Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Black History: Overseers

Crossposted from Left Toon Lane, Bilerico Project & My Left Wing

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As the nation expanded west, so did the cultivation of cotton and the institution of slavery. Historian Peter Kolchin wrote, "By breaking up existing families and forcing slaves to relocate far from everyone and everything they knew" this migration "replicated (if on a reduced level) many of [the] horrors" of the Atlantic slave trade. Historian Ira Berlin called this movement the Second Middle Passage. Characterizing it as the "central event” in the life of a slave between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Berlin wrote that whether they were uprooted themselves or simply lived in fear that they or their families would be involuntarily moved, "the massive deportation traumatized black people, both slave and free."

Although complete statistics are lacking, it is estimated that 1,000,000 slaves moved west between 1790 and 1860. Most of the slaves were moved from Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Originally the points of destination were Kentucky and Tennessee, but after 1810 Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas received the most. In the 1830s, almost 300,000 were transported, with Alabama and Mississippi receiving 100,000 each. Every decade between 1810 and 1860 saw at least 100,000 slaves moved from their state of origin. In the final decade before the Civil War, 250,000 were moved. Michael Tadman, in a 1989 book Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South, indicates that 60-70% of interregional migrations were the result of the sale of slaves. In 1820 a child in the Upper South had a 30% chance to be sold South by 1860.

Slave traders were responsible for the majority of the slaves that moved west. Only a minority moved with their families and existing owner. Slave traders had little interest in purchasing or transporting intact slave families, although in the interest of creating a "self-reproducing labor force" equal numbers of men and women were transported. Berlin wrote, "The internal slave trade became the largest enterprise in the South outside the plantation itself, and probably the most advanced in its employment of modern transportation, finance, and publicity." The slave trade industry developed its own unique language with terms such as "prime hands, bucks, breeding wenches, and fancy girls" coming into common use. The expansion of the interstate slave trade contributed to the "economic revival of once depressed seaboard states" as demand accelerated the value of the slaves that were subject to sale.

Some traders moved their "chattels" by sea, with Norfolk to New Orleans being the most common route, but most slaves were forced to walk. Regular migration routes were established and were served by a network of slave pens, yards, and warehouses needed as temporary housing for the slaves. As the trek advanced, some slaves were sold and new ones purchased. Berlin concluded, "In all, the slave trade, with its hubs and regional centers, its spurs and circuits, reached into every cranny of southern society. Few southerners, black or white, were untouched."

The death rate for the slaves on their way to their new destination across the American South was no where near that of the captives on their way across the Atlantic Ocean, but they were still higher than the normal death rate. Berlin summarizes the experience:

... the Second Middle Passage was extraordinarily lonely, debilitating, and dispiriting. Capturing the mournful character of one southward marching coffle, an observer characterized it as "a procession of men, women, and children resembling that of a funeral." Indeed, with men and women dying on the march or being sold and resold, slaves became not merely commodified but cut off from nearly every human attachment....

Murder and mayhem made the Second Middle Passage almost as dangerous for traders as it was for slaves, which was why the men were chained tightly and guarded closely. ... The coffles that marched slaves southward – like the slave ships that carried their ancestors westward – became mobile fortresses, and under such circumstances, flight was more common than revolt. Slaves found it easier – and far less perilous – to slip into the night and follow the North Star to the fabled land of freedom than to confront their heavily armed overlords.

Once the trip was ended, slaves faced a life on the frontier significantly different from their experiences back east. Clearing trees and starting crops on virgin fields was harsh and backbreaking work. A combination of inadequate nutrition, bad water, and exhaustion from both the journey and the work weakened the newly arrived slaves and produced casualties. The preferred locations of the new plantations in river bottoms with mosquitoes and other environmental challenges threatened the survival of slaves, who had acquired only limited immunities in their previous homes. The death rate was such that, in the first few years of hewing a plantation out of the wilderness, some planters preferred whenever possible to use rented slaves rather than their own.
The harsh conditions on the frontier increased slave resistance and led to much more reliance on violence by the owners and overseers. Many of the slaves were new to cotton fields and unaccustomed to the "sunrise-to-sunset gang labor" required by their new life. Slaves were driven much harder than when they were involved in growing tobacco or wheat back east. Slaves also had less time and opportunity to boost the quality of their lifestyle by raising their own livestock or tending vegetable gardens, for either their own consumption or trade, as they could in the eastern south.

In Louisiana it was sugar, rather than cotton, that was the main crop. Between 1810 and 1830 the number of slaves increased from under 10,000 to over 42,000. New Orleans became nationally important as a slave port, and by the 1840s had the largest slave market in the country. Dealing with sugar cane was even more physically demanding than growing cotton, and the preference was for young males who represented two-thirds of the slave purchases. The largely young, unmarried male slave force made the reliance on violence by the owners “especially savage.”

Historian Kenneth M. Stampp describes the role of coercion in slavery, “Without the power to punish, which the state conferred upon the master, bondage could not have existed. By comparison, all other techniques of control were of secondary importance.” Stampp further notes that while rewards sometimes led slaves to perform adequately, most agreed with an Arkansas slaveholder, who wrote:

Now, I speak what I know, when I say it is like ‘casting pearls before swine' to try to persuade a negro to work. He must be made to work, and should always be given to understand that if he fails to perform his duty he will be punished for it.

According to both the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Brion Davis and the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese, treatment of slaves was both harsh and inhumane. Whether laboring or walking about in public, people living as slaves were regulated by legally authorized violence. Davis makes the point that, while some aspects of slavery took on a "welfare capitalist" look,:

Yet we must never forget that these same "welfare capitalist" plantations in the Deep South were essentially ruled by terror. Even the most kindly and humane masters knew that only the threat of violence could force gangs of field hands to work from dawn to dusk "with the discipline," as one contemporary observer put it, "of a regular trained army." Frequent public floggings reminded every slave of the penalty for inefficient labor, disorderly conduct, or refusal to accept the authority of a superior.

