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
Work and Leisure
by Rhiannon Theurer
The need for a fixed source of labor was the driving force behind slavery. An understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans and African Americans in Maryland, then, depends on an understanding of their working lives. To obtain a complete picture of their lives, we must examine the kinds of work black slaves did, their weekly and yearly schedules of work, and the material conditions affecting slaves' performance, such as discipline and nutrition. However, enslaved people were not soulless machines, and to study slaves lives, we must also look at what workers did in their leisure time. Sometimes the line between work and leisure blurred. For this essay, "work" is roughly defined as the duties slaves primarily performed for their masters, and "leisure" as the activities slaves performed for themselves.
Work schedules, both daily and yearly, were fairly stable. Except for house servants, who were more or less always on call, Maryland's enslaved blacks worked Mondays through Saturdays, sun up to sun down - or longer, depending on the time of year and the crops. Often, slaves were given Sundays as a day off, but occasionally masters ordered slaves to work on Sundays in special circumstances. John Thompson's owner had his work force pick tobacco that was threatened by frost. When his barn accidentally burned down not long after, his slaves felt it was just payment for forcing them to work on a Sunday.1 A holiday from Christmas Day to New Year's seems to also have been a standard agreement between master and slave. During this holiday, enslaved African Americans played games, held contests, worked on side businesses, and traveled to spend time with family and friends on other properties.
The duties of black slaves can be generally divided into house or fieldwork, but there were a wide range of possibilities in these two categories. Depending on the whims of the master, slaves might change positions several times. Charles Ball of Calvert County, for example, was trained as a waiter, later became a "market man," and then was made a field hand. When James Watkins, born around 1821 in Cockeysville, was sold to a new owner, he was also made a "market man." James Pennington, born in 1807, was apprenticed to a blacksmith but later studied carpentry. Some enslaved blacks were promoted to overseer, which put them in the difficult position of trying to satisfy both their master and their fellow slaves.
Each type of work Maryland's enslaved blacks performed had its own advantages and disadvantages. House slaves were closer to their masters, which increased the possibility of both kindness and brutality. Amanda Smith, born in 1837 in Northern Maryland, thought she had been "a good deal spoiled" as a child. If I wanted a piece of bread, and if it was not buttered and sugared on both sides, I wouldn't have it."2 Those who gained the notice of their masters might receive rewards such as more food or a better place to sleep, but they were also under closer watch from their masters. Field hands who worked and lived in quarters had more time away from their master's eyes, and therefore had more opportunities to leave the grounds for visits on other plantations.
On the other hand, a close relationship with the master could be beneficial to slaves. When Jacob Green, a stable-boy in Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore, released all of the horses to cover his loss of one horse, his master believed his pleas of innocence and punished all of the other slaves. Josiah Henson was born in 1789, near Port Tobacco in Charles County. He became his master's overseer, and when a free man beat Henson, his master took the man to court. Other slaves were not so lucky. One field hand who was beaten by her overseer complained to her master, who "sternly told her, in an angry tone, he 'believed she deserved every bit of it,'" and ordered her back to the field.3 Of course, a personal relationship is undoubtedly not the only reason these masters reacted they way they did. Henson was a skilled and valuable worker, and the attack was an insult to the master's property and hence an insult to himself. Frederick Douglass complained of his master taking the overseer's side, but if masters did not generally do so, it would be impossible to find anyone to work as an overseer.
