Treatment of slaves in the United States
|By country or region|
|Opposition and resistance|
The treatment of slaves in the United States varied by time and place, but was generally brutal and degrading. Whipping, execution and sexual abuse including rape were common.
Slaves were usually prevented from becoming literate to hinder aspirations for escape or rebellion. In response to slave rebellions such as that led by Nat Turner in 1831, some states prohibited slaves from holding religious gatherings for fear that such meetings could facilitate communication and lead to rebellion.
Slaves were punished by whipping, shackling, hanging, beating, burning, mutilation, branding and/or imprisonment. Punishment was most often meted out in response to disobedience or perceived infractions, but slaves were also sometimes abused to assert the dominance of their master or overseer. Pregnant women received the most horrendous lashings; slave masters came up with unique ways to lash them so that they could beat the mother without harming the baby. Slave masters would dig a hole big enough for the woman's stomach to lay in and proceed with the lashings.
The mistreatment of slaves frequently included rape and the sexual abuse of women. Many slaves were killed as a result of resisting sexual attacks. Others sustained psychological and physical trauma. The sexual abuse of slaves was partially rooted in the patriarchal nature of contemporary Southern culture and its view of women of any race as property. After 1662, when Virginia adopted the legal doctrine partus sequitur ventrem, sexual relations between white men and black women were regulated by classifying children of slave mothers as slaves regardless of their father's race or status. After a few generations, numerous slaves were mixed-race (mulatto) offspring of such unions, although white Southern society abhorred sexual relations between white women and black men as damaging to racial purity.
Frederick Law Olmsted visited Mississippi in 1853 and wrote:
A cast mass of the slaves pass their lives, from the moment they are able to go afield in the picking season till they drop worn out in the grave, in incessant labor, in all sorts of weather, at all seasons of the year, without any other change or relaxation than is furnished by sickness, without the smallest hope of any improvement either in their condition, in their food, or in their clothing, which are of the plainest and coarsest kind, and indebted solely to the forbearance or good temper of the overseer for exception from terrible physical suffering.
- 1 Living conditions
- 2 Punishment and abuse
- 3 Sexual relations and rape
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Bibliography
An 1850 publication provided slaveholders with guidance on how to produce the "ideal slave":
- Maintain strict discipline and unconditional submission.
- Create a sense of personal inferiority, so that slaves "know their place."
- Instill fear.
- Teach servants to take interest in their master's enterprise.
- Deprive access to education and recreation, to ensure that slaves remain uneducated, helpless and dependent.
According to historians David Brion Davis and Eugene Genovese, treatment of slaves was harsh and inhumane. During work and outside of it, slaves suffered physical abuse, since the government allowed it.
Treatment was usually harsher on large plantations, which were often managed by overseers and owned by absentee slaveholders; small slave-owning families sometimes resulted in a more humane environment.
After 1820, in response to the inability to import new slaves from Africa, some slaveholders improved the living conditions of their slaves, to influence them not to attempt escape.
Some slavery advocates asserted that many slaves were content with their situation. African-American abolitionist J. Sella Martin countered that the apparent contentment was a psychological reaction to dehumanizing brutality, such as witnessing their spouses sold at auction or their daughters raped.
Education and access to information
Slaveholders feared slave rebellions and attempts of escape. Most of them sought to minimize slaves' exposure to the outside world to reduce the risk of rebellion. The desired result was to eliminate slaves' dreams and aspirations, restrict access to information about other slaves and rebellions, and stifle their mental faculties.
Education of slaves was generally discouraged for fear that knowledge and literacy would cause rebelliousness. During the mid 19th century, some states outlawed the education of slaves. In 1841, Virginia punished violations of this law by 20 lashes to the slave and a $100 fine to the teacher, and North Carolina by 39 lashes to the slave and a fine of $250 fine to the teacher. In Kentucky, education of slaves was legal but almost nonexistent. Some Missouri slaveholders educated their slaves or permitted them to do so themselves.
In 1740, following the Stono Rebellion, Maryland limited slaves' working hours to 15 per day in the Summer and 14 in the Winter, with no work permitted on Sunday. Historian Charles Johnson writes that such laws were not only motivated by compassion, but also by the desire to pacify slaves and prevent future revolts. Slave working conditions were often made worse by the plantation's need for them to work overtime to sustain themselves in regards to food and shelter.
The quality of medical care to slaves is uncertain; some historians conclude that because slaveholders wished to preserve the value of their slaves, they received the same care. Others conclude that medical care was poor. A majority of plantation owners and doctors balanced the plantation system's need to coerce as much labor as possible from a slave without causing his or her death or infertility; the effort by planters and doctors to provide sufficient living resources that enabled their slaves to remain productive and bear many children; the impact of diseases and injury on the social stability of slave communities; the extent to which illness and mortality of sub-populations in slave society reflected their different environmental exposures and living circumstances rather than their alleged racial characteristics. Slaves may have also provided adequate medical care to each other.
