Life for African-Americans in the Antebellum South

Learning Objectives

  • Describe life as an enslaved laborer in the South
  • Describe the independent culture and customs developed by enslaved Blacks in America
  • Contrast the experiences of enslaved Blacks with those who were free

The Practice of Slavery

The most tragic, indeed horrifying, aspect of slavery was its inhumanity. Enslaved people saw their experiences in full color, felt the pain of the lash, the heat of the sun, and the heartbreak of loss, whether through death, betrayal, or sale. Communities developed on a shared sense of suffering, common work, and even family ties. Enslaved people communicated in the slave markets of the urban South and worked together to help their families, ease their loads, or simply frustrate their enslavers.

Southern Whites frequently relied upon the idea of paternalism—the premise that White enslavers acted in the best interests of those they enslaved, taking responsibility for their care, feeding, discipline, and even their Christian morality—to justify the existence of slavery. This grossly misrepresented the reality of slavery, which was, by any measure, a dehumanizing, traumatizing, and horrifying human disaster and crime against humanity.

Nevertheless, the enslaved were hardly passive victims of their conditions; they sought and found myriad ways to resist their shackles and develop their own communities and cultures. Naturally, the enslaved Blacks in the South, though fundamentally unfree in their movement, developed a culture all their own. They created kinship and family networks, systems of (often illicit) trade, linguistic codes, religious congregations, and even benevolent and social aid organizations—all within the grip of slavery, a system dedicated to extraction rather than development, work and production rather than community and emotion.

Enslaved people often used the notion of paternalism to their advantage, finding opportunities within this system to engage in acts of resistance and win a degree of freedom and autonomy. For example, some played into their masters’ racism by hiding their intelligence and feigning childishness and ignorance. The enslaved could then slow down the workday and sabotage the system in small ways by “accidentally” breaking tools, for example; the enslaver, seeing the enslaved as unsophisticated and childlike, would believe these incidents were accidents rather than rebellions. Some enslaved individuals engaged in more dramatic forms of resistance, such as poisoning their captors slowly. Other enslaved people reported their fellow captives to their enslavers, hoping to gain preferential treatment. Those who informed their holders about planned slave rebellions could often expect the enslaver’s gratitude and, perhaps, more lenient treatment. Such expectations were always tempered by the individual personality and caprice of the enslaver.

With nearly 4 million individual enslaved people residing in the South in 1860 (amounting to more than 45 percent of the entire Southern population), and nearly 2.5 million living in the Cotton Belt alone, the system of communication, resistance, and potential violence among enslaved people did not escape the notice of enslavers across the region and the nation as a whole. As early as 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that the enslaved should be freed, but then they should be colonized to another country, where they could become an “independant [sic] people.” White people’s prejudices, and Black people’s “recollections . . . of the injuries they have sustained” under slavery, would keep the two races from successfully living together in America. If freed people were not colonized, eventually there would be “convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”[1]

Map of the African coastline showing Liberia.

Figure 1. The issue of emigration elicited disparate reactions from African-Americans. Tens of thousands left the United States for Liberia, a map of which is shown here, to pursue greater freedoms and prosperity. Most emigrants did not experience much success, but Liberia continued to attract Black settlers for decades. J. Ashmun, Map of the West Coast of Africa from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas, including the colony of Liberia…, 1830. Library of Congress.

Southern writers, planters, farmers, merchants, and politicians expressed the same fears more than a half-century later. “The South cannot recede,” declared an anonymous writer in an 1852 issue of the New Orleans–based De Bow’s Review. “She must fight for her slaves or against them. Even cowardice would not save her.”[2]

To many enslavers in the South, slavery was the saving grace of not only their own economic stability but also the maintenance of peace and security in everyday life. Much of pro-slavery ideology rested on the notion that slavery provided a sense of order, duty, and legitimacy to the lives of individual enslaved people, feelings that Africans and African Americans, it was said, could not otherwise experience. Without slavery, many thought, “Blacks” (the word most often used for “slaves” in regular conversation) would become violent, aimless, and uncontrollable.

Enslavers used both psychological coercion and physical violence to prevent enslaved people from disobeying their wishes. Often, the most efficient way to discipline people was to threaten to sell them. The lash, while the most common form of punishment, was effective but not efficient; whippings sometimes left the victims incapacitated or even dead. Enslavers and overseers also used punishment gear like neck braces, balls and chains, leg irons, and paddles with holes to produce blood blisters. The enslaved lived in constant terror of both physical violence and separation from family and friends.

Photograph (a) shows a seated slave’s bare back, which is completely covered by raised scars. Drawing (b) depicts an iron mask, collar, leg shackles, and spurs; front and side views of a slave wearing the collar and mask are shown.

Figure 2. The original caption of this photograph of a slave’s scarred back (a), taken in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1863, reads as follows: “Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture.” Images like this one helped bolster the northern abolitionist message of the inhumanity of slavery. The drawing of an iron mask, collar, leg shackles, and spurs (b) demonstrates the various cruel and painful instruments used to restrain slaves.

