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The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Identify various tactics employed by slaveowners and slaves, why they were used, and which were most common.

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what's covered
Many white Americans had no problem with racial inequality prior to the Civil War, and white southerners, such as John C. Calhoun, developed arguments to justify slavery in their region. In their eyes, slavery was essential for a stable political and economic system that promoted white freedom and property ownership.

In contrast, African-American slaves experienced daily traumas as the human property of southern masters. They resisted their condition in a variety of ways, and many found some solace in Christianity and in the communities they created on plantations. There were also several instances where slaves violently resisted their condition by fomenting open rebellion.

Our examination of slave experiences breaks down as follows:

  1. Life as a Slave
  2. Slave Resistance
  3. Slave Rebellions

1. Life as a Slave

In addition to cotton, the great commodity of the antebellum South was human chattel. Slavery was the cornerstone of the southern economy. By 1850, about 3.2 million slaves labored in the United States, 1.8 million of whom worked in the cotton fields.

Southern whites frequently relied upon the idea of planter paternalism to justify slavery’s existence and its importance to the southern economy.

term to know
Planter Paternalism
The premise that southern white slaveholders acted in the best interests of their slaves.

Slaveholders believed they acted in the best interests of slaves by taking responsibility for their care, feeding, discipline, and even their Christian morality. However, paternalism grossly misrepresented the reality of slavery, which was, by any measure, a dehumanizing, traumatizing, and horrifying condition.

Slaveholders used both psychological coercion and physical violence to maximize slave labor and to prevent any slave from disobeying their wishes. Often, the most efficient way to discipline slaves was to threaten to sell them. The lash, meanwhile, was the most common form of physical punishment. Some masters also used neck braces, balls and chains, leg irons, and other objects to punish slaves. Such forms of punishment often occurred publicly, so that the entire slave population knew what could happen if they failed to satisfy their masters’ demands.

Although slaveholders justified their methods under the guise of paternalism, coercion and violence had important physical and emotional ramifications for slaves. Under planter paternalism, slaves worked in the fields from sunup to sundown, oftentimes enduring threats of intimidation throughout. They bore scars from hard labor and physical violence. They also lived under the constant possibility that their owner might sell family and friends to another plantation.

did you know
One lyric in a slave song went, “Mother, is Massa going to sell us tomorrow?”

The above images provided stark evidence of slavery’s cruelty. Peter (a), a former slave from Louisiana, displayed his scars to a Civil War photographer in 1863. The original caption of the photograph reads: “Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer.” Meanwhile, the drawing of an iron mask, collar, leg shackles, and spurs (b) demonstrates the various cruel and painful instruments that masters and overseers used to restrain slaves.

think about it
Peter notes that his master discharged the overseer who whipped him shortly after the incident. Why do you think his master did this, and do you think the ideology of planter paternalism played any role in the master’s actions?

Southern slaveholders also attempted to control the personal lives of their slaves. Under southern law, slaves could not marry. Nonetheless, some slaveholders allowed their slaves to marry in order to foster harmony on the plantation. Masters sometimes allowed slaves to choose their own partners, but they could also veto a match.

did you know
Some masters forced certain slaves to form unions, anticipating the birth of more children (and consequently greater profits) from them.

Even if slaves were allowed to marry, couples always faced the prospect of being sold away from each other. Moreover, once they had children, slave parents faced the horrifying reality that they or their children could be sold and separated at any time.

did you know
Historians estimate that, during the 19th century, one-third of all slave children in the United States were separated from one or both parents.

2. Slave Resistance

Nevertheless, slaves did not accept their condition passively. Rather, they sought and found many ways to resist their shackles and develop their own communities and cultures that undermined planter paternalism.

Day-to-day resistance in the fields and within plantation homes was the most common form of slave resistance, because it was difficult for owners and overseers to control. It could take numerous forms. Slaves could slow down the workday and sabotage the system in small ways, by breaking tools, faking illness or injury, or hiding their intelligence by feigning childishness and ignorance when talking to overseers or plantation owners.

Slaves also achieved degrees of independence by providing for their own nourishment.

did you know
Many slaves suffered from a disease known as pellagra, which was caused by a deficiency in essential B vitamins. This was because weekly rations on a plantation comprised primarily of corn and pork, which offered plenty of calories but little in nutritional value. Symptoms of pellagra included pain, dry skin, headaches or dizziness, and, in its worst stages, diarrhea, hallucinations, and death.