According to Michael W. Byrd, a dual system of medical care provided poorer care for slaves throughout the South, and slaves were excluded from formal medical training. This meant that slaves were mainly responsible for their own care, a "health subsystem" that persisted long after slavery was abolished. Slaves took such an active role in the health care of their community that in 1748 Virginia prohibited them from advertising certain treatments.
Medical care was usually provided by fellow slaves or by slaveholders and their families, and only rarely by physicians. Care for sick household members was mostly provided by women. Some slaves possessed medical skills, such as knowledge of herbal remedies and midwifery and often treated both slaves and non-slaves. Covey suggests that because slaveholders offered poor treatment, slaves relied on African remedies and adapted them to North American plants. In Missouri, slaveholders generally provided adequate health care to their slaves, and were motivated by humanitarian concerns, maintenance of slaves' productivity, and protection of the owners' investment.
Researchers performed medical experiments on slaves without consent, and frequently displayed slaves to illustrate medical conditions.
During the early 17th century, some colonies permitted slaves who converted to Christianity to become free, but this possibility was eliminated by the mid 17th century.
In 1725 Virginia granted slaves the right to establish a church, leading to the establishment of the First Church of Colored Baptists. In many cases throughout the American South, slaves created hybrid forms of Christianity, mixing elements of traditional African religions with traditional as well as new interpretations of Christianity.
Earnings and possessions
Masters commonly paid slaves small bonuses at Christmas, and some slaveholders permitted them to keep earnings and gambling profits. One slave, Denmark Vesey, bought his freedom with a lottery prize. Slaves were often afforded the lowest quality possessions by their masters, clothes made from rough cloth and shoes from old leather.
In comparison to non-slaves
Robert Fogel argued that the material conditions of slaves were better than those of free industrial workers. While slaves' living conditions were poor by modern standards, Fogel emphasized that all workers during the first half of the 19th century were subject to hardship. He stated that over the course of their lifetime, a typical slave field hand received about 90% of the income he produced. In a survey, 58% of historians and 42% of economists disagreed with Fogel's proposition.
Slaves were legally considered non-persons unless they committed a crime. An Alabama court ruled that slaves "are rational beings, they are capable of committing crimes; and in reference to acts which are crimes, are regarded as persons. Because they are slaves, they are incapable of performing civil acts, and, in reference to all such, they are things, not persons."
Punishment and abuse
Slaves were punished by whipping, shackling, hanging, beating, burning, mutilation, branding and imprisonment. Punishment was often meted out in response to disobedience or perceived infractions, but sometimes abuse was performed to re-assert the dominance of the master (or overseer) over the slave.
They were punished with knives, guns, field tools and nearby objects. The whip was the most common instrument used against a slave; one said “The only punishment that I ever heard or knew of being administered slaves was whipping”, although he knew several who were beaten to death for offenses such as "sassing" a white person, hitting another "negro", "fussing" or fighting in quarters.
Slaves who worked and lived on plantations were the most frequently punished. Punishment could be administered by the plantation owner or master, his wife, children (white males) or (most often) the overseer or driver.
Slave overseers were authorized to whip and punish slaves. One overseer told a visitor, "Some Negroes are determined never to let a white man whip them and will resist you, when you attempt it; of course you must kill them in that case." A former slave describes witnessing females being whipped: “They usually screamed and prayed, though a few never made a sound.” If the woman was pregnant, workers might dig a hole for her to rest her belly while being whipped. After slaves were whipped, overseers might order their wounds be burst and rubbed with turpentine and red pepper. An overseer reportly took a brick, ground it into a powder, mixed it with lard and rubbed it all over a slave.
A metal collar was put on a slave to remind him of his wrongdoing. Such collars were thick and heavy; they often had protruding spikes which made fieldwork difficult and prevented the slave from sleeping when lying down. Louis Cain, a former slave, describes seeing another slave punished: “One nigger run to the woods to be a jungle nigger, but massa cotched him with the dog and took a hot iron and brands him. Then he put a bell on him, in a wooden frame what slip over the shoulders and under the arms. He made that nigger wear the bell a year and took it off on Christmas for a present to him. It sho’ did make a good nigger out of him.”
