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
Masculinities and Femininities in Antebellum Maryland Slave Society
by Rhiannon Theurer
Most ex-slave authors do not comment directly on slave femininity or masculinity. Obviously, slaves could not have the strictly divided gender spheres that whites did, not when men and women were both expected to perform arduous field labor. There were some gender boundaries, but when practicality demanded they could be easily crossed. Both elderly men and women regularly took care of children because mothers were sent back to work fairly soon after giving birth. John Thompson 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.1
Slaves were also open to transgressing gender norms when circumstances demanded it. A few narratives reference slaves essentially cross-dressing to hide themselves while trying to runaway. Harriet Tubman's brother bought a man's suit for his girlfriend, Catherine. She threw her clothes in a river and put on the suit.2 Tubman made a particularly daring rescue of a fugitive slave being held in a U.S. Commissioner's office. While a riot was started to distract the man's guards, Tubman put her bonnet on his head to disguise him as an old woman.3 That slaves could "cross-dress" indicates that clothing was normally gendered. However, these examples are more about using any means possible to escape, not deliberately breaking gender norms.
Men and women seem to have been treated essentially the same by their masters, though exceptions were sometimes made for pregnant women. As in much of slave life, things seem to have depended largely upon the masters in question. Charles Ball remembered a march led by a slave trader: "Two of the women were pregnant; the one far advanced-- and she already complained of inability to keep pace with our march; but her complaints were disregarded."4 If pregnant women were treated differently, it was probably because a slave child was an investment. Samuel Ward remembered that his mother was a "difficult" slave. Her master considered selling her, but Samuel was a sickly child, and it was decided that his mother be allowed to stay to nurse him back to health.5
Ex-slave narrators were divided on whether or not women received the same types of punishments that men did. Douglass wrote: "It is often deemed advisable to knock a man slave down, in order to tie him, but it is considered cowardly and inexcusable, in an overseer, thus to deal with a woman. He is expected to tie her up, and to give her what is called, in southern parlance, a "genteel flogging," without any very great outlay of strength or skill."6
Yet Douglass also recalled witnessing a slave named Esther being beaten until "she could scarcely stand" for refusing to end a relationship with a slave on another plantation.7 Public punishment for women may have been less common, and thus more of a public spectacle as well. Sarah Hopkins Bradford, the nineteenth century writer and biographer of Harriet Tubman, wrote an "Essay on Woman-Whipping" in which she claimed that "if the subject is a woman, the interest rises higher, and the crowd would be greater."8
Once slave trading was restricted within the United States, owners were forced to rely on the reproductive capacity of their slaves. Some owners forced their slaves to "marry." Jacob Green remembered, "When I arrived at the age of 20, my master told me I must marry Jane, one of the slaves."9 They eventually had two children together, not counting the child Jane was carrying at the time of her marriage. Green recorded that he considered himself content with Jane. Harriet Tubman helped a slave named Tilly escape after Tilly's master decided to disregard a previous engagement and marry Tilly to another slave.10 Other owners used slaves simply for breeding, without concern for the pretense of marriage. Frederick Douglass worked for a Mr. Covey, who bought one slave, Caroline, and "boasted that he bought her simply "as a breeder."11
While it appears slaves led seemingly similar lives regardless of gender, ex-slave authors held fairly traditional views on differences between men and women.12 Josiah Henson and James Williams made fairly typical remarks on this perceived difference, writing of "female timidity" as compared to "the sterner sex."13 When extended character descriptions are given of slaves, we typically see passive women and active men. Frederick Douglass wrote of boys' naturally boisterous nature; Harriet Tubman's father provided Tubman and her siblings with food when they ran away, while her mother paced and sighed.14
The women who do break through these boundaries are usually mothers, whose "maternal instincts" give them the power to act boldly. Samuel Ward's mother was not sold, despite disobedience, because her "mothering" was considered essential to his health. William Green remembered his parents arguing about running away when he was a child. His mother urged his father to run away, but Green's father "hesitated; he was not a mother."15 If these women act "unfeminine," it is really because they are super feminine and maternal, so they are not breaking any serious gender boundaries.
