Treatment of slaves in the United States

Scars of Peter, a whipped Louisiana slave, photographed in April 1863 and later distributed by abolitionists.
Bill of sale for the auction of the "Negro Boy Jacob" for "Eighty Dollars and a half" to satisfy a money judgment against the "property" of his owner, Prettyman Boyce. October 10, 1807

The treatment of slaves in the United States varied by time and place, but was generally brutal and degrading. Whipping and sexual abuse, including rape, were common.

Teaching slaves to read was discouraged or prohibited (a prohibition unique to U.S. slavery), so as to hinder aspirations for escape or rebellion. In response to slave rebellions such as the Haitian Revolution or, in the United States, that planned by Denmark Vesey (1822) or that led by Nat Turner in 1831, some states prohibited slaves from holding religious gatherings without a white person present, for fear that such meetings could facilitate communication and lead to rebellion.

Slaves were punished by whipping, shackling, beating, mutilation, branding and/or imprisonment. Punishment was most often meted out in response to disobedience or perceived infractions, but masters or overseers sometimes abused slaves to assert dominance. Slave masters even beat pregnant women, devising ways to do it without harming the baby. Slave masters would dig a hole big enough for the woman's stomach to lie in and proceed with the lashings.[1]

The mistreatment of slaves frequently included rape and the sexual abuse of women. The sexual abuse of slaves was partially rooted in historical Southern culture and its view of the enslaved as property.[2] 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. Particularly in the Upper South, a population developed of mixed-race (mulatto) offspring of such unions, although white Southern society claimed to abhor miscegenation and punished 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.[3]

Living conditions

An 1850 publication provided slaveholders with guidance on how to produce the "ideal slave":[4]

  1. Maintain strict discipline and unconditional submission.
  2. Create a sense of personal inferiority, so that slaves "know their place."
  3. Instill fear.
  4. Teach servants to take interest in their master's enterprise.
  5. 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 slaveholders worked together with their slaves and sometimes treated them more humanely.[5]

Besides slaves' being vastly overworked, they suffered brandings, shootings, and "floggings." Flogging was a term often used to describe the average lashing or whipping a slave would receive for misbehaving. Many times a slave would also simply be put through "wanton cruelties" or unprovoked violent beatings or punishments.[6]

Humane treatment

After 1820, in response to the inability to legally import new slaves from Africa following prohibition of the international slave trade, some slaveholders improved the living conditions of their slaves, to influence them not to attempt escape.[7]

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.[8]

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.[7]

Education of slaves was generally discouraged for fear that knowledge and literacy would cause rebelliousness.[9] 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 $250 fine to the teacher.[9] In Kentucky, education of slaves was legal but almost nonexistent.[9] Some Missouri slaveholders educated their slaves or permitted them to do so themselves.[10] In Utah, slave owners were required to send black slaves to school for eighteen months between the ages of six and twenty years[11] and Indian slaves for three months every year.[12]

Working conditions

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.[13][14] In Utah, slaves were required to work "reasonable" hours.[11]

Medical treatment

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.[15] Slaves may have also provided adequate medical care to each other.[16] Previous studies show that a slave-owner would care for his slaves through only "prudence and humanity." Although conditions were so harsh for slaves, many slave-owners saw that it was in their best interest financially to see that each slave stayed healthy enough to maintain an active presence on the plantation. An ill slave meant less work force for the plantation which coerced some plantation owners to regularly have medical doctors monitor their slaves in an attempt to keep them healthy. Other slave-owners wishing to save money would often rely on their own self-taught remedies combine with any helpful knowledge of their wives to help treat the sickly. Older slaves and oftentimes grandparents of slave communities would pass down useful medical skills and remedies as well. Also, large enough plantations with owners willing to spend the money would often have specific infirmaries built to deal with the problems of slaves' health.[17]

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.[18] This meant that slaves were mainly responsible for their own care, a "health subsystem" that persisted long after slavery was abolished.[19] Slaves took such an active role in the health care of their community that in 1748 Virginia prohibited them from advertising certain treatments.[20]

Medical care was usually provided by fellow slaves or by slaveholders and their families, and only rarely by physicians.[21] 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.[22] Covey suggests that because slaveholders offered poor treatment, slaves relied on African remedies and adapted them to North American plants.[20] Other examples of improvised health care methods included folk healers, grandmother midwives, and social networks such as churches, and, for pregnant slaves, female networks. Slave-owners would sometimes also seek healing from such methods in times of ill health.[23] 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.[22]