Slaves were punished for a number of reasons: working too slowly, breaking a law (for example, running away), leaving the plantation without permission or insubordination. Myers and Massy describe the practices: “The punishment of deviant slaves was decentralized, based on plantations, and crafted so as not to impede their value as laborers.” Whites punished slaves publicly to set an example. A man named Harding describes an incident in which a woman assisted several men in a minor rebellion: “The women he hoisted up by the thumbs, whipp’d and slashed her with knives before the other slaves till she died.” Men and women were sometimes punished differently; according to the 1789 report of the Virginia Committee of the Privy Council, males were often shackled but women and girls were left free.
The branding of slaves for identification was common during the colonial era; however, by the nineteenth century it was used primarily as punishment. Mutilation (such as castration, or amputating ears) was a relatively common punishment during the colonial era and still used in 1830. Any punishment was permitted for runaway slaves, and many bore wounds from shotgun blasts or dog bites used by their captors.
In 1717 Maryland law provided that slaves were not entitled to a jury trial for a misdemeanor, and empowered county judges to impose a punishment of up to 40 lashes. In 1729, the colony passed a law permitting punishment for slaves including hanging, decapitation, and cutting the body into four quarters for public display.
In 1740, South Carolina passed a law prohibiting cruelty to slaves; however, slaves could still be killed under some circumstances. The anti-cruelty law prohibited cutting out the tongue, putting out the eye, castration, scalding, burning and amputating limbs, but permitted whipping, beating, putting in irons and imprisonment.
Laws governing treatment
By law, slaveholders could be fined for not punishing recaptured runaway slaves. Slave codes authorized, indemnified or required violence, and were denounced by abolitionists for their brutality. Both slaves and free blacks were regulated by the Black Codes, and their movements were monitored by slave patrols conscripted from the white population. The patrols were authorized to use summary punishment against escapees; in the process, they sometimes maimed or killed the escapees.
Historian Nell Irvin Painter and others have documented that Southern history went "across the color line." Contemporary accounts by Mary Chesnut and Fanny Kemble (both married in the Deep South planter class) and accounts by former slaves gathered by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) attested to the abuse of women slaves by white owners and overseers.
The slave-owning colonies had laws governing the control and punishment of slaves which were known as slave codes. South Carolina established its slave code in 1712, based on the 1688 English slave code in Barbados. The South Carolina slave code was a model for other North American colonies. In 1770, Georgia adopted the South Carolina slave code and Florida adopted the Georgia code. The 1712 South Carolina slave code included the following provisions:
- Slaves were forbidden to leave the owner's property unless accompanied by a white person, or with permission. If a slave left the owner's property without permission, "every white person" was required to chastise them.
- Any slave attempting to run away and leave the colony (later, the state) received the death penalty.
- Any slave who evaded capture for 20 days or more was to be publicly whipped for the first offense; branded with an "R" on the right cheek on the second offense; lose one ear if absent for thirty days on the third offense, and castrated on the fourth offense.
- Owners refusing to abide by the slave code were fined and forfeited their slaves.
- Slave homes were searched every two weeks for weapons or stolen goods. Punishment escalated from loss of an ear, branding and nose-slitting to death on the fourth offense.
- No slave could work for pay; plant corn, peas or rice; keep hogs, cattle, or horses; own or operate a boat; buy or sell, or wear clothes finer than "Negro cloth".
The South Carolina slave code was revised in 1739, with the following amendments:
- No slave could be taught to write, work on Sunday, or work more than 15 hours per day in summer and 14 hours in winter.
- The willful killing of a slave was fined £700, and "passion" killing £350.
- The fine for concealing runaway slaves was $1,000 and a prison sentence up to one year.
- A fine of $100 and six months in prison were imposed for employing a freeman or slave as a clerk.
- A fine of $100 and six months in prison were imposed for selling (or giving) alcoholic beverages to slaves.
- A fine of $100 and six months in prison were imposed for teaching a slave to read and write; the death penalty was imposed for circulating incendiary literature.
- Freeing a slave was forbidden except by deed (after 1820, only by permission of the legislature; Georgia required legislative approval after 1801).
The slave codes in the tobacco colonies (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia) were modeled on the Virginia code, established in 1667. The 1682 Virginia code included the following provisions:
- Slaves were prohibited from possessing weapons.
- Slaves were prohibited from leaving their owner's plantation without permission.
- Slaves were prohibited from attacking a white person, even in self-defense.
- A runaway slave, refusing to surrender, could be killed without penalty.
Owners convicted of crimes
In 1811, Arthur William Hodge was the first slaveholder executed for the murder of a slave in the British West Indies. However, he was not (as some have claimed) the first white person to have been executed for killing a slave. Records indicate at least two earlier incidents. On November 23, 1739, in Williamsburg, Virginia, two white men (Charles Quin and David White) were hanged for the murder of another white man's slave. On April 21, 1775, the Virginia Gazette in Fredericksburg reported that a white man (William Pitman) was hanged for the murder of his own slave.