Of course, there were some slaves in Maryland who did not have official jobs in the house, the field, or the workshop. Children and the elderly were usually exempt from working directly for a master or overseer. Elderly people, when "too feeble to perform much hard labour," were often exempt from working.4 Both Frederick Douglass, who grew up on the Eastern Shore near Easton, and Charles Ball had grandparents who were given their own cabins, separate from the rest of the quarters, as a reward for faithful service. Indeed, one of the arguments owners used to defend slavery was that it provided a kind of social security net for those unable to work. But though the elderly were no longer working as servants or field hands, they usually still had the responsibility of taking care of children. Mothers were sent back to work fairly soon after giving birth. John Thompson, born in 1812, reported that women were allowed to rest for four weeks after giving birth. After that, mothers must take their children into the field with them or entrust them to the care of older children or adults.5 Older black slaves also instructed children. Frederick Douglass remembered "Dr." Isaac Cooper, who was in charge of teaching the "Lord's Prayer" to slave children on the plantation.6
Whether or not small children worked depended upon their owner. Usually if children did work, it was at tasks as strenuous as field work. James Watkins had a memory of beginning to care for the cows at around age five or six.7 Jacob Green and Josiah Henson were both in charge of fetching water while small.8 Others, like Douglass, had a fairly free, idyllic childhood even after he left his grandmother's house, playing with other children and swimming in a local creek.9 Amanda Smith seems to have been the special pet of her mistress, and though she had the job of dragging a chair for her mistress to sit on outside, it appears to have also been an opportunity for Smith to play outside.10
Not all slaves lived and worked under their master's eye. Some slaves had a range - however limited - of other work opportunities available to them. Samuel Ward, was born on the Eastern Shore in 1817, remembered that his mother was allowed to work off the estate, "provided she paid to the estate a certain sum annually."11 Ward's mother was able to earn more than she had to pay to the estate, and she could buy things to make her family's life easier. Other slaves had their labor hired out by their masters to other estates, for one-year contracts that started on Christmas or New Year. Both John Thompson and Frederick Douglass had their labor hired out to other people. Thompson, in fact, worked for several different masters. Some owners, like Thompson's, looked out for their own if the "renter" treated them cruelly. After one beating, Thompson returned to his mistress, Elizabeth Thomas, who, as he recalled, "did not believe this was for any fault of mine, but simply because they grudged her her property."12 She then got her brother to visit a constable and make a complaint. At the end of the year, Thompson found another situation. Other enslaved blacks were not so lucky. When Douglass returned to his owner to make a complaint against the man he was working for, his owner told Douglass to return, because he had half a year's work left and those wages could not be lost.13
Discipline was another factor that varied wildly from master to master. African American slaves were publicly punished for minor offenses, and offenses they did not commit, to assert the master's dominance over slaves at all times. On an individual basis, lashes were a continual threat, as overseers and masters supervising their work in the fields carried whips. Some disciplinary methods were quite gruesome. Josiah Henson was once badly beaten by the overseer of his master's brother. "It was five months before I could work at all, and the first time I tried to plough, a hard knock of the colter against a stone, shattered my shoulder-blades again, and gave me even greater agony than at first."14 Henson's master took the overseer to court for abusing his property.
Jacob Green described the punishment given out to Dan, who had killed one of the master's sons for raping a slave woman, Mary. Dan was tied to a stake and burnt alive. More importantly, the other slaves on the plantation were forced to watch as a warning: "[N]ot one of us was allowed to leave until the body of poor Dan was consumed."15 Slaves were also subject to random mass punishments. Green also recalled how the entire plantation (excepting himself) was given 39 lashes when no one would admit to letting the horses out of the barn. When Green (who had actually committed the offense) singled out one person as having a grudge against him, that slave was given more lashes and made to apologize.16 However, minor crimes were often not punished as harshly. Green once stole a few sweet potatoes and was whipped for it.17