Life as a Slave

The concept of family, more than anything else, played a crucial role in the daily lives of enslaved people. Family and kinship networks, and the benefits they carried, represented an institution through which enslaved people could piece together a sense of community, a sense of feeling and dedication, separate from the forced system of production that defined their daily lives. The creation of family units, distant relations, and communal traditions allowed enslaved people to maintain religious beliefs, ancient ancestral traditions, and even names passed down from generation to generation in a way that challenged enslavement. Ideas passed between relatives on different plantations, names given to children in honor of the deceased, and basic forms of love and devotion created a sense of individuality, an identity that assuaged the loneliness and desperation of enslaved life. Family defined how each plantation, each community, functioned, grew, and labored.

African-born enslaved people during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries engaged in marriages—sometimes polygamous—with those of the same ethnic groups whenever possible. Under southern law, enslaved people could not marry. Nonetheless, some enslavers allowed marriages to promote the birth of children and to foster harmony on plantations. Some enslavers even forced certain individuals to form unions, anticipating the birth of more children (and consequently greater profits) from them. Enslavers sometimes allowed enslaved people to choose their own partners, but they could also veto a match. When permitted, marriages allowed for the maintenance of cultural traditions, such as language, religion, name practices, and even the rare practice of bodily scarring.

In some parts of the South, such as Louisiana and coastal South Carolina, ethnic homogeneity thrived, and as a result, traditions and networks survived relatively unchanged for decades. As the number of enslaved people arriving in the United States increased, and generations of American-born enslaved laborers overtook the original African-born populations, the practice of marriage, especially among members of the same ethnic group, or even simply the same plantation, became vital to the continuation of aging traditions. Marriage served as the single most important aspect of cultural and identity formation, as it connected enslaved people to their own pasts, and gave some sense of protection for the future. By the start of the Civil War, approximately two-thirds of enslaved people were members of nuclear households, each household averaging six people—mother, father, children, and often a grandparent, elderly aunt or uncle, and even “in-laws.” Those who did not have a marriage bond, or even a nuclear family, still maintained family ties, most often living with a single parent, brother, sister, or grandparent.

Many marriages between enslaved people endured for many years. But the threat of disruption, often through sale, always loomed. As the internal slave trade increased following the constitutional ban on slave importation in 1808 and the rise of cotton in the 1830s and 1840s, enslaved families, especially those established prior to arriving in the United States, came under increased threat. Hundreds of thousands of marriages, many with children, fell victim to sale “downriver”—a euphemism for the near-constant flow of enslaved laborers down the Mississippi River to the developing cotton belt in the Southwest. In fact, during the Cotton Revolution alone, between one-fifth and one-third of all marriages between enslaved people were broken up through sale or forced migration. But this was not the only threat. Planters, and enslavers of all shapes and sizes, recognized that marriage was, in the most basic and tragic sense, a privilege granted and defined by them for their enslaved laborers. And as a result, many enslavers used’ marriages, or the threats thereto, to squeeze out more production, counteract disobedience, or simply make a gesture of power and superiority.

Threats to family networks, marriages, and household stability did not stop with the death of an enslaver. An enslaved couple could live their entire lives together, even having been born, raised, and married on the slave plantation, and, following the death of their enslaver, find themselves at opposite sides of the known world. It only took a single relative, executor, creditor, or friend of the deceased to make a claim against the estate to cause the sale and dispersal of an entire enslaved community.

Link to Learning

Browse a collection of first-hand narratives of enslaved persons and former enslaved persons at the National Humanities Center to learn more about the experience of slavery.

You can also read through several narratives at “Born in Slavery,” part of the American Memory collection at the Library of Congress. Do these narratives have anything in common? What differences can you find between them?

Enslaved Women

Enslaved women were particularly vulnerable to the shifts of fate attached to slavery. In many cases, enslaved women did the same work as men, spending the day—from sun up to sun down—in the fields picking and bundling cotton. In some rare cases, especially among the larger plantations, planters tended to use women as house servants more than men, but this was not universal. In both cases, however, enslaved women’s experiences were different than their male counterparts, husbands, and neighbors. Sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, and constant childrearing while continuing to work the fields all made life as an enslaved woman more prone to disruption and uncertainty.

Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman from North Carolina, chronicled her enslaver’s attempts to sexually abuse her in her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs suggested that her successful attempts to resist sexual assault and her determination to love whom she pleased was “something akin to freedom.”[3] But this “freedom,” however empowering and contextual, did not cast a wide net. Many enslaved women had no choice concerning love, sex, and motherhood. On plantations, small farms, and even in cities, rape was ever-present. Like the splitting of families, enslavers used sexual violence as a form of terrorism, a way to promote increased production, obedience, and power relations. And this was not restricted only to unmarried women. In numerous contemporary accounts, particularly violent enslavers forced men to witness the rape of their wives, daughters, and relatives, often as punishment, but occasionally as a sadistic expression of power and dominance.

Old photograph of a woman with a teenage and toddler daughter. They are seated, wearing full dresses.

Figure 3. The women in this photograph are Selina Gray and two of her daughters. Gray was the enslaved housekeeper to Robert E. Lee. National Park Service.

