Essays on Slave Communities
From Sunrise to Sunset: Beneath the Underground Interns' Essays on Slave Life in Maryland
Part of the internship program at the Maryland State Archives was structured towards original research on how ex-slaves depicted their lives in Maryland before they became free. The following series of essays are the result of the interns' study.
- Childhood in Slavery
- Interratial Connections
- Slave Community
- Slaves and Religion
- Work and Leisure
- Masculinity and Feminity
- Slavery, Resistance and Flight
Childhood in Slavery
by Desiree Lee
The environment where a slave spent his or her infancy through childhood set the foundation of the slave child's life. Slave children were often forced to move when they were sold to different masters. Many slave children were taken from their families as early as three years old.1 Some stayed with their families as old as seven and some lucky slave children were never removed from their family.2 In most situations slave children were sold several times throughout their childhood. Some, if given the opportunity, were later able to return to their original plantations but it was seldom possible.
For most slave children, the separation from their parents and the siblings was the hardest aspect of being sold. Slaves went to great lengths to keep their family together, but there was often limits to what they could do. For example, the narrative of Charles Ball described the separation between his mother and himself after being sold.
"But my poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms, and wept loudly and bitterly over me. My master seemed to pity her, and endeavored to soothe her distress by telling her that he would be a good master to me, and that I should not want any thing. She then, still holding me in her arms, walked along the road beside the horse as he moved slowly, and earnestly and imploringly besought my master to buy her and the rest of her children, and not permit them to be carried away by the Negro buyers; but whilst thus entreating him to save her and her family, the slave-driver, who had first bought her, came running in pursuit of her with a raw hide in his hand. When he overtook us he told her he was her master now, and ordered her to give that little Negro to its owner, and come back with him. My mother then turned to him and cried, "Oh, master, do not take me from my child!" Without making any reply, he gave her two or three heavy blows on the shoulders with his raw hide, snatched me from her arms, handed me to my master, and seizing her by one arm, dragged her back towards the place of sale."3
While childhood for most slaves was characterized by brutality and loss, they were sometimes able to make room for play. Lucy Brooks mentioned how, as a young slave girl, she and other slave girls had a playhouse.4 James V. Deane talked of working with other small boys in the fields and playing games with them such as marbles, mumble pegs, and ring plays. He remembered that a popular children's' song of the time was London Bridge.5 Richard Macks recalls how he too, worked in the field with other small children and used to run races with other boys, play marbles and have jumping contests. James Wiggins recalled being very fond of dancing, and that his two favorite dances were the jig and the buck. He also stated "we played the children's games of that time which were, tops, marbles and, another game called skinny, that was played on tree and grape vines."6 Once they began working, slave children had little free time for leisure activities. Their main activities were sneaking time to learn and read, and religious activities such as church socials. Wrestling and boxing were introductory sports for boys. Husking parties and general socializing after a full workday were also used for leisure.7
The character of their masters and mistresses had great impact on the lives of slave children. In the narrative by Lewis Charles, he described his first master as a well-meaning man, who had a kind heart, many noble qualities, and professed to be a devout Methodist.8 His wife, however, was portrayed as a "harsh, cruel, hardhearted, tyrannical woman, her whole being was filled with hatred of the blackest and bitterest kind against the poor down-trodden, crushed, despised and trampled slave; She was only happy when she had her slaves tied up to the whipping post, stripped naked, with a pair of flat irons fastened to their feet, she then would stand by, drawing the lash like an infuriated demon, all the nicer sensibilities of her womanly nature seemed to be crushed out of existence. She would ply the lash until the poor victim would faint dead away, and when the rope was cut they would fall weltering in their own gore, then she would order them to be dragged like dogs back to their little huts, and after they had been washed in salt and water, she would send them into the field to work as before under the burning, scorching rays of the sun ."9 Charles also described his relationship with his second master as very kind, and that he was treated well. However, before he was large enough to work at the trade, his master's wife died, and Charles was again sold. This time, he was bought by Mr. Fornistock, and taught to learn the tanner's trade. Charles claimed Fornistock was a "disagreeable, tyrannical wretch, and imbibed freely in the intoxicating cup, and when under its fascinating influence, he was a demon and a fiend, ready and willing to commit almost any crime, and the cruel, inhuman, barbarous treatment while Lewis was there."10
Not only was a child's relationship with his or her master critical during their early development, but also the living conditions made by the mistress. For example, in the narrative of Charlton Lewis, he described the way his mistress treated him. When he was a babe, he was kept in a quarter house from four o'clock in the morning to nine o'clock in the evening, without anything to eat or drink, or any fire to keep him warm. He claimed he was denied friends to care for him in his helplessness, and he was kept that way for fourteen months.11
