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African-Americans Lecture (History 1301)

African-Americans were also affected by the changes of the 19th century. To understand how, we will examine the lives of slaves, free African-Americans, and the abolitionist movement.

The major event that changed the lives of slaves was the cotton gin. The demand for slaves increased. In 1790, there were 500,000 slaves. By 1860, there were four million despite the end of the international slave trade that became illegal in the U.S. after 1807 although smuggling continued.

Most slaves were in the South and so-called "border states" like Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Washington D.C. Exactly how many whites owned slaves is unclear but ranges in estimates from 1/4 to 1/2. Only 2,000 owned one hundred slaves or more. But, these slaveowners dominated politics and economics. To slaveowners, slaves were chattel or property although expensive. A young, strong, male slave could cost $1200. Due to the expense, slaveowners preferred natural reproduction. Women were often promised freedom if they had 10 or more children although it was illegal for slave women to name the father of her children. The children could be kept or sold like any property.

Meanwhile, southerners defended slavery. They said African-Americans needed it. They could not take care of themselves. And, they would not work without the threat of the whip. Slaveowners said they treated their slaves well and the slaves were happy because they sang all the time.

The facts were that slaves had few rights under slavery. They could be sold at any time and families broken apart. Approximately, 1/3 of slave marriages were broken this way. But, those marriages were not considered legal. Sexual harassment and rape of slave women by owners was common. It was against the law to educate slaves although that was broken often by the slaveowners' wives. They could not vote, testify in court, or hold office. Most were forbidden to attend funerals.

Despite the limitations, African-American culture was diverse with different jobs, roles, and statuses including a class structure. The majority of slaves (3/4) were field slaves sort of the middle-class of slave society. Most worked in cotton by the 19th century but also in sugar, tobacco, hemp, rice, and other products. Most worked until they were too old and then either given lighter duties or freed without a way to support themselves. Women worked throughout their pregnancies and usually got three weeks off after the birth. Despite the problems, there were some advantages for field slaves on large plantations. They could develop family, community and religious lives. Values could be spread from generation to generation with folk tales. And, on the plantations, slave music evolved. Here are some examples:

Slave Songs
Negro Work Songs
Slave Songs
Slave Songbook

Also on plantations, there was less supervision, more days off, and, in general, the slaveowner had little interest in what went on in the slave quarters. Others, though, had curfews and locked the quarters at night. In this environment, the unique slave community developed and a hierarchy in status.

Usually the most powerful member of the slave community was the conjurer like a shaman in American Indian culture. People, including whites, believed he had special powers. He also understood natural medicines. He usually rose to this position through shrewd avoidance of punishment that gave him great status. He convinced others he had cast a spell on the slaveowner. An examples of a conjurer was a slaved named Dinkie. He never worked, never was whipped, and never harassed. The owner tried to sell him and the trader brought him back. Even wealthy white women visited him to purchase his "love potion."

The conjurer, however, had to compete with the slave preacher for high status. Usually a slave became a preacher because he could read. Slave preachers revised the interpretations of the Bible slaves heard at the masters' churches that they were required to attend if they were allowed to attend at all. Most did allow church attendance and revivals were a favorite activity. Slaves were sometimes even allowed to set up small business selling food and drinks including whiskey. These revivals also provided social opportunities for slaves. But, the religious lessons at revivals and churches did not challenge slavery. Slaves would be reminded over and over that God made them slaves. The importance of obedience, patience, faith, submissiveness, and hard work were emphasized. The result was the slave preacher would modify the interpretations according to his beliefs relating to the words of Jesus Christ that often did not agree with what they heard at the churches.

Another interesting aspect of the slave community was the effort to form families. While marriage had no legal standing, slave marriages were important to their survival techniques. If lucky, the slaveowner encouraged family life since they would be less likely to be rebellious or runaway. Creating family could be difficult. The relationships between slave women and the owners made it difficult for slave husbands. Having to watch a spouse being whipped added to the stress. The fear of one being sold was the worst stress. Many formed relationships with slaves on other plantations to avoid this. Others vowed never to marry. And even in the best circumstances, owners had ultimate authority over the family including the children.

At the same time, some slaves had extraordinary power over the owners' families especially the children. They were some of the elite of the slave class structure. The house slaves were the upper middle-class of slave society. They could be found on plantations and in cities. Most were women and often resented by field slaves who said they were "putting on airs," "selling out," and being "spies."

House slaves did have some advantages like better clothing, food, housing, education, and travel opportunities. Some even developed close relationships with the owners' families. But, there were also disadvantages. House slaves were on call all the time. They had constant supervision and less freedom to communicate. Owners encouraged competition to get house slaves to...trying to think of a better term...but "suck up" to the owners. They also had to deal with the slave mistress who could be brutal and jealous of her husband's lovers.

