The "Peculiar Institution"
Wealth in the South was measured in the terms of land and slaves. Slaves were treated as property, subject to being bought and sold. Some whites were sensitive about how they treated the other humans that they referred to slavery as “that peculiar institution”.
Most slaves labored in the fields, but many learned skilled crafts or worked as house servants, in factories or on construction gangs. In large plantation in the Cotton Belt, slaves worked in “gangs” under an overseer. These overseers were sometimes helped by black “drivers” who enforced a sun-up to sun-down workday, 6 days a week.
In the low country of SC and GA, slaves who cultivated rice worked under a “task system”. They had less supervision and were able to complete their tasks within an 8 hour day.
Slaves in the cities’ often enjoyed more autonomy. Some slaves would live apart of their masters and hire themselves out on their own time. Because of the great profits to be made on the new cotton plantations in the West, many slaves were sold from the Upper South to the cotton rich Deep South.
Conditions of slavery varied from one plantation to the next:
Some slaves were humanely treated, while others were routinely beaten.
All suffered from being deprived of their freedom.
Families could be separated at any time by an owners decision to sell a wife, husband or child.
Women were vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
A majority of slaves lived on units of land owned by planters who had twenty or more slaves. 2.4% of slaves lived on very large plantations with more than 200 slaves. Few slaves lived in closed black communities. Instead they lived in close contact with their masters.
Masters would use physical and psychological means to make slaves docile and obedient. They tried to convince slaves that whites were superior and had a right to rule blacks.
Early Attempts Against Slavery
Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom, planned a revolt in 1822, known as the Vesey Slave Conspiracy. He aimed to seize Charleston, kill the governor, and burn the city. Before the plan could come to fruition, some slaves leaked the plot to their owners.
Due to this, Vessey was captured and brought to trial, where he eventually was hanged. This act of rebellion may have failed, but it sparked a fear and resulted in harsher laws on the rights of slaves.
Life in the North
In the North, only 1% of the population was African Americans. Despite having freedom, it did not equal equality. They could not vote, and segregated areas separated them from the whites.
To deal with discrimination, African Americans started the first black-run Protestant church, African Methodist Episcopal Church. Most members refused to buy anything produced by slaves to protest against slavery.
David Walker, an African-American abolitionist, wrote Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Many Southern states banned it, but it still managed to be smuggled into those states.
Nat Turner’s Rebellion
Nat Turner led the deadliest slave revolt in 1831. He and his allies killed 55 white people within a day, but whites effectively defeated them, even going as far as to kill about 30 people without trials. About another 20 people would be tried but executed.
Although Turner was caught and arrested, the fear in the slaveholders and other southerners grew further, and they sought to find any other plans. This led to torture of the slaves, causing them to say lies for confessions.
Only a tiny fraction of all slaves ever took part in organized acts of violent resistance. Most realized the odds of a successful revolt were quite low. As a result, they devised other ways to resist white dominance. Many slaves expressed discontent via indirect or passive resistance:
Slaves would work slowly or inefficiently to protest.
Some withheld labor by feigning illness or injury.
Some stole provisions. Theft from the master was not seen as a sin, but a way to get a larger share of the fruits of their labor.
Slaves committed acts of sabotage with tools and agricultural implements
Animals were neglected or mistreated and barns were set on fire.
The ultimate act of resistance was poisoning the masters food.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia
The Underground Railroad consisted of people willing to help slaves run away to the North and Canada. They helped hundreds and hundreds of slaves escape from the South. Although it is estimated that not a lot of people were involved within the Underground Railroad, its effects greatly impacted the situation of many slaves.
Harriet Tubman, most well-known person in the Underground Railroad, helped over 300 slaves personally. Later on, she would come to protest for women’s rights.
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