The slave child's relationship with the parents was a very special, and many families had very strong bonds. Overall, slave families were large; some families had up to fifteen or more children, grandparents and the mother and father. In most circumstances the mother was the head of the family with regard to food, shelter, and medical areas. Both parents worked away for the majority of the day.12 Mothers often sacrificed their own health for their children. After dividing the scanty pittance of food allowed her by her mistress, between her sons and daughters, mothers would often go without food herself. Whatever victuals she could obtain beyond the coarse food, salt fish, and corn-bread, she carefully distributed among her children, and treated them with all the tenderness which her own miserable condition would permit.13
Most slave children grew up in circumstances of want. Charles Ball's narrative described the nutrition aspect of slavery. "I did not receive much whipping, but suffered greatly for want of sufficient and proper food."14 Some masters allowed each slave a peck of corn per week, and throughout the year slaves had to grind into meal in a hand mill for themselves. "There was a tolerable supply of meat for a short time, about the month of December, when the master killed his hogs. After that season slaves could possibly have meat once a week, unless bacon became scarce, which often happened, in which case slaves had no meat at all. However, if they were fortunate to live near both the Patuxent river and the Chesapeake Bay,"15 There was an abundance of fish in the spring, and as long as the fishing season continued. After that period, each slave received, in addition to his allowance of corn, one salt herring every day.16 Clothing was scarce and depending on the slave's master one might be given one pair of shoes, one pair of stockings, one hat, one jacket of coarse cloth, two coarse shirts, and two pair of trousers yearly.17 Often, the clothing given to slaves was not enough to protect them from bad weather. Lewis Charles recounted that
"One very cold, stinging, bitter, frosty day, as I lay on my little ragged couch with scarcely any covering over me to keep me comfortable, child like, I kicked the covering from my feet, and when my mother returned late that cold winter night, she found her child with both feet frozen, and when she doctored my feet, having placed a poultice upon them, and when next morning she removed the poultice my toes came off with it as though they had been cut off with a sharp, keen knife."18
During childhood, a slave's education was extremely limited. For many the only opportunity to read or to receive any type of teaching was from the bible and the church. For example, G.W. Offley began to learn the alphabet when he was nineteen years and eight months old.19 While on his way to work he found a piece of a chapter of an old Bible, Genesis 25, concerning Isaac, Jacob, and Esau.20 At this time there was an old colored man working for his father who took the piece of Bible, and read it to him. Offley had never heard that much of the bible before and told him he would like to learn to read. The man told him to get a book and he would teach him while he stayed with Offley's family.21 Offley bought a little primer, and Sunday morning he began to teach him to read. By Monday morning he could repeat the entire alphabet.22 The older man would give him lessons at night and Sabbath mornings.23 The old man said when he used to take his master's children to school he would carry his book in his hat and get the children to give him a lesson in the interval of the school.24 Other slaves, like David Walker, were able to learn to read by his mistress who taught him to read in "two syllables."25 He later wrote and published, "Appeal" in 1829.26 However, Walker's situation was exceptional. Many slave owners forbade slaves to learn to read because of the power it gave them.
Children's skills and work were another aspect of a slaves childhood. Certain children were trained at an early age in specific skills. William Green, a slave from the Eastern Shore, was trained at childhood to be a horse rider because of his size, and then after he could no longer ride horses he became a house worker as a wedding dowry to his master's daughter.27 Charlton Lewis stated that his master imposed many laborious duties upon him, that no child could possibly do; he would make him spread heavy hides, so heavy that men could hardly handle them, and a great many times he had been pulled into the vats, waist deep in water and ice, then he would crawl up out of the water. Shivering and suffering in wet clothes, he was then driven by his cruel master to resume his work again.28 Then because he could not do a man's work, he had to be tied up to a whipping post and with his flesh lacerated so badly he could not lay down for weeks; still there was no sympathy or charity for him.29 Greensbury Washington also performed many duties as a slave child. From the time he was nine years old he worked and supported himself until he was twenty-one years old, and all of his wages went to his master.30 When he was ten years old he sat down, and taking an old basket to pieces, taught himself to make baskets.31 After that he learned to make foot mats and horse collars out of cornhusks, and also two kinds of brooms. He made these articles at night and sold them to get money for him self. When he was sixteen years old he commenced taking contracts of wood chopping at fifty cents per cord, and hired slaves to chop for him nights. In the fall and winter they would make their fire and chop until eleven or twelve at night. They used to catch oysters and fish at night, and hire other slaves to peddle them out on Sunday mornings. By this way he helped some to buy their freedom.32