On the other hand, house slaves often were powerful. They were the child care providers. The slave mistress had the baby and then turned him/her over to the wetnurse who nursed the baby. Today, we know that is how the mother and child bond, so babies bonded with their wetnurse not their mothers. After the wetnurse, the children were turned over to the "Mammy" which means "Mother." To a white child Mammy was security, protection, and love. Mammy was the Mother. This created strange and strong relationships. Some children protected their Mammies and grew to oppose slavery like Mary Lincoln who loved her Mammy so much she opposed slavery.

Cooks also had power. They had to be trustworthy so were given special privileges and even allowed to run businesses on the side. Of course, even house slaves who misbehaved would be punished, sold, or sent to worse jobs.

But, there better slave jobs than house slaves for a lucky few. The Slavedriver was a very high status job. He was te foreman of the plantation and chosen for intelligence and character. He had privileges like house slaves but it was a difficult job to keep the slaves and owner happy. He had the power to reward or punish slaves. But, the Slavedriver could be a problem. Being more educated, they often became rebellious. Then, they were punished more severely as an example.

A few slaves had better jobs. Probably the best conditions were in the lumber industry, the upper-class of slave society. They worked independently in an integrated workforce. Some even rose to be supervisors over white workers. Simon Gray became a boat captain and received pay. Other desirable jobs included craftsmen such as carpenters, blacksmiths, leather workers and boat pilots. Labor shortages in southern cities made these jobs available to slaves. They will be in the best positions when freedom came because of their skills. Slave factory workers also in better jobs when leased by their owners. 20% of urban slaves worked in factories especially tobacco, hemp, brick, iron, and textile processing. They often got bonuses for production and greater social opportunities. Some were even given the choice of employers and some worked in integrated setting especially in the iron and textile industries.

While these were some of the better jobs, there were also some horrible jobs that were often dangerous. The worst was considered being sent to the salt mines. That was hot and dangerous work with explosions a constant threat with boilers. All mining was considered terrible which was common in Virginian coal fields. Although slaves might be firemen, engineers, or common laborers, it was a dangerous job. Flooding, cave-ins, fires, and explosions were a constant threat. Because of their environment, slave mineworkers often were rebellious and had nothing to lose by running away.

While southerners hated runaway, nothing scared southerners more than slave uprisings. (I've often wondered how slavery was worth the fear and paranoia it created for owners.) Slave uprisings occurred throughout U.S. history but only nine major ones. This was much fewer than other slave nations because of the small slave population in ratio to the white population. When uprisings occurred, hysteria erupted and there was swift and brutal retaliation or terrorism.

The major uprisings in the 19th century included Gabriel's Uprising in 1800 Virginia and led by Gabriel Prosser, a slave blacksmith. He organized 1,000 followers and armed them with clubs, knives, and guns. They marched toward Richmond with a plan to set fire to the city, take control, and capture the governor. But, the plan was divulged by other slaves, whites were alerted, and the march stopped. Gabriel was a fugitive for three weeks but captured and he with 30 followers hanged.

One of the most violent uprisings and the closest to Texas was the Andry Uprising in 1811 near New Orleans. 400-500 slaves from the Andry plantation went from plantation to plantation liberating slaves and attacking the owners. President Madison called out the U.S. Army and state militia. Fights erupted. 66 were killed and 16 slaves were executed by firing squad.

Why would other slaves divulge the plans for an uprising to whites? What do you think about that? Knowing the inevitable conclusion to an uprising, would you have participated?

Another famous alleged uprising was Denmark Vesey's Uprising in 1822 South Carolina. Vesey was a free African-American from Charleston. He allegedly organized 9,000 followers and collected weapons. Again, the plot was revaled by a slave. Vesey and 35 followers were hanged. But, the uprising never occurred and the validity of the accusation have been questioned by historians.


The Nat Turner Rebellion

One of the most famous and bloodiest rebellions was organized by Nat Turner in 1831 Virginia. Turner was a slave preacher who said he was "God's instrument to lead slaves out of bondage." He began with 18 followers who filled Turner's owner and the owner's family. Turner had describe them as kind and humane. After the attack on Turner's owner, they went on a rampage and more slaves joined. Eventually 60 whites were killed and hysteria swept the South. Whites went on a rampage killing approximate 100 African-Americans. Turner was captured and he plus 19 followers were hanged.

When southerners were not hysterical about uprising, they had to worry about runaways. That was money out the door and they feared runaways would organize more uprisings. No one knows exactly how many slaves ran away but it has been estimated that at least 1,000 per year ran away. Some went to the North even to Canada while others went into the western wilderness. Others escaped to Mexico where slavery had ended. Others joined American Indian nations while others just blended into free African-American communities especially New Orleans. But, they were always vulnerable to recapture.

For free African-Americans life was less complicated and by 1860 there were 1/2 million free blacks. Approximately, 1/4 were in the North and the 1/4 in the South. Freedom had come to them in a variety of ways. Some had ancestors who came to the colonies as indentured servants and freed. Others had been rewarded for military service or loyal service. Others bought themselves our or had others who bought them out. Some had been born to free mothers but often had to go to court to establish that. Approximately, 4,000 Africans came to the U.S. as free immigrants.

