Plantation Life

"There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket be considered such, and none but the men and women had these...They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day's work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day; and when this is done, old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed,--the cold, damp floor,--each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets; and here they sleep till they are summoned to the field by the driver's horn."  Frederick Douglass, from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845

Slaves pictured in southern plantation slave quarters.


For slaves, life on the plantation was grueling work, with little respite from the tyranny of the master or overseer's watchful eyes.  Depending on their size, plantations comprised a multitude of buildings: the homes of the master's family, overseer, and slaves, as well as outbuildings, barns, and workshops.  Large plantations operated like self-sustaining villages, and thus, were often isolated from the outside world.  

Work on these plantations was never-ending for slaves.  Adult male slaves were primarily relied on to tend the fields, pastures, and gardens.  Overseers on horseback equipped with whips monitored slaves, always threatening to punish "stragglers" with a flogging.  Plantation owners also exploited the work of skilled slaves, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, for their own ends.  Lastly, female slaves and young children usually served as domestics, tending to the master's family as cooks, servants, and housemaids, and were often starved, whipped, and even raped.

Slaves at work:  women picking cotton (left), and kitchen tended by a female slave in a Georgia plantation (right).                       

Music and religion were sources of strength for slaves, and they infused both with African culture and meaning.   Because slaves often did not have the means to obtain many musical instruments, they often improvised and used their feet to tap out a tune in coordination. "Patting juba," or jubilee beating, took the form of a variety of dances that were usually accompanied by song.  Despite white southerners' attempts to "Christianize" blacks, slaves infused Christianity with their own African tribal and folk customs, creating a religion that spoke to their suffering and promised freedom in the afterlife.

  Slave chapel in South Carolina (left), and an unidentified banjo player (right).   

Despite the squalor they were forced to live in, many slaves nevertheless attempted to eke out a life as best they could.  And even though their master's claimed their bodies, slaves resisted complete domination of their mind and soul by keeping their African traditions and customs alive.   

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