Some owners used ingenious methods to make a whipping more painful without incapacitating a slave. Charles Ball, among others, reported getting a dozen lashes of the whip, then having hot water with peppers in it being poured on his back. "[A]s I could not be spared from the field without great disadvantage to my master's crop, he suggested a different plan, by which, in his opinion, the greatest degree of pain could be inflicted on me, with the least danger of rendering me unable to work."18
It was not only from masters and overseers that enslaved blacks might get the whip. "It is supposed to secure obedience to the slaveholder, and is held as a sovereign remedy among the slaves themselves, for every form of disobedience, temporal or spiritual. Slaves, as well as slaveholders, use it with an unsparing hand."19 Because it seems that it was mostly children and not adults who were so disciplined, it may have been partly an attempt to introduce children to life as a slave. One of the duties of enslaved parents and elders was to teach children "how to survive in bondage."20
Maryland's enslaved blacks seem to have lived in a continual state of hunger, largely subsisting on cornmeal. Although Frederick Douglass wrote that for slaveholders, "[t]he rule is, no matter how coarse the food, only let there be enough of it," he acknowledged that it was just a general rule instead of a firm law.21 Even if slaves got a sufficient quantity of food, their diet was generally poor. Most masters provided a little more than cornmeal, usually giving salt and some meat such as poor quality cured pork or fish. John Thompson wrote that although one man he worked for "was a tolerably good man," he "fed his slaves most miserably, giving them meat only once each month."22 James Watkins's master occasionally gave his black slaves whisky as part of their rations.23 Josiah Henson remembered his rations including salt herrings, and for the summer months, buttermilk. Henson is one of the few narrators to mention anyone being given what he called a "truck patch," or private garden, on which slaves might raise some extra food.24
Some favored workers were allowed more. Noah Davis, originally from Madison County, Virginia, wrote that his "father had been allowed to keep a cow and horse, for his own use; and to raise and feed his hogs and poultry from the mill."25 Most of the enslaved, however, were not so lucky, and had to steal or secretly hunt for extra food. Those near rivers or the Chesapeake Bay could take advantage of the waters by fishing, or hunting for oysters.26 Other slaves simply stole from their master's kitchens or fields. James Watkins once "found" a dozen eggs, which he intended to use to form the basis of a feast for himself and his friends.27
One of the benefits of reading stories directly from the African American slaves is that we can get a sense of how they felt about their work. Some gained a sense of pride in learning special skills or being entrusted with special duties. Josiah Henson was made an overseer, and though aware that his master was saving money by not hiring a free man, Henson reported feeling "proud of the favor he now showed me, and of the character and reputation I had earned by strenuous and persevering efforts."28 When Henson's master was facing financial ruin, he asked Henson to take the plantation slaves to a relative in Kentucky. Being so close to Ohio sparked thoughts of freedom among the slaves, including Henson, who had long been saving to purchase himself and his family. But Henson resisted the temptation:
"I had promised that man to take his property to Kentucky, and deposit it with his brother; and this, and this only, I resolved to do.What advantages I may have lost, by thus throwing away an opportunity of obtaining freedom, I know not; but the perception of my own strength of character, the feeling of integrity, the sentiment of high honor, I have experienced,--these advantages I do know, and prize; and would not lose them, nor the recollection of having attained them, for all that I can imagine to have resulted from an earlier release from bondage."29
James Pennington, trained from childhood as a blacksmith, went beyond his normal duties and experimented with complicated weaponry.30 Pennington does not mention if these experiments were for sale or intended for a darker purpose. Though trained as a craftsman to make him more valuable to his owner, Pennington found a sense of self worth in his work. He claimed: "my blacksmith's pride and taste was one thing that had reconciled me so long to remain a slave."31 Others were angry about their labor. Most, however, seem to have been merely indifferent, content with doing enough work to stay out of the overseer or master's way.
Of course, the boundaries between work and leisure were sometimes blurry. Sometimes "husking parties" were held, when enslaved blacks from various plantations would get together and "commence to husk corn, and not unfrequently they [kept] it up till long after midnight, singing songs and telling stories."32 Masters generally approved of these parties, as a good deal of work would be done. For their part, the slaves enjoyed a chance to meet up and have a party. William Green cited the refusal of one master to allow his slaves to attend such events as evidence of his "miserly" nature.