Laws punishing whites for punishing their slaves were weakly enforced or easily avoided. In Smith v. Hancock, the defendant justified punishing his slave to a white jury; the slave was attending an unlawful meeting, discussed rebellion, refused to surrender and resisted the arresting officer by force.
Sexual relations and rape
Rape and sexual abuse
Slavery in the United States encompassed wide-ranging rape and sexual abuse. Many slaves fought back against sexual attacks, and some died resisting them; others were left with psychological and physical scars. "Soul murder, the feeling of anger, depression and low self-esteem" is how historian Nell Irvin Painter describes the effects of this abuse, linking it to slavery. Slaves regularly suppressed anger before their masters to avoid showing weakness.
Harriet Jacobs said in her narrative that she believed her mistress was jealous of her master's sexual interest in her, the reason she did not try to protect her. Victims of abuse during slavery may have blamed themselves for the incidents, due to their isolation.
Rape laws in the south embodied a race-based double standard. Black men accused of rape during the colonial period were often punished with castration, and the penalty was increased to death during the antebellum period; however, white men could rape female slaves without fear of punishment. Men were also sexually abused by slaveholders. Thomas Foster says that although historians have begun to cover sexual abuse during slavery, few focus on sexual abuse of men because of the assumption that only enslaved women were victimized. Foster suggests that men may have also been forced into unwanted sexual activity; one problem in documenting such abuse is that men did not bear mixed-race children. Both masters and mistresses were thought to have abused male slaves.
Angela Davis contends that the systematic rape of female slaves is analogous to the medieval concept of droit du seigneur, believing that the rapes were a deliberate effort by slaveholders to extinguish resistance in women and reduce them to the status of animals.
The sexual abuse of slaves was partially rooted in a patriarchal southern culture which treated all women, black and white, as property. Although southern mores regarded white women as dependent and submissive, black women were often consigned to a life of sexual exploitation. Racial purity was the driving force behind the southern culture's prohibition of sexual relations between white women and black men; however, the same culture protected sexual relations between white men and black women. The result was a number of mixed-race (mulatto) offspring. Many women were raped, and had little control over their families. Children, free women, indentured servants and men were not immune from abuse by masters and owners. Nell Irvin Painter also explains that the psychological outcome of such treatment often had the same results ("soul murder"). Children (especially young girls) were often subjected to sexual abuse by their masters, their masters’ children and relatives. Similarly, indentured servants and slave women were often abused. Since these women had no control over where they went or what they did, their masters could manipulate them into situations of high risk (for instance, forcing them into a dark field or making them sleep in their master's bedroom to be available for service). Free (or white) women could charge their perpetrators with rape, but slave women had no legal recourse; their bodies legally belonged to their owners. This record has also given historians the opportunity to explore sexual abuse during slavery in populations other than enslaved women.
In 1662 the southern colonies adopted into law the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, by which the children of slave women took the status of their mothers (regardless of paternity). This was a departure from English common law, which held that children took the status of their father. Some fathers freed their children, but many did not. The law relieved men of responsibility to support their children, and restricted the open secret of miscegenation to the slave quarters. However, Europeans and other visitors to the south noted the number of mixed-race slaves. During the 19th century Mary Chesnut and Fanny Kemble, whose husbands were planters, chronicled the disgrace of white men taking sexual advantage of slave women.
Some women resisted reproduction in order to resist slavery. They resisted reproduction by finding medicine or herbs that would terminate pregnancy or by practicing abstinence. For example, chewing on cotton root was one of the more popular methods that enslaved women used to perform abortion and end a pregnancy. This method was often used because there was a large supply of the plant and it was easy to acquire, especially for the women who worked on cotton fields. Gossypol was one of the many substances found in all parts of the cotton plant and it was described by the scientists as ‘poisonous pigment’. It also appears to inhibit the development of sperm or even restrict the mobility of the sperm. Also, it is thought to interfere with the menstrual cycle by restricting the release of certain hormones. Women’s knowledge of different forms of contraception helped them have control of some factors in their life.
By resisting reproduction the enslaved women took control over their bodies and it was one of the major things that they could do to stand up for themselves. Richard Follet explains that, “by consciously avoiding pregnancy or through gynecological resistance, black women reclaimed their own bodies, frustrated the planters’ pro-natalist policies, and in turn defied white male constructions of their sexuality. Whether swallowing abortifacients such as calomel and turpentine or chewing on natural contraceptives like cotton roots or okra, slave women wove contraception and miscarriages through the dark fabric of slave oppositional culture.“ Deciding to have an abortion was not an easy decision to make for the enslaved women, but in the gruesome reality of slavery, the benefits outweighed the harms. By using various ways to resist reproduction, women made their masters believe that they really could not have children. Deborah Gray White cites several cases of women who were considered by their masters to be infertile during slavery. These women went on to have several healthy children after they were freed.
