Slavery and the Making of AmericaPicture of a plantation house near Social Circle, Georgia
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Living
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Historical Overview Living Conditions
Living Conditions
By: Nicholas Boston

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To a degree, the material conditions of slave life were predetermined by the status of the slave. During the early colonial period, slaves and indentured servants enjoyed greater freedoms than black slaves would in later periods. But even then, they belonged to the lowest, poorest ranks of society. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, slaves were condemned to impoverishment by the law. In many colonies, slaves could not participate in wage-earning trade or labor. In others they were denied the right to own property. The slave's resulting dependence on his or her master for the most basic necessities -- food, clothing, shelter -- was integral to the preservation of the master's power and the sustaining of the slave society.

Illustration of wealthy slave owners happy - Library of Congress
An idealized portrayal of American slavery. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
The doctrine of paternalism guided much of the Southern rationale for slavery. As a public expression of humanitarian ideals drawn from both the American Revolution and the Great Awakening, which spread Christianity far and wide, Southern plantation owners defined slavery not as an institution of brute force, but of responsible dominion over a less fortunate, less evolved people.
Photograph of the scars of whipping
Scars of whipping. National Archives, College Park.
"Inspire a negro with perfect confidence in you and learn him to look to you for support and he is your slave," were the words of one plantation owner. Of course, the documented brutality of slave owners, beyond the mere fact of enslavement, demonstrated that planters were short on adherence to their own doctrine. The diary of Bennet H. Barrow, a Louisiana slave owner, documents almost daily beatings and torturing of slaves, accompanied enigmatically by extensive moral explanations as to why such punishments were necessary. Paternalism was thus more a justification, than an orientation, for slavery.

Although material comfort or discomfort was contingent on the individual owner's finances, management style, and disposition, in general, enslaved people were clothed, fed and housed only minimally to ensure their survival and capacity for labor. Geographic location, whether urban or rural, greatly impacted the lives of the enslaved. Slaves who lived in urban areas, estimated in the early nineteenth century at less than six percent of the entire enslaved population, generally existed under more favorable conditions than their rural counterparts.

"A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation," wrote the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in 1838 at the age of 20. "He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation." This is not to say that city-dwelling slave owners were by nature more compassionate than plantation owners. Scholars argue that, among other factors, urban dwellers' close proximity to each other served to deter individuals from brutally mistreating human property and appearing inhumane themselves.
As with any other aspect of the history of slavery, the dynamics of urban existence for the enslaved shifted from region to region and between historical periods. Whereas slavery in the lowcountry (Carolinas), Chesapeake and Northern colonies tended to migrate from cities to the countryside, becoming more agricultural in focus, in the lower Mississippi Valley, the trajectory was the reverse. For instance, by 1763, one-quarter of the black population of Louisiana resided on small tracts in districts around the city of New Orleans. This circumstance was to change in subsequent periods.

In 1860, about 140,000 slaves lived in towns and cities throughout the south. In Charleston, South Carolina, alone, the enslaved numbered almost 40,000, constituting a third of the city's population. Similar numbers existed in Richmond, Virginia, and Mobile, Alabama.

Photograph of a wharf
A wharf. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
The urban enslaved performed comparatively less arduous physical labor -- in shipyards, brickyards, cotton presses and warehouses. Many were apprentices to tailors, saddle makers, butchers and masons. In select Southern cities, men of color dominated the building industries, testifying to the extent to which they were skilled tradesmen.

Where did these urban enslaved reside? For the most part, they were housed in the same lodgings as their owners, usually in an attic or back room. When households were too small to accommodate all its enslaved laborers, and the proprietor was wealthy enough, a separate building for the more senior servants -- cooks, drivers, etc. -- would be constructed behind the white family's dwelling. Distinctive styles of such structures emerged in cities like New Orleans and Charleston.

Yet, wherever urban slaves were put en masse to major construction projects, their living conditions sharply deteriorated, closely approximating those of their counterparts in rural areas. One observer, describing living conditions for slaves put to work in the construction of the Manchester and Wilmington Railroad, wrote: "The railroad hands sleep in miserable shanties along the line. Their bed is an inclined pine board -- nothing better, softer, or warmer ... Their covering is a blanket. The fireplaces in these cabins are often so clumsily constructed that all the heat ascends the chimney ... as the negroes are not released from their work until sunset, and as, after coming to their cabins, they have to cook their ash-cakes or mush, or dumplings, these huts are by no means remarkable for their cleanly appearance."

The practice of "hiring out" was one feature of urban slavery that gave the enslaved a route to independence in their daily lives. Through this process, slave owners rented slaves to others. Enslaved people could, by arrangement with their owners, also hire themselves out. They then resided in or near the renter, who was officially, if not in practice, required to refrain from mistreating his leased property. Money earned from hiring out went into the owners' pockets, but oftentimes the laborer got to keep some himself. In this way, a slave might save enough not only to live on his own, but also to buy his freedom.
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