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
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In the rural context, living conditions for enslaved people were determined in large part by the size and nature of the agricultural unit on which they lived. Contrary to the overwhelming image of the grand Southern plantation worked by hundreds of slaves, most agricultural units in the South up until about two decades before the Civil War were small farms with 20 to 30 slaves each.

Detailed photograph of slaves ploughing cotton
Ploughing cotton (detail). Georgia Division of Archives and History. Office of Secretary of State.
The conditions of slaves under these circumstances were most easily grouped into the experiences of field slaves and house slaves. The vast majority of plantation slaves labored in the fields, while a select few worked at domestic and vocational duties in and around the owners' houses. Each situation brought its own set of demands, hazards, and perks regarding not only labor, but also quality of food, clothing, and shelter received.

Weekly food rations -- usually corn meal, lard, some meat, molasses, peas, greens, and flour -- were distributed every Saturday. Vegetable patches or gardens, if permitted by the owner, supplied fresh produce to add to the rations. Morning meals were prepared and consumed at daybreak in the slaves' cabins. The day's other meals were usually prepared in a central cookhouse by an elderly man or woman no longer capable of strenuous labor in the field. Recalled a former enslaved man: "The peas, the beans, the turnips, the potatoes, all seasoned up with meats and sometimes a ham bone, was cooked in a big iron kettle and when meal time come they all gathered around the pot for a-plenty of helpings!" This took place at noon, or whenever the field slaves were given a break from work. At the day's end, some semblance of family dinner would be prepared by a wife or mother in individual cabins. The diets, high in fat and starch, were not nutritionally sound and could lead to ailments, including scurvy and rickets. Enslaved people in all regions and time periods often did not have enough to eat; some resorted to stealing food from the master. House slaves could slip food from leftovers in the kitchen, but had to be very careful not to get caught, for harsh punishments awaited such an offense.

Clothing, distributed by the master, usually once a year and often at Christmastime, was apportioned according sex and age as well as to the labor performed by its wearer. Children, for instance, often went unclothed entirely until they reached adolescence.
Photograph of a slave cottage near Bardstown, Kentucky
Slave cottage near Bardstown, Kentucky. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA Collection.
Elderly slaves who could not do physical labor were not given the shoes or extra layers of clothing during the winter that younger fieldworkers were. Whereas many field workers were not given sufficient clothing to cover their bodies, house slaves tended to be dressed with more modesty, sometimes in the hand-me-downs of masters and mistresses. Most slaves lived in similar dwellings, simple cabins furnished sparely. A few were given rooms in the main house.
The relationships of slaves with one another, with their masters, with overseers and free persons, were all to a certain extent shaped by the unique circumstances of life experienced by each slave. House slaves, for example, sometimes came to identify with their masters' interests over those of fellow slaves. Female house slaves, in particular, often formed very close attachments to their mistresses. Though such relationships did not always impact the slave's relationship with other slaves in any significant way, they could lead the slave to act as an informant reporting on the activities of her fellow enslaved. On the other hand, girls who waited upon tables could serve the slave community as rich sources of information, gossip, and warnings.

Illustration of slaves working in chains, Special Collections Department, Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina.
"Chained slaves with work tools," p.19 in: Henry Bibb, NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES ... (1849.) Joyner Rare E444.B58, Special Collections Department, J.Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina 27858.
Different circumstances surrounded fieldwork. Laboring together in task groups, enslaved blacks might develop a sense of united welfare. Yet, they might also be supervised by a black driver or overseer responsible for representing the master's interests, a position which could prove divisive within the slave community particularly because the driver would be obliged to mete out punishments on other blacks.

The lives of enslaved men and women were shaped by a confluence of material circumstances, geographic location, and the financial status and ideological stance of a given slaveholder. The experience of slavery was never a comfortable one. Nevertheless, the kind of labor assigned, the quantity and quality of food and clothing received, the type of shelter provided, and the form of punishments dealt could lessen or increase the level of discomfort slaves had to endure. These living conditions not only impacted the physical and psychological state of the slave, but also had effects on the relationships that African Americans built with each other and with whites in the age of slavery.

Nicholas Boston is a writer and assistant professor or journalism and mass communications at Lehman College of the City University of New York.
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