Ostracized and enslaved women found other ways to resist reproduction and one of them was abstinence. "Slave men and women appear to have practised abstinence, often with the intention of denying their master any more human capital.” It was not just women who resisted reproduction, in some instances men did also. An ex-slave, Virginia Yarbrough, explained how one slave woman persuaded the man that her master told her to live with to practice abstinence. After three months, the master realized that the couple were not going to produce any children, so he let her live with the man of her choice and they had kids. “By abstaining from sexual intercourse, she was able to resist her master’s wishes and live and have children with the man she loved.”
Women resisted reproduction because they wanted to deprive their owners of future property and profit. “In addition to the labor they provided, slaves were a profitable investment: Their prices rose steadily throughout the antebellum era, as did the return that slave owners could expect when slaves reproduced.” Liese M. Perrin also proclaims that, “In avoiding direct confrontation, slave women had the potential to resist in a way which pierced the very heart of slavery- by defying white slave owners the labour and profits that their children would one day provide.” Another reason why women resisted reproduction was to make sure that their children will not have to live through such horrendous experiences as slaves. Slave children were also forced to start working at a very young age which would take the childhood experience away from them. Additionally, there was almost no time for the mother and child to bond and allow their relationship to grow. Enslaved women and their children could be separated at any time, and even if they belonged to the same owner, strict labor policies and plantation regulations limited the development of their relationships. Furthermore, women were forced to perform difficult tasks even if they were pregnant. Sometimes when they were coerced to work really hard, it would cause a miscarriage or a problem with child birth. Richard Follett explains that “heavy physical work undermines reproductive fitness, specifically ovarian function, and thus limits success in procreation.” Moreover, if the enslaved woman ended up having the child, she had to feed her child while working in the field. For instance, in Freedom on My Mind it is said that “as an infant, he rode on his mother’s back while she worked in the fields to nurse.” The use of contraception can be seen not only as a form of resistance, but also, more specifically, as a form of strike, since reproduction was an important work role for most slave women.
Despite acts of resistance, many slave women large families; some historians estimate a birthrate of 7 children per slave woman during the antebellum era. 
Effects on Womanhood
Slave women were unable to be the African women they were born/raised to be for when giving birth there were no rituals or cultural customs. They lost their connection to Africa and their norms which made them very distraught and out of touch with reality. “Under extreme conditions the desire and ability of women to have children is reduced”. Slavery removed everything that made them feel woman, motherly, African. A “normal” African family life was impossible; women were on the field most of the day and fathers were almost non-existent. “Motherhood was the fulfillment of female adulthood and fertility the African women’s greatest gift”. Once very nurturing creatures they began to become fighters, fighting for their freedom, virtue, and life.
Slave breeding was the attempt by a slave-owner to influence the reproduction of his slaves for profit. It included forced sexual relations between male and female slaves, encouraging slave pregnancies, sexual relations between master and slave to produce slave children and favoring female slaves who had many children.
Nobel economist Robert Fogel disagreed in his controversial 1970s work that slave-breeding and sexual exploitation destroyed black families. Fogel argued that since the family was the basic unit of social organization under slavery, it was in the economic interest of slaveholders to encourage the stability of slave families and most did so. Most slave sales were either of entire families, or of individuals at an age when it would have been normal for them to leave home. However, testimony from former slaves does not support Fogel's view. For instance, Frederick Douglass (who grew up as a slave in Maryland) reported the systematic separation of slave families and widespread rape of slave women to boost slave numbers. With the development of cotton plantations in the Deep South, planters in the Upper South frequently broke up families to sell "surplus" male slaves to other markets. In addition, court cases (such as those of Margaret Garner in Ohio or Celia, a slave in 19th-century Missouri who killed her master when pregnant by him for the third time) dealt with women slaves who had been sexually abused by their masters.
Slaves were predominantly male during the colonial era, but the ratio of male to female slaves became more equal in later years. Under slavery, planters and other slaveholders owned, controlled and sold entire families of slaves.
Slaves were at a continual risk of losing family members if their owners decided to sell them for profit, punishment or to pay debts. Slaveholders also made gifts of slaves to grown children (or other family members) as wedding settlements. They considered slave children ready to work and leave home as young as age 12 or 14. A few slaves retaliated by murdering their owners and overseers, burning barns, killing horses or staging work slowdowns. Slave narratives published during the 19th century by escaped slaves often included accounts of families broken up and women sexually abused.
