Modern history

Slave Society and Culture

Because slave labor formed the backbone of the southern economy, enslaved workers gained some leverage against owners and overseers. But these women and men did not simply define themselves in relation to whites. They also developed relationships and identities within the slave quarters. By maintaining aspects of African culture, creating strong kinship networks, and embracing religion, southern blacks found ways to lighten their bondage. Many also found small ways to resist their enslavement on an everyday basis. Others resisted more openly, and a small number organized rebellions against their masters.

Slaves Fuel the southern Economy

The labor of enslaved blacks drove the nation’s economy as well as the South’s. In 1820 the South produced some 500,000 bales of cotton, much of it exported to England. By 1850 the region produced nearly 3 million bales, feeding textile mills in New England and abroad. A decade later, cotton accounted for nearly two-thirds of the U.S. export trade and added nearly $200 million a year to the American economy.

Carpenters, blacksmiths, and other skilled slaves were sometimes hired out and allowed to keep a small amount of the money they earned. They traveled to nearby households, compared their circumstances to those on other plantations, and sometimes made contact with free blacks. Some skilled slaves also learned to read and write and had access to tools and knowledge denied to field hands. And they were less likely to be sold to slave traders. Still, they were constantly hounded by whites who demanded travel passes and deference, were more acutely aware of alternatives to slavery, and were often suspected of involvement in rebellions.

Household slaves sometimes received old clothes and bedding or leftover food from their owners. Yet they were under the constant surveillance of whites, and women especially were vulnerable to sexual abuse. Moreover, the work they performed was physically demanding. Enslaved women chopped wood, hauled water, baked food, and washed clothes. Fugitive slave James Curry recalled that his mother, a cook in North Carolina, rose early each morning to milk fourteen cows, bake bread, and churn butter. She was responsible for meals for her owners and the slaves. In summer, she cooked her last meal around eight o’clock, after which she milked the cows again. Then she returned to her quarters, put her children to bed, and often fell asleep while mending clothes.

Field hands often left their youngest children in the care of cooks and washerwomen. But once slaves reached the age of eleven or twelve, they were put to work full-time. Although field labor was defined by its relentless pace and drudgery, it also brought together large numbers of slaves for the entire day and thus helped forge bonds among laborers on the same plantation. Songs provided a rhythm for their work and offered slaves the chance to communicate their frustrations or their hopes.

Field labor was generally organized by task or by gang. Under the task system, typical on rice plantations, a slave could return to his or her quarters once the day’s task was completed. This left time for some slaves to cultivate gardens, fish for supper, make quilts, or repair furniture. In the gang system, widely used on cotton plantations, men and women worked in groups under the supervision of a driver and swept across fields hoeing, planting, or picking.

Developing an African American culture

Amid hard work and harsh treatment, slaves created social bonds and a rich culture of their own. Thus blacks in America continued to employ African names, like Cuffee and Binah, generations after their enslavement. Even if masters gave them English names, they might use African names in the slave quarters to sustain family and community networks and memories. Some also retained elements of West African languages. Along the South Carolina and Georgia coast, enslaved workers spoke Gullah, a dialect that combined African words and speech patterns with English. Agricultural techniques, medical practices, forms of dress, folktales, songs and musical instruments, dances, and courtship rituals—all demonstrated the continued importance of West African and Caribbean culture to African Americans. This syncretic culture, which combined elements from Africa and the Caribbean with those from the United States, was disseminated as slaves hauled cotton to market, forged families across plantation boundaries, or were sold farther south. It was also handed down across generations through storytelling, music, rituals, and religious services.

Religious practices offer an important example of syncretic cultural forms. Africans from Muslim communities often continued to pray to Allah even if they were also required to attend Protestant churches. Black preachers who embraced Christianity developed rituals that combined African and American elements. In the early nineteenth century, slaves eagerly embraced the evangelical teachings offered by Baptist and Methodist preachers, which echoed some of the expressive spiritual forms in West Africa. By midcentury, African Americans made up one-third of Baptist and perhaps one-quarter of Methodist church membership. On Sunday mornings, slaves might listen to white ministers proclaim that slavery was God’s will; that evening, they might gather in the woods to hear their own preachers tell of God’s love and the possibilities of black liberation, at least in the hereafter. Slaves often incorporated drums, conch shells, dancing, or other West African elements into these worship services.