Researchers performed medical experiments on slaves without consent, and frequently displayed slaves to illustrate medical conditions.[24]


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.[25]

In 1725 Virginia granted slaves the right to establish a church, leading to the establishment of the First Church of Colored Baptists.[26] 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.[27]

South Carolina permitted law enforcement to disband any religious meeting where more than half the participants were black.[28]

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.[29] Slaves were often given low-quality goods by their masters, clothes made from rough cloth and shoes from old leather.[30]

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.[31] In a survey, 58% of historians and 42% of economists disagreed with Fogel's proposition.[31]

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."[32]

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.[33]

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.[34]

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."[35] A former slave describes witnessing females being whipped: "They usually screamed and prayed, though a few never made a sound."[36] 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 reportedly took a brick, ground it into a powder, mixed it with lard and rubbed it all over a slave.[34]

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."[34]

Old black-and-white photo of wooden shacks
Plantation slave cabins, South Carolina Low Country

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."[37] 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."[38] 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.[38]

The branding of slaves for identification was common during the colonial era; however, by the nineteenth century it was used primarily as punishment.[39] 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.[39]

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.[40] In 1729, the colony passed a law permitting punishment for slaves including hanging, decapitation, and cutting the body into four quarters for public display.[26]

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.[41]

In 1852, Utah passed the Act in Relation to Service, which provided several protections for slaves. They were freed if the slave owner was found guilty of cruelty or abuse, or neglect to feed, clothe, or shelter the slave, or if there were any sexual intercourse between the master and the slave.[42] The definition of cruelty was vague and hard to enforce, and in practice, slaves received similar treatment to those in the South.[43]

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.

Black-and-white photo of large gazebo
Slave Market, Public Square, Louisville, Georgia

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.

Slave codes

Main article: Slave codes

The slave-owning colonies had laws governing the control and punishment of slaves which were known as slave codes.[44] 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.[44] The 1712 South Carolina slave code included the following provisions:[44]

The South Carolina slave code was revised in 1739, with the following amendments:[44]

The slave codes in the tobacco colonies (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia) were modeled on the Virginia code, established in 1667.[44] The 1682 Virginia code included the following provisions:[45]

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.[46] 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.[47]

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.[48]

Sexual relations and rape

Rape and sexual abuse

Three Young White Men and a Black Woman (1632) by Christiaen van Couwenbergh.

Slavery in the United States encompassed wide-ranging rape and sexual abuse.[2] Many slaves fought back against sexual attacks, and some died resisting them; others were left with psychological and physical scars.[49] "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;[50] however, white men could rape female slaves without fear of punishment.[50] Men were also sexually abused by slaveholders.[51] 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.[52] Both masters and mistresses were thought to have abused male slaves.[53]

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.[54]

The sexual abuse of slaves was partially rooted in a patriarchal southern culture which treated all women, black and white, as property.[2] Although southern mores regarded white women as dependent and submissive, black women were often consigned to a life of sexual exploitation.[2] 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.[55] 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.[56] 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).[57] Free (or white) women could charge their perpetrators with rape, but slave women had no legal recourse; their bodies legally belonged to their owners.[58] 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.

Resisting reproduction

Some women resisted reproduction in order to resist slavery. They found medicine or herbs to terminate pregnancies or practiced abstinence. For example, chewing on cotton root was one of the more popular methods to perform abortion and end a pregnancy. This method was often used as the plant was readily available, especially for the women who worked in cotton fields.[59] Gossypol was one of the many substances found in all parts of the cotton plant, and it was described by scientists as 'poisonous pigment'. It appears to inhibit the development of sperm or restrict the mobility of the sperm.[59] 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 control some factors in their life.[59]

By resisting reproduction, enslaved women took control over their bodies and their lives. Richard Follet says:

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.[60]

Deciding to abort a baby was not an easy decision for an enslaved woman, but many made the choice. By using various ways to resist reproduction, some women convinced their masters they could not bear 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.[61]

Other slave women used 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 children. "By abstaining from sexual intercourse, she was able to resist her master's wishes and live and have children with the man she loved."[59]