Many ex-slaves wrote about producing goods in their spare time to sell, sometimes for pocket money, sometimes in hopes of freedom for themselves or for family members. Noah Davis was given a pass to travel north, so that he might earn money to buy himself through preaching.33 Most, however, were restricted to working on their master's land and in their own free hours, and so they made baskets and other goods to be sold at the market. Although Amanda Smith remembered that her father's owner liked him enough to allow him to make and sell goods for his own profit, he still had to do it "after his day's work was done for his mistress."34 James Pennington helped his own father make baskets at night.35 James Watkins gave the impression of working 'behind his master's back' when he wrote that he "managed to dispose of" the woven goods he made in his spare time to earn money for his escape.36
Enslaved African Americans were not always engaged in work. Religious meetings seem to have been popular with most of the slaves in the narratives, both for its spiritual and community value. Noah Davis later became a minister, but as a young man was initially attracted to church because of the young women there.37 Black slaves were not the only ones to attend religious meetings. Amanda Smith's mother accompanied her mistress to a Methodist Camp Meeting, and Smith herself was taken to church by her owners.38 Elizabeth recalled that, as a child, her father read aloud from the Bible every Sunday morning.39 Some masters encouraged religion, while others frowned upon it. Josiah Henson received permission to travel a few miles to listen to a preacher. When Henson returned to his plantation, he began to preach to his fellow slaves.40 As previously noted, children on one of the plantations Frederick Douglass lived on were sent to an elder to learn prayers. John Thompson's master, however, disapproved of the spread of Methodism among his slaves and, according to Thompson, bought a slave who could play the fiddle in order to "bring them back to their former ignorant condition."41 Despite their master's stance, most enslaved workers seem to have participated in religious activity.
Education was another leisure activity for slaves. Some masters supported some of these endeavors, most notably in the case of Sunday schools. Most slaves, it seems, were eager for knowledge. They had to find ways to teach themselves how to read, as it was illegal for an enslaved person to become literate. Of course, it is important to remember that the authors were an exceptional group and may not be representative of the population as a whole. Leonard Black's master in Anne Arundel County received a visitor who tipped Black for his services. Black used the money to buy a book and then tried to make out the writing. Though the book was discovered and burnt, Black was able to get more money and buy himself another book, which was later taken away from him as well.42 Frederick Douglass was a rare slave who was taught to read by his owner. His mistress stopped her lessons after a reprimand by her husband, but Douglass persisted in his quest for knowledge. He used bread to bribe children in his neighborhood to help him with his reading.43
Learning to write was another struggle. Noah Davis taught himself first by imitating letters written by his master, and then by attending church and trying to match up the names of books in his Bible with the words of the minister.44 Frederick Douglass slowly learned to write by observing the workers in his master's dockyard mark each plank with a letter for the part of the ship it was intended for.45
Slaves tried to pass on their knowledge to other slaves. Davis founded a "Sabbath School" for African Americans in Baltimore.46 Douglass also started a Sunday School, and taught reading three nights a week.47 Jacob Green was a more unusual student, choosing not to become literate but rather to study the stars, so he might use them as a guide when running away.48
Some activities slaves took part in were purely recreational. They sang and played instruments. John Thompson's master bought a fiddler for his workers, "as slaves [were] very fond of dancing."49 Singing was a way to get through the workday, and could allow people to comment on their masters: "Among a mass of nonsense and wild frolic, once in a while a sharp hit is given to the meanness of slaveholders."50
African American slaves were also able to spend their free hours in ways that reveal flexibilities built into the slave system. Masters more or less looked the other way when slaves left on Saturday nights to go visit friends and relatives on other properties, so long as they were back and ready to work on Monday morning and caused no disturbances while visiting. If slaves stayed away for a few days, they might be punished, but "very little alarm was felt for a slave's absence until Wednesday, unless his previous conduct had excited suspicion."51 Some masters even expected truancy from slaves, which could help a slave get a head start for freedom. When James Williams ran away from Cecil County on the Eastern Shore, his master dismissed rumors that Williams had left for good, only saying, "Oh, the boy has only gone on a spree, and will be home again in a few days."52