During the early 1930s, members of the Federal Writers' Project interviewed former slaves and also made recordings of the talks (the only such records made). In 2007, the interviews were remastered, reproduced on CDs and published in book form in conjunction with the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Productions and a National Public Radio project. In the introduction to the oral history project (Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation), the editors wrote:
As masters applied their stamp to the domestic life of the slave quarter, slaves struggled to maintain the integrity of their families. Slaveholders had no legal obligation to respect the sanctity of the slave's marriage bed, and slave women— married or single — had no formal protection against their owners' sexual advances. ...Without legal protection and subject to the master's whim, the slave family was always at risk."
The book includes a number of examples of enslaved families who were torn apart when family members were sold out of state, and accounts of the sexual violation of enslaved women by men with power over them.
Female slave stereotypes
By the 19th century, popular Southern literature characterized female slaves as lustful and promiscuous "Jezebels" who shamelessly tempted white owners into sexual relations. This stereotype of the promiscuous slave was partially motivated by the need to rationalize the sexual abuse of female slaves by white males. Edward Ball, in his Slaves in the Family, noted that it was more often the sons than the senior planters who took advantage of slave women before their marriages to white women. The stereotype was reinforced by female slaves' working partially clothed, due to the hot climate. During slave auctions, females were sometimes displayed nude or only partially clothed.
Concubines and sexual slaves
Many female slaves (known as "fancy maids") were sold at auction into concubinage or prostitution, which was called the "fancy trade". Concubine slaves were the only female slaves who commanded a higher price than skilled male slaves.
During the early Louisiana colonial period, French men took wives and mistresses from the slaves; they often freed their children and, sometimes, their mistresses. A sizable class of free people of color developed in New Orleans, Mobile and outlying areas (such as Isle Brevelle). By the late 18th century New Orleans had a relatively formal system of plaçage among Creoles of color, which continued under Spanish rule. Mothers negotiated settlements (or dowries) for their daughters to be mistresses to white men. In some cases, young men took such mistresses before their marriages to white women; in others, they continued the relationship after marriage. They were known to pay for the education of their children (especially their sons, whom they sometimes sent to France for schooling and military service).
The children of white fathers and slave mothers were mixed-race slaves, whose appearance was generally classified as mulatto (this term originally meant a person with white and black parents, but then encompassed any mixed-race person). By the turn of the 19th century many mixed-race families in Virginia dated to colonial times; white women (generally indentured servants) had unions with slave and free African-descended men. Because of the mother's status, those children were born free and often married other free people of color.
Given the generations of interaction, an increasing number of slaves in the United States during the 19th century were of mixed race. In the United States, children of mulatto and black slaves were also generally classified as mulatto. With each generation, the number of mixed-race slaves increased. The 1850 census identified 245,000 slaves as mulatto; by 1860, there were 411,000 slaves classified as mulatto out of a total slave population of 3,900,000. As noted above, some mixed-race people won freedom from slavery or were born as free blacks.
If free (depending on state law), some mulattoes were legally classified as white because they had more than one-half to seven-eighths white ancestry. Questions of social status were often settled in court, but a person's acceptance by neighbors, satisfaction of citizen obligations and other aspects of social status were more important than lineage in determining "whiteness".
Notable examples of mostly-white children born into slavery were the "natural" children of Thomas Jefferson by his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings, who was three-quarters white by ancestry. Since 2000 historians have widely accepted Jefferson's paternity; the change in scholarship has been reflected in exhibits at Monticello and in recent books about Jefferson and his era. Some historians, however, continue to disagree with this conclusion.
Speculation exists on the reasons George Washington freed his slaves in his will. One theory posits that the slaves included two half-sisters of his wife, Martha Custis. Those mixed-race slaves were born to slave women owned by Martha's father, and were regarded within the family as having been sired by him. Washington became the owner of Martha Custis' slaves (under Virginia law) when he married her, and faced the ethical conundrum of owning his wife's sisters.
Relationship of skin color to treatment
As in Thomas Jefferson's household, the use of lighter-skinned slaves as household servants was not simply a choice related to skin color. Sometimes planters used mixed-race slaves as house servants (or favored artisans) because they were their children, or otherwise relatives. Six of Jefferson's later household slaves were the grown children of his father-in-law John Wayles and his slave mistress Betty Hemings. Half-siblings of Jefferson's wife Martha, they were inherited by her (with Betty Hemings and other slaves) a year after her marriage to Jefferson following the death of her father. At that time, some of the Hemings-Wayles children were very young; Sally Hemings was an infant. They were trained as domestic and skilled servants, and headed the slave hierarchy at Monticello.