Women resisted reproduction to avoid bringing children into slavery, and 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."[61] Liese M. Perrin writes, "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."[59] Women knew that slave children were forced to start working at a very young age.[62] Life was harsh under slavery, with little time for a mother and child to bond. Enslaved women and their children could be separated at any time.[62] Women were forced to do heavy work even if pregnant. Sometimes this caused miscarriage or difficulties in childbirth. Richard Follett explains that "heavy physical work undermines reproductive fitness, specifically ovarian function, and thus limits success in procreation."[60] An enslaved woman carried her infant with her to field work, nursing it during brief breaks. 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."[61] Women's use of contraception was resistance and a form of strike, since slave women were expected to reproduce.[59]

Despite acts of resistance, many slave women had numerous children. Peter Kolchin notes that some historians estimate a birthrate of 7 children per slave woman during the antebellum era, which was an era of large families among free women as well.[63]

Effects on womanhood

Slave women were unable to maintain African traditions, although some were carried on. African women were born/raised to give birth, there were no rituals or cultural customs. "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 in the field most of the day and fathers were almost non-existent. In Africa, "Motherhood was the fulfillment of female adulthood and fertility the African women's greatest gift".[64]

Slave breeding

Slave breeding was the attempt by a slave-owner to influence the reproduction of his slaves for profit.[65] 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.[66]

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.[31] 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.[67] 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.[68]


Slaves were predominantly male during the early 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.[2] The slave population increased in the southern United States as native-born slaves produced large families. Slave women were at high risk for sexual abuse from slave owners and their sons, overseers, or other white men in power, as well as from male 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, and killing horses. But work slowdowns were the most frequent form of resistance and hard to control. Slaves also "walked away," going to the woods or a neighboring plantation for a while.[69] Slave narratives by escaped slaves published during the 19th century 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.[70]

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 sexual violation of enslaved women by men in power.

Handwritten receipt for slave
Receipt for $500 payment ($10,300, adjusted for inflation as of 2007) for slave, 1840: "Recd of Judge S. Williams his notes for five hundred Dollars in full payment for a negro man named Ned which negro I warrant to be sound and well and I do bind myself by these presents to forever warrant and defend the right and Title of the said negro to the said Williams his heirs or assigns against the legal claims of all persons whatsoever. Witness my hand and seal this day and year above written. Eliza Wallace [seal]"

Female slave stereotypes

The evidence of white men having sexual unions with slave women was obvious in the many mixed-race children who were born into slavery and part of many households. In some areas, such mixed-race families became the core of domestic and household servants, as at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Both his father-in-law and he took mixed-race slave women as concubines after being widowed; each man had six children by his slave. Jefferson's young concubine, Sally Hemings, was 3/4 white, the daughter of his father-in-law John Wayles and the half-sister of his late wife.

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 obvious sexual relations that took place between female slaves and white males, as evidenced by the children.[50] 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.[50] Edward Ball, in his Slaves in the Family (1995), noted that it was more often the planters' sons who took advantage of slave women before their legal marriages to white women, than did the senior planters.

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".[50] Concubine slaves were the only female slaves who commanded a higher price than skilled male slaves.[71]

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).

Anti-miscegenation sentiment

There was a growing feeling among whites that miscegenation was damaging to racial purity. Some segments of society began to disapprove of any sexual relationships between blacks and whites, whether slave or free, but particularly between white women and black men. In Utah, sexual relationships with a slave resulted in the slave being freed.[11]

Mixed-race children

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.[72]

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.[49] 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, fulfillment 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.[73]

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.[74][75] 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.[76]

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.[75] 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.[76][77] 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.[78] The college closed for several years before the AME Church bought and operated it.

See also


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  4. Christian, p 144
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  6. McBride, D. (2005). "Slavery As It Is:" Medicine and Slaves of the Plantation South. OAH Magazine Of History, 19(5), 37.
  7. 1 2 Christian, p 90
    • Davis, pp 228-9
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  8. 1 2 3 Rodriguez, pp 616-7
  9. Stone, Jeffery C., Slavery, Southern culture, and education in Little Dixie, Missouri, 1820-1860, CRC Press, 2006, p 38
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  11. Acts, Resolutions, and Memorials Passed at the ... Annual, and Special Sessions, of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah. Brigham H. Young, Printers. 1866. pp. 87–88.
  12. "Cyrus Bellus" Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
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  72. 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.
  73. 1 2 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
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  76. James T. Campbell, Songs of Zion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p.259-260, accessed 13 Jan 2009


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