On large plantations, slave overseers were authorized to whip and brutalize non-compliant slaves. Slave codes authorized, indemnified or even required the use of violence, and were denounced by abolitionists for their brutality. Both slaves and free blacks were regulated by the Black Codes, and had their movements monitored by slave patrols conscripted from the white population which were allowed to use summary punishment against escapees, sometimes maiming or killing them. In addition to physical abuse and murder, slaves were at constant risk of losing members of their families if their owners decided to trade them for profit, punishment, or to pay debts. A few slaves retaliated by murdering owners and overseers, burning barns, killing horses, or staging work slowdowns. Stampp, without contesting Genovese's assertions concerning the violence and sexual exploitation faced by slaves, does question the appropriateness of a Marxian approach in analyzing the owner-slave relationship.

Genovese claims that because the slaves were the legal property of their owners, it was not unusual for enslaved black women to be raped by their owners, members of their owner's families, or their owner's friends. Children who resulted from such rapes were slaves as well, as they took the status of their mothers, unless freed by the slaveholder. Nell Irwin Painter and other historians have also documented that Southern history went "across the color line". Contemporary accounts by Mary Chesnut and Fanny Kemble, both married in the planter class, as well as accounts by former slaves gathered under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), all attested to the abuse of women slaves by white men of the owning and overseer class.

However, the Nobel economist Robert Fogel controversially describes the belief that slave-breeding and sexual exploitation destroyed the black family as a myth. The family was the basic unit of social organization under slavery; it was to the economic interest of planters to encourage the stability of slave families, and most of them did so. Most slave sales were either of whole families or of individuals who were at an age when it would have been normal for them to have left the family.

According to Genovese, slaves were fed, clothed, housed and provided medical care in the most minimal manner. It was common to pay small bonuses during the Christmas season, and some slave owners permitted their slaves to keep earnings and gambling profits. (One slave, Denmark Vesey, is known to have won a lottery and bought his freedom.) In many households, treatment of slaves varied with the slave's skin color. Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned house servants had comparatively better clothing, food and housing.

As in President Thomas Jefferson's household, this was not merely an issue of skin color. Sometimes planters used light-skinned slaves as house servants because they were relatives. Several of Jefferson's household slaves were children of his father-in-law and an enslaved woman, who were brought to the marriage by Jefferson's wife.

However, Fogel argues that the material conditions of the lives of slaves compared favorably with those of free industrial workers. They were not good by modern standards, but this fact emphasizes the hard lot of all workers, free or slave, during the first half of the 19th century. Over the course of his lifetime, the typical slave field hand received about 90 percent of the income he produced.

In a survey, 58 percent of historians and 42 percent of economists disagreed with the proposition that the material condition of slaves compared favorably with those of free industrial workers.

Slaves were considered legal non-persons except if they committed crimes. An Alabama court asserted that slaves "are rational beings, they are capable of committing crimes; and in reference to acts which are crimes, are regarded as persons. Because they are slaves, they are incapable of performing civil acts, and, in reference to all such, they are things, not persons."

In 1811, the Arthur William Hodge was the first slave owner executed for the murder of a slave in the British West Indies. He though was not, as some have claimed, the first white person to have been lawfully executed for the killing of a slave. Records indicate at least two earlier incidents. On November 23, 1739, in Williamsburg, Virginia, two white men, Charles Quin and David White, were hanged for the murder of another white man's black slave; and on April 21, 1775, the Fredericksburg newspaper, the Virginia Gazette reported that a white man William Pitman had been hanged for the murder of his own black slave.

While working on plantations and farms, women and men had equal labor-intensive work. However, much of the hard labor was taken care of by men or by women who were past the child-bearing stage. Some of the labor-intensive jobs given to women were: cooking for the owner's household as well as the slaves themselves, sewing, midwifery, pruning fields, and many other labor-intensive occupations.

In 1837, an Antislavery Convention of American Women met in New York City with both black and white women participating. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had first met at the convention and realized the need for a separate women's rights movement. At the London gathering Stanton also met other women delegates such as Emily Winslow, Abby Southwick, Elizabeth Neal, Mary Grew, Abby Kimber, as well as many other women. However, during the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society meetings, which Stanton and Winslow attended, the hosts refused to seat the women delegates. This resulted in a convention of their own to form a "society to advocate the rights of women" (Sklar). In 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, Stanton and Winslow launched the women's rights movement, becoming one of the most diverse and social forces in American life.


When I went to school, we were never taught Black History. We never learned about the Black leaders, the long, agonizing history that brought most Blacks to America. Those atrocities were glossed over in favor of mindlessly boring topics like the X Y Z Affair.

This series of cartoons will review Black history as told from a Black mother to an interracial child. This series will be ugly, course, horrific and truthful. I will mostly abandon the commentary for an article on Black history.

This series is not about Obama or Hillary. I want to you to try to imagine how Black families tell their children of the atrocities their ancestors, all of them, suffered because of the color of their skin. Try to imagine how Black families counsel their children when someone calls them "nigger" for the first time. Can you imagine the bone crushing emotion that must well up? Can you imagine the agony, frustration and anger?

Can you imagine being the Black preacher who tries to paint a picture of a just God every Sunday? Especially in a country that claims where the notion of racism is a thing of the past, the job is difficult.

These strips may at times be entertaining and sometimes they may not - mostly not.

I don't want you to laugh so hard you cry, I want you to cry so hard you do something about it.

BIRTH OF A NOTION WALLPAPER is now available for your computer. Click here.