Since 2000, historians have widely accepted that the widowed Jefferson had a nearly four-decade relationship with Sally Hemings, the youngest daughter of Wayles and Betty. It was believed to have begun when he was US minister in Paris, and she was part of his household. Sally was nearly 25 years younger than his late wife; Jefferson had six children of record with her, four of whom survived. Jefferson had his three mixed-race sons by Hemings trained as carpenters (a skilled occupation) so they could earn a living after he freed them when they came of age. Three of his four children by Hemings (including his daughter Harriet, the only slave woman he freed) "passed" into white society as adults because of their appearance. Some historians disagree with these conclusions about Jefferson's paternity; see Jefferson-Hemings controversy.
Planters with mixed-race children sometimes arranged for their education (occasionally in northern schools) or apprenticeship in skilled trades and crafts. Others settled property on them, or otherwise passed on social capital by freeing the children and their mothers. While fewer in number than in the Upper South, free blacks in the Deep South were often mixed-race children of wealthy planters and sometimes benefited from transfers of property and social capital. Wilberforce University, founded by Methodist and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) representatives in Ohio in 1856 for the education of African-American youth, was during its early history largely supported by wealthy southern planters who paid for the education of their mixed-race children. When the American Civil War broke out, the majority of the school's 200 students were of mixed race and from such wealthy Southern families. The college closed for several years before the AME Church bought and operated it.
In many households, the treatment of slaves depended on the slave's skin color. Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned house servants (sometimes the children of the master or his son) had better clothing, food and housing.
- Burke, p 155
- Gray White, Deborah (2013). Freedom On My Mind: A History of African Americans. Bedford/ St. Martins. ISBN 978-0-312-19729-2.
- Moon, p 234
- Reef, Catherine (2007). Poverty in America. Facts on File.
- Christian, p 144
- Moore, p 118
- Christian, p 90
- Davis, pp 228-9
- Johnson, p 371
- Rodriguez, pp 616-7
- Stone, Jeffery C., Slavery, Southern culture, and education in Little Dixie, Missouri, 1820-1860, CRC Press, 2006, p 38
- “Cyrus Bellus” Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query
- Johnson, p 105
- Kenneth F. Kiple and Virginia Himmeisteib King, Another Dimension to the Black Diaspora: Diet, Disease, and Racism (Cambridge: Cambridge University
- Covey, p 5-6
- Covey, p 4-5, citing Byrd, p 200
- Covey, p 4, citing Byrd, p 200
- Covey, p 5
- Burke, p 155; *Covey, p 5
- Covey, p 30
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- Christian, p 33
- “Story of Reverend Williams, aged 76, colored Methodist minister, born Greenbriar County, West Virginia” Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Manuscrupt Division, Library of Congress.http://memory.loc.gov/cgibinquery
- Morris, Thomas D., Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860, p 347
- “Work, Play, Food, Clothing, Marriage, etc.” Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Manuscrupt Division, Library of Congress http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?mesnbib:4:./temp~ammem_e2K8::@@@mdb=aap,aaeo,rbaapcbib,aasm,aaodyssey,bbpix,rbpebib,mfd,hurstonbib,gmd,mcc,ncpm,afcesnbib,mesnbib,llstbib,uncall,fpnas
- Weiss, T. "Review of Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, "Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery", Economic History News Services – Book Reviews, November 16, 2001. Book review. Retrieved October 24, 2007.
- Catterall, Helen T., Ed. 1926. Judicial Cases Concerning Slavery and the Negro, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institute, p. 247
- Moore, p 114
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- Howard Zinn A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins Publications, 2003.
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- John Andrew, The Hanging of Arthur Hodge, Xlibris, 2000, ISBN 0-7388-1930-1. The assertion is probably correct; there appear to be no other records of any British slaveholders being executed for holding slaves. It seems improbable that another execution could have occurred without attracting attention. Slavery as an institution in the British West Indies continued for another 23 years after Hodge's death.
- Vernon Pickering, A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands, ISBN 0-934139-05-9, page 48
- Blacks in Colonial America, p. 101, Oscar Reiss, McFarland & Company, 1997; Virginia Gazette, April 21, 1775, University of Mary Washington Department of Historic Preservation archives
- Marable, p 74
- Moon, p 235
- Getman, Karen A. “Sexual Control in the Slaveholding South: The Implementation and Maintenance of a Racial Caste System,” Harvard Women’s and Law Journal, 7, (1984), 132.
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- Foster, Thomas. “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men in American Society,” T werehe Journal of the History of Sexuality, 20, 3, (2011), p 459.
- Marable, p 73
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- Painter, Nell Irvin> "Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward A Fully Loaded Cost Accounting," U.S. History as Women's History, 1995, p 127.
- Block, Sharon. “Lines of Color, Sex, and Service: Sexual Coercion in the Early Republic,” Women’s America, p 129-131.
- Block, Sharon. “Lines of Color", 137.
