SLAVERY IN THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH

Courtsey of Down by the Riverside, by Charles Joyner

The late antebellum period in the old South is often considered the pinnacle of Southern aristocracy. Although the aristocrats owned a majority of the wealth and land, it was their slaves who made the plantations a success. These large plantations acted as autonomous states in which different rules and regulations were enforced. Each plantation had a unique system which dictated the lives of both whites and blacks residing (or trapped) within its perimeters. Plantations were the most basic unit and the most vital element of the Southern antebellum economy. Without their existence of ingrained hierarchies, the instutition of slavery would have most likely deteriorated and decayed. It controlled slave life and shaped and structured it to meet the demands of the plantation god- the slavemaster. Four aspects of slave life that the Southern plantation experience tremendously affected were: slave religion, living conditions, work, and relationships.

Though uprooted from their African culture, slaves managed to retain much of their native religion by incorporating it with Christianity--particularly evangelicialism. By masking their own religion under that of their slavemaster's, blacks ensured the duration and preservation of African rituals and customs for future generations. Examples of these ceremoniously practiced rites were chanting, dancing, and singing. Whites also believed in the use of Christianity as a main means for justification and major foundation for slavery itself... as if making the slaves Christian was a religious and moral duty of whites and more importantly slaveholders. One Southern master stated "I am almost ready to acknowledge that the African is happier in bondage than free. At least one thing is certain: nearly all of the free negroes I have seen in the North were miserable creatures--poor, ragged, and often criminal. Here [in the South] they are well-clad, moral, nearly all religious, and the temptations that demoralize the free balcks in our Northern cities are unknown to, and cannot, approach them".

Courtsey of Slavery in Alabama, by James Benson

Living conditions of slaves settled in the Southern region provides insight for further assumptions made about white/black relationships. While the slavemaster and his family enjoyed the luxurious life within the plantation fortress--the mansion--the slaves and their overseer typically dwelled within separated and designated quarters. These quarters consisted of a large grouping of rudely made cabins. Within these slave barracks, black families began to seize hold, and extended families slowly gained approval for living together within the same homestead. This provided for the cultivation and flourishment of the black community. Southern slaves also tasted a small dose of freedom when allowed to plant and manage their own, small cash crops. This added to the home realm in which black life and expression overrode white intervention. The home began to represent more than just a form of shelter... it became the haven for the development of the African-American experience. Within these run-down shacks, black slaves became exposed to and inspired by the white high-life that existed in close proximity. It gave them hope and a need for a better life that they were being so visually and physically denied.

Courtsey of Slavery in Alabama, by James Benson

Slave labor on the plantations was divided between work in the slavemaster's home or in the fields. Most slaves were given tasks to perform according to their physical capablility. Every slave was given one task per day, and if they finished that task, they were allowed to spend the rest of the day for personal recreational purposes. If they accomplished more than two tasks, they were given the following day off--commonly referred to as a "holiday." Through this system of positive reinforcement, promises and incentives created a more competitive environment in which slaves increased their actual productivity. By rewarding slaves for exceptional work, slavemasters decreasd the pervading sentiment of discontent. But exceptional misbehavior also warranted the attention of the slavemaster and his wrath. Punishment was a steady reminder to the slave community that sporadically reared its ugly head. Whippings, beatings, drownings, and hangings were as unpredictable as they were gruesome. Punishment needed no real justification. They were usually left solely up to the whim of the overseer. It was the overseer's duty to enforce good behavior in order to perfect the tight management of these miniature capitalistic socieities; " ...hence the admirable, the perfect slaves, one always finds on a well-regulated plantation".