Slave masters knew that they had to overcome obstacles such as pellagra to achieve maximum cotton production, so they often gave slaves sufficient time and resources to procure more food on their own. Many masters allowed slaves to tend their own gardens and livestock. Many slaves also hunted, fished, trapped, or gathered to supplement their diets further. By allowing slaves to engage in such activities, masters relinquished some of their power. Moreover, slaves were able to experience a degree of autonomy, and received an opportunity to provide for their families by engaging in such basic subsistence activities.

Some slaves resisted their enslavement by escaping North. If caught, the consequences were often more severe, resulting in brutal whippings, facial branding or mutilation, sale, or even sometimes death. Thus, this form of resistance was less common. Most runaway slaves were young men because women were more likely to be responsible for children. For both men and women, running away severed familial and communal ties.

While some ran northward to freedom, most runaway slaves did not go far. Many ran away temporarily in an attempt to flee disciplinary action. A number traveled to nearby plantations to see family members. Some also escaped to remote areas or to cities such as New Orleans, where they became members of free black communities.

did you know
During escape attempts, slaves relied heavily on informal, verbal communication networks. It is from these networks that we have the phrase “heard through the grapevine.”

Other forms of resistance were cultural in nature. Slave parents went on to show their children the best ways to survive under slavery. They taught children to be discreet, submissive, and guarded around whites. They also told children stories that included tales of tricksters, sly slaves, or animals who outwitted their antagonists. Such stories provided comfort in humor, and reinforced the slaves’ sense of the wrongs of slavery.

Brer Rabbit

Among the most popular children's tales was that of Brer Rabbit (Brother Rabbit), depicted here in an illustration from Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation (1881) by Joel Chandler Harris. Stories of Brer Rabbit showcased his ability to outwit opponents and challenge authority figures.

Along with family, faith provided slaves a means to endure and resist slavery. Many slaves embraced Christianity and, while masters emphasized a scriptural message of obedience to whites and a better day awaiting slaves in heaven, slaves focused on Christianity’s uplifting message of freedom from bondage and equality in the eyes of God.

Slave spirituals and folk songs are one way that historians uncovered how slaves interpreted slaveholding and slave life in the South. Songs such as “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” referenced the Exodus (the Old Testament account of the Hebrews’ escape from bondage in Egypt) and allowed slaves to freely express messages of hope, struggle, justice, and the eventual deliverance of their people from slavery.

did you know
The song “Roll, Jordan, Roll” was originally written by a Methodist preacher in England. It arrived in the United States by the early 19th century and was sung at numerous camp meetings that were affiliated with the Second Great Awakening. Shortly thereafter, it became a well-known song among African-American slaves.

The version of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” provided below was originally included in Slave Songs of the United States (1867), the first published collection of African-American music in the United States. Slaves interpreted the River Jordan (“roll, Jordan, roll”), which the Hebrews crossed to reach the Promised Land, as a metaphor for escaping the horrors of slavery. Examine the lyrics and consider the questions provided:

Roll, Jordan, Roll

think about it
  1. What imagery might the Jordan River suggest to slaves working in the Deep South?
  2. What lyrics in this song suggest redemption and a better world ahead for African-American slaves?

3. Slave Rebellions

Open rebellion was the most damaging and threatening form of slave resistance in the South. It was also the most dangerous and, therefore, the rarest form of resistance. Yet slave owners feared slave rebellions the most. Slave rebellions directly challenged the ideology of planter paternalism by raising the prospects of a violent and destructive war between the races.

Some slave rebellions failed to get off the ground. The most notable of these occurred in 1822 and concerned a free black in Charleston, South Carolina, a man named Denmark Vesey.

Vesey had spent much of his early life enslaved in the Caribbean before arriving in South Carolina. In 1799, Vesey won $1500 in a lottery, which was enough to buy his freedom. By 1822, Vesey was a well-established, respectable, and wealthy carpenter in Charleston. He was also a local leader in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and, when Vesey preached, he usually addressed injustices associated with slavery.

did you know
In 1822, Vesey’s estimated net worth was $8,000.

Just how many slaves and free blacks supported Vesey's planned rebellion is unknown. White southerners estimated that as many as 9,000 African Americans in Charleston and the surrounding area supported Vesey, but historians have concluded that this figure is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, Vesey's plan called for an attack on arsenals located within Charleston. After acquiring arms, all whites in the city were to be killed along with any blacks who refused to join the cause.

Such was the story that the subsequent investigation released to the public, but details of the Vesey conspiracy are limited because authorities arrested Vesey and his supporters before they had a chance to spring their potential plan into action.

term to know
Vesey Conspiracy
A potential revolt of African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, led by a free black named Denmark Vesey; white authorities uncovered the conspiracy before any revolt occurred.