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- Follett, Richard. "‘Lives of living death’: The reproductive lives of slave women in the cane world of Louisiana." Slavery & Abolition 26, no. 2 (August 2005): 289-304. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed November 12, 2013).
- Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay and Waldo E. Martin, Freedom on My Mind, Volume 1: A History of African Americans, with Documents (Bedford/St. Martins, Dec 14, 2012), 213
- Li, Stephanie. "Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Legacy 23, no. 1 (May 2006): 14-29. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed October 30, 2013).
- Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery: 1619-1877. Hill and Wang 1993.
- Bush, Barbara (2010). "African Caribbean Slave Mothers And Children: Traumas Of Dislocation And Enslavement Across The Atlantic World". Caribbean Quarterly 56 (1-2).
- Marable, Manning, How capitalism underdeveloped Black America: problems in race, political economy, and society South End Press, 2000, p 72
- Marable, ibid, p 72
- Douglass, Frederick Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, 1845. Book. Retrieved June 10, 2008
- Melton A. McLaurin, Celia, A Slave, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991, pp. x–xiv
- Genovese (1967)
- Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller, pp. 122–3. ISBN 978-1-59558-228-7
- Baptist, Edward E. "'Cuffy', 'Fancy Maids', and 'One-Eyed Men': Rape Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States", in The chattel principle: internal slave trades in the Americas, Walter Johnson (Ed.), Yale University Press, 2004
- Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, 1998-2005
- Wiencek, Henry (November 15, 2003). An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 978-0374175269.
- Note: As the historians Philip D. Morgan and Joshua D. Rothman have written, this was one of numerous interracial relationships in the Wayles-Hemings-Jefferson families, Albemarle County and Virginia, often with multiple generations repeating the pattern. Philip D. Morgan (1999). "Interracial Sex In the Chesapeake and the British Atlantic World c. 1700-1820". In Jan Lewis, Peter S. Onuf. Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 978-0-8139-1919-5.
- Joshua D. Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Interracial Relationships Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861, University of North Carolina Press, 2003
- Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, New York: W.W. Norton, 2008
- "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account". Monticello. Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Retrieved 4 November 2011. Quote: "Based on the documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence, the TJF Research Committee Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (January 2000) remains the most comprehensive analysis of this historical topic. Ten years later, TJF and most historians now believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings."
- James T. Campbell, Songs of Zion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p.259-260, accessed 13 Jan 2009
- Bankole, Katherine Kemi, Slavery and Medicine: Enslavement and Medical Practices in Antebellum Louisiana, Garland, 1998
- Ball, Edward, Slaves in the Family, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998
- Burke, Diane Mutti, On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865, University of Georgia Press, 2010
- Byrd, W. Michael, and Clayton, Linda A., An American Health Dilemma: Vol 1: A Medical History of African Americans and the Problem of Race: Beginnings to 1900. Psychology Press, 2000.
- Campbell, James T. Songs of Zion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
- Christian, Charles M., and Bennet, Sari, Black saga: the African American experience : a chronology, Basic Civitas Books, 1998
- Covey, Herbert C., African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-Herbal Treatments, Lexington Books, 2008
“Cyrus Bellus” Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Manuscrupt Division, Library of Congress http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query
- Davis, David Brion, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
- Fogel, Robert, and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, 2 volumes, 1974.
- Genovese, Eugene, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and the Society of the Slave South, 1965.
- Heinegg, Paul, Free African Americans in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, 1998-2005
- Johnson, Charles, and Smith, Patricia, Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999
- Marable, Manning, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society South End Press, 2000
- Moon, Dannell, "Slavery", in Encyclopedia of Rape, Merril D. Smith (Ed.), Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004
- Moore, Wilbert Ellis, American Negro Slavery and Abolition: A Sociological Study, Ayer Publishing, 1980
- Morgan, Philip D. "Interracial Sex In the Chesapeake and the British Atlantic World c. 1700-1820". In Jan Lewis, Peter S. Onuf. Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, University of Virginia Press, 1999
- Rothman, Joshua D. Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Interracial Relationships Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861, University of North Carolina Press, 2003
- Rodriguez, Junius P., Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2007
“Story of Reverend Williams, aged 76, colored Methodist minister, born Greenbriar County, West Virginia” Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Manuscrupt Division, Library of Congress.http://memory.loc.gov/cgibinquery “Work, Play, Food, Clothing, Marriage, etc.” Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Manuscrupt Division, Library of Congress http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?mesnbib:4:./temp~ammem_e2K8::@@@mdb=aap,aaeo,rbaapcbib,aasm,aaodyssey,bbpix,rbpebib,mfd,hurstonbib,gmd,mcc,ncpm,afcesnbib,mesnbib,llstbib,uncall,fpnas