a bonus for not having to pay hired work.
Slaves turned to freedom for more than one reason. Some were obsessed with being free and living a life where they were not told how to live. Others ran due to fear of being separated or sold from friends and family. Then there were some that were treated so cruelly, that it forced them to run just to stay alive. Since coming to America as slaves even back as far back as when the first colonies began, slaves wanted to escape. They wanted to get away from the situation they were forced into. Those who were free were the “whites” who were somewhat separated in values. The North, was a more industrialized area where newly imported immigrants, making them less dependent on slave labor filled jobs. The South however had rich fertile land mostly used for farming. Huge plantations were cleared and needed to be worked. The people of the area were more sympathetic to black people, and seemed not quite adjusted to hard work, but more of giving orders (95).
The railroad didnt have a certain location. Slaves had been running on their own since 1500s. When the idea caught on among brave slaves, was when it started. Slave owners in the South certainly werent happy about the loss of “property”. It seemed like that too much money was being lost. This caused the South to pass the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 (98-99). This titled slaves as property of their owners and gave permission to the owners to retrieve runaways anywhere in the states, even those states that were free. The North was angry about the treatment of the slaves and was not happy about owners being allowed to come into their states to take the slaves back. Finally, the North decided to do something about it. To return the fire thrown at them by the South, they would take away something that the North thought was morally wrong, and the Souths riches. They would help the slaves escape to freedom. The slaves were now angry, scared, and confused. Hearing of this Underground Railroad, they slowly began to run, more and more.
By 1807, a law was passed to make it illegal to import anymore slaves. Agricultural improvements came along, and with the limited number of slaves left in the states, the value of the slaves went up very quickly. Abolition Societies began to form, and along with religious groups became active in helping slaves to freedom (AFRO).
The “Railroad” began to take shape. A shape that is to this day very hard to describe. Tracks were laid to aid the slaves to freedom. People talked in secrecy to make safe paths for the slaves to run on. These were the tracks. Letters were sent that had terminology or code for the blacks. A lot of the terms come from things found along railroads. This is because real railroads at this time were the newest thing and happened to be the topic of choice for conversation. This made it all the easier for the helpers of the railroad to communicate going unnoticed.
Along the tracks, there were depots, safe houses to stay. These were houses of free whites or blacks where they could hide when they werent running. The people who owned the houses were often called conductors. The conductors often left a number of signs for the slaves to follow so they didnt go to houses that belonged to allies of the slave owners. A quilt on the clothesline depicting a house with smoke coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. A white ring of bricks around the top of a houses chimney was another sign of a good hiding spot. Shops that were safe often had a silhouette of a fleeing man or woman on in sign. Other signs were used to guide the slaves. There were knocks that slaves used when approaching a house, animal calls, and lights hung in windows. When a slave was moving to the next house along the railroad, this was called “catching the next train” (AFRO).
There were also songs that gave directions to slaves that were taught to everyone so that they might memorize the way. One such, was “Follow the Drinking Gourd” The drinking gourd was the slaves terminology for the big dipper. The Big Dippers “handle” points to the north star, which they could use to find their way north. The song gave landmarks along the way to follow and a verse from it says, ” the dead trees will show you the way” (AFRO). This was put in the song for a reason. The writer of this song, referred to as Peg-leg Joe, drew a picture of a peg legg on the dead trees along the track with charcoal. The following verse is “Left foot, peg foot traveling on,” accordingly (AfRO).
The tracks for the railroad werent exactly laid. A slave had many possible directions to run in, but the main idea here was safety over quickness. The slaves often zigzagged in their paths to avoid being caught. There were different forms of fleeing as well as different paths. Slaves could travel by water on boats. Often in one of the many clever disguises fabricated by the people of the North willing to lend a hand. Men were dressed as women, women were dressed as men, and slaves clothes were exchanged for those of a rich free person of colors to confuse the true identity of the slave when seen by curious eyes. There were also some slaves that traveled the road, by foot, in a carriage, or in a wagon often containing a fake bottom making a tiny space where slaves could safely journey to freedom. Some traveled on “surface lines the actual railroads of this time. Lightly colored slaves were dressed as whites, and others were put in with the luggage and freight. And yet daring others traveled as baggage. Such a person was Henry “Box” Brown who received his nickname by making the long trip in a box marked “this side up,” and “fragile.” There are, however, reports from Henry, after he “reached the end of the line” (AFRO), where he testified being turned upside down and was thrown about, which makes us all wonder what goes on with our mail service.
In the end, slaves had to find a way to blend with the people of the North so that they might live their lives free. Some of the escaped fugitives met up with previously escaped friends and family and formed communities. Others found a haven in the Native Americans with whom they intermarried and reproduced. The civil war began and others found shelter with the Union Army. The slaves soon found out that freedom did not mean freedom from work, but they were happier because they now made their own decisions. Some died from exposure, after not finding shelter from the Norths frozen winter. Most slaves were not allowed to learn to read and remained illiterate. Their not being able to read or understand the fact that they had money of their own often lead cruel salesmen and employers to take advantage of the blacks. Those who learned to do specific jobs in the South often took up similar jobs in the North. The need for the railroad slowly began to decrease, as the fight for abolishment grew stronger. It was no longer necessary for the railroad to be, since almost all the slaves who were going to run already had. The final motion that brought the railroad to its final stop was the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln.
These were three of the main events of the slave trade in the New World. We are all better off now that slavery is abolished. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. (Thomas Jefferson qtd. in Starobin 53). Equal we are, only because these men, women and children gave their lives for us. It was not their choice, but we should all be thankful.