Courtsey of Blacks in Bondage by Robert S. Starobin

The plantation created an environment that made the inception and formation of the black family and community a human necessity. Out of misery and oppression, a group of people found their comfort and stability in forming racial bonds and ties. But the true instigator of the African-American family was the slavemaster himself. Slaveholders, from the beginning of the rise of slavery in the South, recognized the fact that most plantations consisted primarily of young, black men. The gender imbalance that had resulted from the market for male slaves was one that greatly hurt slave plantations. Many owners had experienced such high runaway rates and unsettled behavior from their male slaves that they were forced to begin to buy more females, even though they were not considered as a valuable commodity. The main reason for the purchasing of slave women had definitely been for reasons that involved the slaveholder's sexual desires rather than the female's economic potential. But slavemasters soon began to buy an equal amount of black women and men for their plantations in order to ensure families and hence stable slave behavior. A married male slave had more responsibilty to his mate and children and therefore would be more deterred from trying to escape. Families were also beneficial to the owner because they produced more slave offspring, which secured the future prosperity of the plantation. Slaves were also granted the permission to name their own children. By doing so, African-Americans not only retained more of their African culture and roots, but also created a tight-knit generational linkage that enabled the black community to thrive long past emancipation.

Courtsey of The World Wide Web

The stereotypical plantation portrayed and romanticized in Gone With the Wind was a small-scale industrial society in which a racial hierarchy was implemented in order to create white economic upward mobility. The system that each plantation thrived on varied and paralleled in many ways. While each plantation had its own set of social, religious, and labor codes, all had the basic format for an instilled hierarchy in which the slavemaster reigned as god. The overseer was the middle man who enforced and conditioned slaves to do exactly what the master intended for them. The overseer did the master's "dirty work" and was a more active participant in daily slave life. He maintained the element of slave misery, by controlling the degree of pain. Plantation life did begin to accomodate to the emergence of the black family and community- although reasons were economically selfish. But with the rising focus on the slave community comes the birth of the most essential unit of black unity and solidarity--the black church. This became a justified means of African expression that enabled blacks to celebrate their heritage. Therefore, while the plantation owners legitimatized themselves by asserting that planations provided for a benevolent, family-like system of slavery, slaves, on the otherhand, experienced quite the opposite. Families don't tie up their loved ones and whip them mercilessly. Families don't rape their own young daughters. Families don't publicly hang their kin. Families, therefore, were not plantations, but were rather, inhumane excuses for agricultural profit that shaped the Southern black experience forever.

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BIBLIOGRAGHY

CLEMENT EATON, A HISTORY OF THE OLD SOUTH (MACMILLIAN, 1966)

CLEMENT EATON, THE CIVILIZATION OF THE OLD SOUTH (KENTUCKY PRESS, 1962)

CHASE C. MOONEY, SLAVERY IN TENNESSEE (INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1957)

JOESPH KARL MENN, THE LARGEST SLAVEHOLDERS OF LOUISIANA--1860 (PELICAN PUBLISHING COMPANY, 1988)

ROBERT S. STAROBIN, BLACKS IN BONDAGE (KENTUCKY PRESS, 1974)

STERLING STUCKEY, SLAVE CULTURE: NATIONALIST THEORY AND THE FOUNDATIONS OF BLACK AMERICA (MADISON HOUSE, 1987)

JAMES BENSON, SLAVERY IN ALABAMA (UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS, 1964)

CHARLES JOYNER , DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE ( UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS, 1984)

FREDERIC BANCROFT, SLAVE TRADING IN THE OLD SOUTH ( J.H. FURST COMPANY, 1932)

ARCHIVES ON THE WWW

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SLAVERY IN THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH, PLEASE REFER TO THE FOLLOWING WEB SITES:

THE UNIVERSAL BLACK PAGES provides online informatiom on a number of African-American historical subjects including slave life and culture.

EXCERPTS FROM SLAVE NARRATIVES provides exerpts from actual slaves' diaries ranging from the the end of the 17th century to the Civil War.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY gives access to a number of informative links pertaining to African-American history, including slave culture in the South.

NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY-SCHOMBURG CENTER FOR RESEARCH is an extensive collection of information specializing in black culture. Collections include black art, artifacts, manuscripts, photograghs, and rare books.

BLACK HISTORY DATABASE has a database obtaining thousands of facts and topics to aid research on African-American life and history.

 

By: Brian O'Sullivan, Sophie Askew, and Nicole