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United State's Slavery

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Slavery was an evil institution that was present in the United States for over two centuries. The lifestyles of slaves varied depending on their particular jobs, where they lived and of course the will of their masters. Many people believe that all slaves lived on huge plantations and worked in the fields. The reality is that slaves had many different jobs, which could greatly affect the lifestyle and treatment of the slaves. Through all of the hardships that these slaves endured emerged a strong and unique culture, which was highly influenced by their West African roots and their newfound American culture. Religion was also a very important aspect of a slave’s life, as it often gave slaves a great escape from their hard lives.


When many people think of slaves, they think of the slaves that lived on larger plantations and worked in the fields picking cotton and harvesting rice and tobacco. In reality, it was very common to see a child as young as eight years old working alongside a full grown man in the fields. Children started working as young as the age of four, babysitting the other children and by the age of five, they could be doing simple tasks such as carrying water out to the field slaves and running simple errands. Fields slaves typically worked long hard days anywhere from ten to sixteen hours long depending on the season. The typical workweek would last six days long with Saturday being a half-day. In 1740, a South Carolina law stated “[I]f any slave owners…shall work or put such slave or slaves to labor more than fifteen hours in twenty four…every such person shall forfeit [give up] a sum not exceeding twenty pounds nor under five pounds of current money.” This rule however, was rarely every enforced which allowed slave masters to basically anything that they pleased. Slaves were often organized in either the gang system of the task system for labor. Under the gang system, there would be around twenty-five slaves under the supervision of a driver or an overseer. An overseer was the person that controlled the punishment inflicted on the slaves. Under the task system, a slave was assigned a job to do daily. If for some reason any slave’s work was incomplete, sloppy or incorrect, such slave would be subject to punishment. One form of punishment that the Ball slaves in Edward Ball’s book “Slaves in the Family got as being sent to the “work house in Charleston. The work house was a place where a civil servant administered floggings for a fee. This would “ensure that the master didn’t dirty his trousers with blood.” Other forms of punishment included whippings, extra work, reducing of food rations, and at times slaves would be put into a barrel that had long nails hammered into it and rolled down a steep hill. If a field hand did consistently good work however, they would be rewarded by an increase in food, permission to visit family and friends on other plantations, and occasionally the privilege of growing a vegetable garden. The average field hand’s diet consisted of cornmeal, salt pork, or bacon. These items were rationed out either weekly or monthly and could be supplemented with fish, small game, chicken and vegetables.” Overall, a slave’s diet was heavy in starch and fat, and lacking in nutritional value. Even after these long and hard days, the slaves still had to do housework for themselves which would involve cooking, cleaning, and making and mending clothes. Children would also need to be tended to each night. The homes that slaves would return to every night mainly consisted of a one or two bedroom cabin or shack made of wood, with dirt floors. They could also be made of boards that had rags stuffed into the cracks. Best that they slept n were “collected pieces of straw or grass, and old rags, and only one blanket for covering.” One home could house up to twelve people and more than one family. Slaves would also frequently be forced to appear much younger than they were in order to be sold on the auction block for a higher price. An example of this was experienced by Lewis Clark and documented in Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark “on one plantation where I lived, there was an old slave named Paris. He was from fifty to sixty years old, and a very honest and apparently a pious slave. A slave-trader came along one day, gathering hands for the South. The old master ordered the waiter or coachman to take Paris into the back room, pluck out all of his grey hairs, rub his face with a greasy towel, and then had him brought forward and sold for a young man.”



There were also slaves that would work in the slave master’s home that were referred to as household slaves. These slaves were generally treated better than those that worked as field hands. More often than not, these slaves were women because the men needed to be used out in the fields. The main job of these slaves was to follow the orders of the mistress according to how she wanted her household ran. Most masters and mistresses treated the house slaves as their own children and although it was considered illegal, some mistresses would teach them how to read and write. Many times the slave master would promise loyal house slaves their freedom after the master died, and often a feeling of friendship would be felt between slave and master. The sad part however, is that this promise was often broken.



Family life was highly important aspect of a slave life; it was one part of their lives that a slave master could never fully control. A typical slave family consisted of a mother, a father, and children. Typically a family was extended to include aunts, uncles, grandparents etc. These family units faced grave obstacles, as there was always the possibility of getting separated. Children often got sold away from their mothers at a very young age. An example of this tragedy was witnessed by Harriet Jacobs and recorded in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, “I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do. How would he, when he knew he would sell them, one by one wherever he would command the highest price? I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish and exclaimed, “Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?” I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.”* Often when a child was sold off to another plantation, a slave family at the plantation would take the child in as their own.
At the beginning of slavery, many slaves could not understand each other because they came from different countries in West Africa that spoke different languages. Their African roots were shown in the names of almost all first generation slaves. However, many slave masters would change the names of the slaves so that they could be easily pronounced. For example, names like Cudjo and Abbe would be turned into Joe and Abby. West African cuisine also found its way into slave culture. An example of this is using the rationed out found to make hoe cakes, which even occasionally found its way to the tables of many slave masters.
Religion of slaves played a very important role in helping them survive the brutality of slavery. The religion that emerged in the slave community was a mixture of both African and Christian beliefs. It would constantly give slaves hope of a better life in heaven. In the beginning, a slave could gain freedom by becoming baptized and converting to Christianity, and many slave owners feared that any converted slaves would have to be freed. However, after the American Revolution, many slaves became Christians. At first, many slaves would attend their masters’ church where the sermons often revolved around obedience. It was used and abused as a “leash” that the masters would use against slaves. Eventually, the slaves started to hold their own services wherever and whenever they could. Places services were held include slave quarter and perhaps even nearby woods. Most of the sermons focused on “ultimate deliverance from bondage” and not surprisingly, the story of Moses and the “promised land” was emphasized.
Music was another part of slave culture. What emerged is what is known as the “Negro spiritual.” Lyrics would often speak of struggles, hard work, sorrow of lost loved ones, and the hope for the end of slavery altogether. To the overseers and masters, it seemed that the slaves were constantly singing and often they ignored the lyrics and songs. Masters did however end up putting a ban on drums for the fear that slaves would send each other “messages” with them.
Without a doubt slavery was a terrible and inhumane event that will forever haunt our nation’s history. Although we see it as a horrible thing, slaves found different ways of coping with it by using their culture and religion to help guide them. The lifestyle of a slave can was undoubtedly tough, and would vary greatly on the circumstances surrounding their particular life including their jobs, and the nature of their work.





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