Although slavery has been around since humanity began in agricultural communities, American chattel slavery was uniquely cruel. Slaves worked by force, under threats of beatings for disobedience. Disobedient slaves were often also mutilated or sold as punishment.
Slaves were considered property and seen as inferior because they were black. Most slaves, called field slaves, worked on cotton plantations, though others worked raising rice, corn, sugarcane, and tobacco. Rice plantations were the most deadly because of the amount of time workers had to stand in the water. House slaves did domestic services. They also worked as mammies, breastfeeding newborns. They had less privacy than field slaves.
Most slaves were fed enough food and ate a diet of cornbread and fatty meat. They sometimes had their own plots to raise food.
They were provided with minimal clothing and lived in unsanitary conditions. Slaves were crowded in up to 10 people per hut. Malaria was common and child mortality was high, up to 66%.
Slaves were bought and sold for auction and families were separated. Women were under threat of sexual exploitation. They were not allowed to read and write, testify in court, or own goods. There were some people, like Frederick Douglass, George Horton, and Harriet Jacobs who learned to read and write in secret.
Throughout the antebellum period, there was no successful slave revolt, such as the one that occurred in Haiti in 1804.
Most, if not all slaves tried resisting by working as slowly as they could get away with. Some also stole and destroyed their owner’s property.
Methods of Freedom
Around 100,000 of them ran away to the North
Writing to the Liberator to try to get the laws changed
Buying their own freedom- giving master a weekly amount. Some religious activists were able to pay for them.
Going back to Africa- The American Colonization Society sent 7,000 ex-slaves to the territory of Liberia.
After reading these notes, answer the following questions:
- Write down at least three examples of slaves’ living conditions.
- Why do you think slaves were banned from learning how to read and write?
Watch this video to get a perspective on the life of a slave and the different types of slaves.
Slave Letter Assignment:
Write a letter from the perspective of a slave. You are writing the letter to either an abolitionist, The Liberator, yourself, or the American Colonization Society. Describe your living conditions, as well as your preferred method of escape. Your letter must include at least three paragraphs. It must include:
- Your current living conditions. What you do in a day and any challenges you face.
- How you feel about your current living conditions.
- The method you have decided to try to get your freedom and why you think it is the best method.
- Sign your letter with your slave name, and include your real name.