Life for enslaved men and women

Life on the plantation

In the early 19th century, almost three million slaves worked on Southern farms and plantations. More than half of them lived on plantations that had field hands and house servants. Field hands typically worked in a gang-labor system, under the supervision of an overseer. The field hands worked up to 20 hours a day clearing land, planting seed, and harvesting crops.

The women were usually house servants with duties such as sewing, cooking, quilting, cleaning the house, supervising the children, and serving as midwives. Many enslaved women also worked in the fields.

Brutality and resistance

The slaves were frequently separated from their family members so that slaveowners could improve their own financial situation.

Legal codes governing the behavior of enslaved men and women became harsher. Slaves were not allowed to defend themselves against violence from whites, nor did they have any legal standing in the courts. They were not allowed to leave their owner’s property without express permission. Whipping, branding, mutilation, and even death used to punish transgressions. Patrols of free white men enforced the slave codes.

The slaves sometimes did rebel. The most famous case is a rebellion that occurred in 1831. Nat Turner was a Virginia slave whose owner had taught him to read. He organized a rebellion. The slaves killed Turner’s owner and 60 other white people. The rebel slaves were caught and executed.

Slaves were also engaged in acts of everyday resistance, such as stealing food or pretending to be sick to get out of working. Slaves also performed acts of vandalism, such as breaking farm tools or purposely destroying crops. Sometimes they hurt themselves in order to escape the brutal reality of a life of forced servitude. When possible, some slaves managed to escape to freedom in the North.

Religion and slave culture

Religion played a big role in the lives of many slaves. Slave culture in the US South drew on religious influences other than just Christianity. West African spiritual traditions and beliefs were a huge part of their culture. Some of these traditions included the belief in the power of totems and protective charms, and the practice of predicting the future. They held their own gatherings and celebrations where they danced, sang, and told folktales.

Source: Life for enslaved men and women
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