No issue has more scarred our country nor had more long-term effects than slavery. When we celebrate American freedom, we must also be mindful of the long and painful struggle to share in those freedoms that faced and continue to face generations of African Americans. To understand the present, we must look to the past.
A painting depicts George Washington and workers on his plantation. (Wikimedia Commons)
Before the Civil War, nearly 4 million black slaves toiled in the American South. Modem scholars have assembled a great deal of evidence showing that few slaves accepted their lack of freedom or enjoyed life on the plantation. As one ex-slave put it, “No day dawns for the slave, nor is it looked for. It is all night — night forever.” For many, the long night of slavery only ended in death.
In 1841, a bounty hunter kidnapped Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York, on the pretext that he was a runaway slave from Georgia. When the bounty hunter sold him into slavery, Northup lost his family, his home, his freedom, and even his name.
Solomon Northup was taken to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was put into a “slave pen” with other men, women, and children waiting to be sold. In “Twelve Years a Slave,” a narrative that Northup wrote after he regained his freedom, the citizen of New York described what it was like to be treated as human property:
Freeman [the while slave broker] would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel of our heads and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth…. Sometimes a man or woman was taken back lo the small house in the yard, stripped, and inspected more minutely. Scars upon a slave’s back were considered evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit, and hurt his sale.
By law, slaves were the personal property of their owners in all Southern states except Louisiana. The slave master held absolute authority over his human property as the Louisiana law made clear: “The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry, and his labor; [the slave] can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong to his master.”
Slaves had no constitutional rights; they could not testify in court against a white person; they could not leave the plantation without permission. Slaves often found themselves rented out, used as prizes in lotteries, or as wagers in card games and horse races.
Separation from family and friends was probably the greatest fear a black person in slavery faced. When a master died, his slaves were often sold for the benefit of his heirs. Solomon Northup himself witnessed a sorrowful separation in the New Orleans slave pen when a slave buyer purchased a mother, but not her little girl:
The child, sensible of some impending danger, instinctively fastened her hands around her mother’s neck, and nestled her little head upon her bosom. Freeman [the slave broker] sternly ordered [the mother] to be quiet, but she did not heed him. He caught her by the arm and pulled her rudely, but she clung closer to the child. Then with a volley of great oaths he struck her such a heartless blow, that she staggered backward, and was like to fall. Oh! How piteously then did she beseech and beg and pray that they not be separated.
Perhaps out of pity, the buyer did offer to purchase the little girl. But the slave broker refused, saying there would be “piles of money to be made of her” when she got older.
Of all the crops grown in the South before the Civil War including sugar, rice, and corn, cotton was the chief money-maker. Millions of acres had been turned to cotton production following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. As more and more cotton lands came under cultivation, especially in Mississippi and Texas, the demand for slaves boomed. By 1860, a mature male slave would cost between $1,000 and $2,000. A mature female would sell for a few hundred dollars less.
Slaves worked at all sorts of jobs throughout the slaveholding South, but the majority were field hands on relatively large plantations. Men, women, and children served as field hands. The owner decided when slave children would go into the fields, usually between the ages of 10 and 12.
The cotton picking season beginning in August was a time of hard work and fear among the slaves. In his book, Solomon Northup described picking cotton on a plantation along the Red River in Louisiana:
An ordinary day’s work is two hundred pounds…. The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as if is light in the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see…. The day’s work over in the field, the baskets are “toted,” or in other words, carried to the gin house, where the cotton is weighed. No matter how fatigued and weary he may be … a slave never approaches the gin-house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short of weight … he knows that he must [be whipped]. And if he has exceeded it by ten or twenty pounds, in all probability his master will measure the next day’s task accordingly.