Harriet Tubman is presented as the exception to these standard rules of femininity, but her deep religious feeling and her nickname of "Moses" made her appear (at least in Bradford's rendition) less like an extraordinary woman, and more like a sexless, religious warrior reminiscent of Joan of Arc. She once waved a pistol at scared runaway slaves, telling them, "Dead niggers tell no tales; you go on or die!"16 She complained about the impracticality of women's dresses, resolving that she would "never wear a long dress on another expedition of the kind, but would have a bloomer."17 It is important to keep in mind that many enslaved women may have shared Tubman's strength and courage, even if it is not reflected in male-dominated sources.
A notable absence in the narratives is any discussion of slave masculinity - although the emphasis on women's femininity may be a way of shoring up masculinity. Slavery presented a challenge to the "manliness" of slaves. At any moment an owner could reduce a slave man to nothingness. While visiting other plantations, John Thompson used to play the game of waiting out the slave patrollers, so that the women did not think he was a coward. The magistrate played on this fear when sentencing Thompson for allegedly stealing wheat from one of the plantations he visited: "When I reached the place of trial, I saw a large collection of people, it being the day for magistrates' meetings, and among the rest, the girl I was courting, brought there for the purpose of humbling my pride, and mortifying me. For you must think, reader, that it would be rather mortifying to be stripped and flogged in the presence of a girl, especially, after cutting such a swell as I had."18
If a slave woman was in trouble, there was little a slave man could do to protect her without risking punishment himself. Dan, a slave man, came upon his master's son raping his girlfriend Mary. He killed the man with a pitchfork, and in turn was burnt alive. Reportedly, Mary drowned herself when she realized that her story would not be believed.19 Frederick Douglass wrote about Nelly, a slave woman whose husband held a favored position. When the overseer wanted to beat Nelly, she resisted. "The overseer never was allowed to whip Harry; why then should he be allowed to whip Harry's wife?" But Harry's status could not protect Nelly, and in the end she was beaten.20
Jacob Green's narrative is rare in that he makes repeated references to white masters having sex with slave women.21 One of the women Green had been courting earlier told him "that she had already had a child to her master in Mobile, and that her mistress had sold her down here for revenge."22 Later, the son of Mary's new master raped her in the barn. Green's master had him marry the slave woman Jane, and when she gave birth five months after their marriage, Green asked Jane who the father was. She claimed the master had impregnated her. Green believed her, as "the child was nearly white, had blue eyes and veins."23 Jane was not the only slave her master had sex with; another slave, Dinah, complained to her mistress that the master had "outraged and violated her youngest daughter."24
John Thompson is the only other author to explicitly discuss master-slave sexual relations. His sister served as a housemaid and, though "a virtuous girl," "none could escape the licentious passions" of her master, Dr. Thomas.25 Thompson's sister was whipped repeatedly for refusing Dr. Thomas, and she appealed to her mistress for help. Mrs. Thomas arranged for Thompson's sister to have a church wedding to another slave. Thompson also relates another interesting relationship, that of the free cook and Dr. Thomas. It is unclear if the relationship was consensual. When the cook's husband came to visit her, Thompson went to get her and "found she was in a room with the doctor, the door of which was fast."26 When the cook's husband found out, she denied it to him. Thompson does not elaborate on the incident, so we are left to wonder: did the cook deny being in a locked room because it was non-consensual and she was ashamed, or because it was consensual and she was trying to cover her tracks? It would have been easy to claim the master was raping her, unless she was afraid to upset her husband - who, though free, could not really do anything about it.
Unfortunately, slave narratives do not give us an idea whether or not slave men lorded authority over slave women as one of the few spheres they might be able to exercise control in. It is not inconceivable that they would have been like white men in this regard, particularly given the ways general attitudes toward women coincide with white society. For example, while still a slave, Harriet Tubman was married to a free black man who "did his best to betray her, and bring her back after she escaped."27 It is hard to guess at his motivations. It may have been an attempt by a man to control his disobedient wife, to keep her near him. Perhaps it had something to do with the tensions between free blacks and slaves. It could have been simple opportunism, as the reward for Tubman was substantial and continually increasing.