Although most black preachers were men, a few women gained a spiritual following in slave communities. Many female slaves embraced religion enthusiastically, hoping that Christian baptism might substitute for West African rituals that protected newborn babies. Enslaved women also called on church authorities to intervene when white owners or overseers or even enslaved men abused them. They also considered the church one means of sanctifying slave marriages that were not recognized legally.

Slaves also generally provided health care for their community. Most slave births were attended by black midwives, and African American healers often turned to herbal medicines, having discovered southern equivalents to cures used in West Africa. Forced to labor in the fields, gather branches and roots in the forest, and supplement their meager rations with local plants, slaves were far more attuned to the natural world than were their owners.

Resistance and Rebellion

Many owners worried that black preachers and West African folktales inspired blacks to resist enslavement. Fearing defiance, planters went to incredible lengths to control seemingly powerless slaves. Although they were largely successful in quelling open revolts, they were unable to eliminate more subtle forms of opposition, like slowing the pace of work, feigning illness, and damaging white-owned equipment, food, and clothing. Even slaves’ ability to sustain a distinct African American culture was viewed by some planters as undermining the institution of bondage. More overt forms of resistance—such as truancy and running away, which disrupted work and lowered profits—also proved impossible to stamp out.

The forms of everyday resistance slaves employed varied in part on their location and resources. Skilled artisans, mostly men, could do more substantial damage because they used more expensive tools, but they were less able to protect themselves through pleas of ignorance. Field laborers could damage only hoes and a few cotton plants, but they could do so on a regular basis without exciting suspicion. House slaves could burn dinners, scorch shirts, break china and glassware, and even poison owners or burn down houses. Often considered the most loyal slaves, they were also among the most feared because of their intimate contact with white families. Single male slaves were the most likely to run away, planning their escape carefully to get as far as possible before their owners noticed they were missing. Women who fled plantations were more likely to hide out for short periods in the local area and return at night to get food and visit family. Eventually, isolation, hunger, or concern for children led most of these truants to return if slave patrols did not find them first.

Despite their rarity, efforts to organize slave uprisings, such as that planned by Gabriel (see chapter 8) and the one supposedly hatched by Denmark Vesey (see chapter 9) in the early nineteenth century, continued to haunt southern whites. Rebellions in the West Indies, especially the one in Saint Domingue, also echoed through the early nineteenth century. Then in 1831 a seemingly obedient slave named Nat Turner organized a revolt in rural Virginia that stunned whites across the South. Turner was a self-styled preacher and religious visionary who believed that God had given him a mission. On the night of August 21, he and his followers killed their owners, the Travis family, and then headed to nearby plantations in Southampton County. The bloody insurrection led to the deaths of 57 white men, women, and children and liberated more than 50 slaves. But on August 22, outraged white militiamen burst on the scene and eventually captured the black rebels. Turner managed to hide out for two months but was eventually caught. Tried and convicted on November 5, he was hanged six days later. Virginia executed 55 other African Americans suspected of assisting Turner. White mobs also beat, tortured, or killed some 200 more blacks with no connection to the rebellion.

Nat Turner's Rebellion This woodcut depicts the rebellion in the top panel and the capture of rebels below. It was published in 1831 by Samuel Warner, a New York publisher who based his lurid account on eyewitness testimony and the supposed confessions of participants. He linked the Turner rebellion to the Haitian Revolution and to suspected (though unproven) conspiracies elsewhere in the South. Library of Congress

Nat Turner's rebellion instilled panic among white Southerners, who now worried they might be killed in their sleep by a seemingly submissive slave. News of the uprising traveled through slave communities as well, inspiring both pride and anxiety. The execution of Turner and his followers reminded African Americans how far whites would go to protect the institution of slavery.


• How did enslaved African Americans create ties of family, community, and culture?

• How did enslaved African Americans resist efforts to control and exploit their labor?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!