Antebellum Slavery/Plantation Slave Life







Leanne Carol

Life of a Slave Family

Slaves struggled to establish an ideal family life. The ideal family was one with a father, mother and children. There was also an emphasis on more distant family such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Marriages between slaves were not given legal recognition, but were encouraged by many masters, because it was at an advantage to them. With marriages, came happiness and less opposition. There also came more children, which increased the work force. The marriage ceremony was characterized by jumping over a broomstick and saying vows such as "till death or distance do you part" (Blackmon 20).

The family unit was the basic component of slave life in the 19th century. Females had two distinct role or occupations: working as slaves and being wives and mothers. They could nurture and care for their husbands within limits of their time and inclinations (Frazier ). It was a usual thing to see a woman coming from the field, where she had been hoeing cotton, with a bucket on her head, and a hoe over her shoulder, smoking a pipe and knitting as she went along and even carrying a baby on her back. In addition to their usual workload, they had to cook for their families, put children to bed and sometimes sew, spin and weave without much sleep. Generally, the woman's workday lasted longer than a man's did. It was not unlikely that a woman would be the most valuable field hand on the plantation or the most physically powerful individual there.

Conditions in the south, especially for the poor, were not good in regards to sickness and deaths. One could mistake a brave character of a mother for an uncaring one. Slave mothers lost many children due to the devastating conditions. The calmness of many of the mothers and fathers in the face of the death of their infants was astounding. Unfortunately, parents were slow to recognize the individuality of their children, for they knew well the possibility of losing them. This protective hardening of parents' attitudes towards the death of their children was common, but did not stop the mothers from welcoming their babies as joys and loving them while bracing themselves for inevitable losses.

Childcare many times were insufficient. From infancy, the mothers did not spend enough time with their babies. This unfortunate circumstance was through no fault of their own. They had to obey the rules and regulations of their masters. Slave women took little interest in their children either because the pressures of work overpowered them or because they did not want to raise them as slaves. While they were still babies, slave children received inadequate nursing from the mothers. With one month before and after the birth of the child to rest and with the few times to wean slave women often complained about the horrible conditions, but the masters were not as compassionate as they would have liked. During the nineteenth century nursing babies tree or four times a day was standard. Despite the limited times available to nurse, the mothers nursed the infants as long as they reasonably could. Although often accused of indifference to their children, slave mothers could hardly have made a deeper impression on the children themselves. The lifelong love of the children, male and female, for their mothers shines through the earlier writings of successful runaways, trough narratives and occasionally, through the eyes of the whites.


Life in the quarters sometimes exploded in violence. According to slaveholders, slave men had little sense of responsibility towards their families and abused them so severely that the masters had to intervene to protect the family. Without the interference of the whites, then the quarters would have "rung with the groans of abused women" ( ). By asserting himself as the protector of black women and children, the slaveholder reinforced his claims of being the pater familias, or the sole faster of the family. Slave women often did not welcome this protection. They preferred taking care of themselves or turning to their fathers or brothers when in danger. Women would claim the bruises were an accident to avoid confrontation with the slaveholder and their husbands. The slaves did not live like saints, but they took care of each other as well as any other family raised in a less genteel world.

The men of the slave families provided for them to a greater extent than given credit for, Had they not gone out to hunt food, the families would have faced malnutrition and deficiencies. They took pride in their efforts and the boys tool pride in their uncles, father and grandfathers. Trapping took skill, which was passed on, to preceding generations. For a boy growing up, joining the men to go hunting was a much-sought recognition of his manhood. Fishing was also a way of retrieving the night’s dinner, which was also considered a lazy pastime rather than a tiring chore. In the coastal Lowlands of Maryland and the Carolinas, had regions with some type of stream with something worth catching. Saturday afternoons were the selected day to go hunting because the men generally did heavy work on rainy days or in slack periods while the women sewed, cleaned and did other tasks. Masters often encouraged sexual division in order to give the male power in the household. Slave women were often identified by their husbands names, meaning they were not considered as important even though they did as much, if not more work than the men.

In the towns and on the farms, slaves lived in cabins situated near the master's house. On plantations, they lived in villages called quarters. The quarters consisted of a single or double row of cabins, or multiple unit tenements for families. There were also dormitories for unmarried men and women. The cabins merely served as places to sleep and shelters during weather. The designs of the cabins were ideal for those simple purposes. There was an emphasis to elevate the cabins in order to make them waterproof. They were furnished with plank flooring, glazed windows, a hinged door and a large fireplace and also a supply of pure drinking water. Quilts played an important role in the family as well as in furnishing the quarters. The quilts allowed the slaves to pass on their stories. They tucked messages into the designs. One such design was of praying represented in triangles. Some were given as rewards from the slave owners. Quilting mirrored the aspects of woman that have traditionally been valued: hard work, nurture and talent. Many wealthy planters provided cabins, which were close in standards to the comfort in the overseer's, the supervisor's cabin. Some were made of logs, others of bricks, clapboards or shingles. Often, two or more families shared dwellings, but these exemplary conditions were not the rule; they were the exception. Most cabins were cramped, crudely built, unpainted, badly furnished and dirty. Some were not more than 12 feet squared. Poor housing was as common as insufficient clothing and food. Other difficult conditions included leaky roofs and open floors, which led to loss of life. The crowded, dirty apartments induced much of the sickness. Houses such as those were plentiful. The dwellings were drab, cheerless, and leaky and did not exceed the minimum requirements for survival.


Slaves picking
cotton before
the Civil War

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