Still, free African-Americans had restrictions called the "black codes" or in Texas the "labor codes." These restrictions varied from state to state with the harshest in states with the highest populations of free African-Americans. They could vote in four states (Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont). No state allowed them to hold office or testify against whites in court. Some states restricted jobs or outlawed them owning guns. Some states limited mobility and banned them from organizations and unions. Indiana banned them even entering into the state.

Despite the obstacles, some "exceptional" African-Americans were accepted by whites. In Virginia, 1/3 of free African-Americans owned or rented land. They also had innumerable success stories in businesses especially in restaurants, catering, fur trade, lumber merchants, owning taverns and hotels, and inventors. Some even grew wealthy.

Aaron Ashworth, for example, was the largest landowner in Jefferson County, Texas, with 4,500 acres and 2,500 head of cattle. There was even a law named the Ashworth Act. After the Texas Revolution, politicians passed a law telling all free African-Americans to get out of the state. Ashworth and others pled their case since they had been in Texas since before the Revolution. As a result, Texans passed the Ashworth Law.

Other success stories could be found in Louisiana where Cyprian Ricaud of Iberville Parrish owned a quarter million dollar estate and 91 slaves. What do you think about African-Americans owning African-American slaves?

Another wealthy African-American was from New Orleans. Thomy Lafon owned $15 million of taxable property making him one of the richest free African-Americans in the U.S.

With these kinds of success stories, you might think that notions of white supremacy might subside. You would be wrong. It actually got worse. As agitation to end slavery increased the more entrenched slaveowners became.

The abolitionist movement scared southerners. They saw it as threat to their culture. That did not stop the abolitionists and they came from all walks of life. They also differed in philosophy and strategy.


Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Chandler

There were many white women involved in the abolitionist crusade. A Quaker, Lucretia Mott, organized a boycott of slave-made products. Elizabeth Chandler became known as the poet of the anti-slavery movement. Here's her poem "The Slave Ship".


Theodore Weld and Wendell Phillips

Many white men also became part of the anti-slavery movement. Theodore Weld was known as the evangelist of the movement because he won over so many converts. Wendell Phillips was known as "the golden voice" of the movement. He was a wealthy lawyer who gave up his practice to devote himself to abolitionism. His family was so disturbed by this they tried to have him committed to an asylum for being a "lunatic."


William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass

The most famous white male abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison who founded an anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator. He also hired writers and speakers to promote abolition. One of his "discoveries" was Frederick Douglass who became the most famous African-American male abolitionist. He supported non-violent protest and passive resistance.

Frederick Douglass was a runaway slave who had learned not to fear death at the hands of so-called "slavebreakers." (Note: My observation - learning not to fear death is the secret of life. It liberates you. I fear nothing but hail and maybe clowns sometimes.) He was self-educated and excellent lecturer. Eventually, he was forced to flee to England to avoid recapture but returned to continue the anti-slavery battle. Due a disagreement over who should lead the abolitionist movement, African-Americans or whites, he and Garrison split and went their separate ways.


Henry Garnet

Another African-American male abolitionist, Henry Garnet, had other ideas. He rejected non-violence and called for an open rebellion. He, too, was a runaway and attended Oneida College.


Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth

African-American women were also important to the movement and also had their own unique approaches. Harriet Tubman was a "conductor" on the "Underground Railroad," escape routes with safe places for runaways to stay while they made their way north. She was known as "Moses" for leading hundreds of slaves to freedom. She was also a runaway but became a maid and saved her money to use in the Underground Railroad. Many Quakers provided safe havens for the runaway slaves.

Sojourner Truth was the first African-American woman to speak publicly against slavery and for woman's rights. She could not see how freedom for slave women would help them if they did not have right. She was born Isabella, a New York slave. In 1817, New York passed a law for gradual emancipation by 1826. Her owner promised to free her earlier but he did not so she ran. A Quaker couple, the Van Wagners, took her in, bought her, and then freed her and she took their last name. By 1828, she was making a name for herself as one not to sit back and allow injustice or abuse. She even went to court in 1828, something almost unheard of, to help her son who had been sold illegally according to New York law to an Alabama owner. She also filed a slander suit when she was implicated in a murder. She won both cases.

In 1843, she lefft New York and changed her named as a result of a spiritual experience. She said God told her to "travel the land" (Sojourner) and tell the "truth of about sins" (Truth). Thus, her name became Sojourner Truth. She joined a utopian community in Massachusetts at the age of 50 and became active in the abolitionist and woman's rights movements. She traveled to 22 states, usually on foot. She became legendary for her speaking ability although she was illiterate. At one speech, a heckler accused her of being a man because she spoke so forcefully. She responded by ripping open her blouse to expose her breasts. That ended that debate.

As women worked in the abolitionist crusade it became more and more obvious to them that they had few rights. Their experiences in the temperance and abolitionist movement will lead to the woman's rights movement just one of the big changes that affected women in the 19th century. That takes us to our next topic, women in the antebellum 19th century.

Women in the Antebellum 19th Century Lecture Notes