Vesey and other conspirators destroyed evidence prior to their arrests, so the specifics of the planned rebellion might never be known.


Vesey was clearly the ringleader of an antislavery group within Charleston's AME church, but historians continue to investigate the extent of his contacts and the details of his plan.

Vesey and his supporters did not offer much assistance toward this end because they maintained their silence during the investigation and never proclaimed their innocence. In the end, authorities arrested 135 individuals, 35 of whom were executed (including Vesey). Another 43 individuals were sold into slavery.

Other rebellions did get off the ground. The most notable of these concerned Nat Turner and his followers in Virginia in 1831. Nat Turner’s Rebellion comprised the most significant slave rebellion in American history.

term to know
Nat Turner’s Rebellion
A rebellion led by the slave Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Before the rebellion was suppressed, Turner’s supporters killed scores of whites and a number of African Americans were killed by whites in retribution.

Nat Turner worked in the fields during the day but at night, he prophesized, baptized, and even healed his fellow slaves. His parents had taught him to read the Bible at an early age and, by 1825, he experienced visions that convinced him that the Day of Judgment was approaching.

In the early morning of August 22, 1831, Turner and six of his companions entered the house of his masters, Joseph and Sally Travis. They proceeded to kill both individuals, along with their 12-year-old son and an apprentice. Upon leaving, they remembered a baby who remained in the cradle, and they returned to kill him as well.

Two days later, Nat Turner’s rebellion had killed approximately 57 whites, including 46 women and children. Turner killed only one person with his own hands and he usually brought up the rear, only arriving at a farm after the killing was completed. Slaves joined Turner's group at several farms, and historians estimate that up to 60 individuals participated in the rebellion, including a handful of free blacks.

This woodcut, produced in the aftermath of Nat Turner's rebellion, captures the terror that many white southerners felt toward slave rebellions. Scene 2 (in the middle of the image) depicts the murder of Joseph Travis, while scene 1 (to the left) shows a white woman pleading for the lives of her children to an armed slave. Scene 4 (bottom) shows armed cavalry chasing suspected rebels into a forest.

think about it
What is the purpose of this image, and who is the intended audience?

A combination of vigilantes, Virginia militia, and federal troops put down the rebellion. The final shootout occurred at a plantation owned by Simon Blunt, where a combination of civilians and loyal slaves repulsed the attackers. Yet, even after Turner's rebellion was defeated, a number of white vigilantes and armed mobs exacted vengeance on any black person they could find. It is unknown how many African Americans were killed in the wake of Turner's rebellion.

Turner himself eluded capture until October 30. While in custody, Turner explained his motivations to a white man named Thomas Gray, who went on to publish an account of the interview as The Confessions of Nat Turner. When Gray asked Turner whether he now believed his motivations were mistaken, Turner replied, “Was not Christ crucified?” Turner was tried on November 5 and was hanged six days later.

did you know
In accordance to Virginia law, Turner received legal counsel during the proceedings, and the state paid $375 to the estate of Joseph Travis as compensation for Turner's execution.
Slaves endured numerous traumas and found much of their lives restricted by the white-supremacist assumptions behind planter paternalism and cotton production. Yet slaves resisted their condition in a variety of ways. Slave resistance ranged from mundane, everyday instances to more extreme events such as open rebellion. Family and faith also provided means for African Americans to endure southern slavery. Together, these modes of existence and resistance fundamentally challenged the foundations of southern slavery, particularly the ideology of planter paternalism.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Image of Roll Jordon Roll (1867), PD, Image of “Horrid Massacre in Virgina,” ca. 1830s, PD, Derived from Openstax tutorial 12.2, Some sections edited or removed for brevity. Turner, N., & Gray, T. R. (1832). The confessions of Nat Turner. Richmond: T.R. Gray.

Terms to Know
Nat Turner’s Rebellion

A rebellion led by the slave Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831; before the rebellion was suppressed, Turner’s supporters killed scores of whites and a number of African-Americans were killed by whites in retribution

Planter Paternalism

The premise that southern white slaveholders acted in the best interests of their slaves

Vesey Conspiracy

A potential revolt of African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, led by a free black named Denmark Vesey; white authorities uncovered the conspiracy before any revolt occurred

People to Know
Denmark Vesey

A well-established, respectable carpenter and leader of the free black community in Charleston, South Carolina, who was arrested and executed for planning a revolt of African Americans in the city.

Nat Turner

A black slave in Southampton County, Virginia, who led the most significant slave rebellion in American history, resulting in the deaths of scores of whites before the rebellion was suppressed.