As property, enslaved women had no recourse, and society, by and large, did not see a crime in this type of violence. Racist pseudo-scientists claimed that Whites could not physically rape Africans or African-Americans, as the sexual organs of each were not compatible in that way. State law, in some cases, supported this view, claiming that rape could only occur between either two White people or a Black man and a White woman. All other cases fell under a silent acceptance.

The consequences of rape, too, fell to enslaved victims. Pregnancies that resulted from rape did not always lead to a lighter workload for the mother. And if an enslaved woman acted out against a rapist, whether that be her enslaver or any other White attacker, her actions were seen as crimes rather than desperate acts of survival. For example, a 19-year-old enslaved woman named Celia fell victim to repeated rape by her enslaver in Callaway County, Missouri. Between 1850 and 1855, Robert Newsom raped Celia hundreds of times, producing two children and several miscarriages. Sick and desperate in the fall of 1855, Celia took a club and struck her enslaver in the head, killing him. But instead of sympathy and aid, or even an honest attempt to understand and empathize, the community called for the execution of Celia. On November 16, 1855, after a trial of ten days, Celia, the 19-year-old rape victim and enslaved person, was hanged for her crimes against her enslaver.

Watch it

This video details the “peculiar” and awful institution of American slavery. It explains a little bit about life on cotton plantations and some of the slave rebellions during this dark and unfortunate part of American history.

You can view the transcript for “Slavery – Crash Course US History #13” here (opens in new window).

Try It

An illustration from Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation depicts the characters Brer Rabbit, who is playing in the woods, and Brer Wolf, who is seated at a table.

Figure 4. Brer Rabbit, depicted here in an illustration from Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation (1881) by Joel Chandler Harris, was a trickster who outwitted his opponents.

African-American Beliefs

Enslaved parents had to show their children the best way to survive under slavery. This meant teaching them to be discreet, submissive, and guarded around White people. Parents also taught their children through the stories they told. Popular stories among the enslaved included tales of tricksters, sly captives, or animals like Brer Rabbit, who outwitted their antagonists. Such stories provided comfort in humor and conveyed the sense of the wrongs of slavery. Enslaved people’s work songs commented on the harshness of their life and often had double meanings—a literal meaning that White people would not find offensive and a deeper meaning for the enslaved.

African beliefs, including ideas about the spiritual world and the importance of African healers, survived in the South as well. White people who became aware of non-Christian rituals among the enslaved labeled such practices as witchcraft. Among Africans, however, the rituals and use of various plants by respected enslaved healers created connections between the African past and the American South while also providing a sense of community and identity for enslaved individuals. Other African customs, including traditional naming patterns, the making of baskets, and the cultivation of certain native African plants that had been brought to the New World, also endured.

African-Americans and Christian Spirituals

Many of the enslaved embraced Christianity. Their holders emphasized a scriptural message of obedience to White people and a better day awaiting them in heaven, but enslaved people focused on the uplifting message of being freed from bondage.

The styles of worship in the Methodist and Baptist churches, which emphasized emotional responses to scripture, attracted the enslaved to those traditions and inspired some to become preachers. Spiritual songs that referenced the Exodus (the biblical account of the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt), such as “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” allowed enslaved individuals to freely express messages of hope, struggle, and overcoming adversity.

An image of the sheet music for Roll, Jordan, Roll is shown. The lyrics begin, “My brudder sittin’ on de tree of life, An’ he yearde when Jordan roll; Roll, Jordan, Roll, Jordan, Roll, Jordan, roll! O march de angel march, O march de angel march, O my soul arise in Heaven, Lord, For to yearde when Jordan roll.”

Figure 5. This version of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” was included in Slave Songs of the United States, the first published collection of African American music, which appeared in 1867.

What imagery might the Jordan River suggest to enslaved people working in the Deep South? What lyrics in this song suggest redemption and a better world ahead?

Listen to a rendition of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” from the movie based on Solomon Northup’s memoir and life.

You can view the transcript for “12 years a slave – choir song – “roll jordan roll” 2013” here (opens in new window).

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, established in 1871, began touring during the 1870s and continue the tradition of spreading the tradition ound of Negro Spirituals today. Visit the Fisk Jubilee Singers website to hear samples of their music.

Frederick Douglass wrote the following in his autobiography:

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears….

—Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845

Consider the following questions:
  • What purpose did these spiritual songs serve for those who sang them? Give specific examples from the lyrics to support your answer.
  • How were these songs misconstrued by some who heard them? Why might they have done this?
  • These songs are rich in religious imagery. What conclusions can you draw from this?

The Free Black Population

Complicating the picture of the antebellum South was the existence of a large free Black population. In fact, more free Black people lived in the South than in the North; roughly 261,000 lived in slave states, while 226,000 lived in northern states without slavery. Most free Black people did not live in the Lower, or Deep South: the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Instead, the largest number lived in the upper southern states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and later Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia.

Part of the reason for the large number of free Black people living in slave states were the many instances of manumission—the formal granting of freedom to enslaved people—that occurred as a result of the American Revolution, when many enslavers put into action the ideal that “all men are created equal” and released the people they enslaved. The transition in the Upper South to the staple crop of wheat, which did not require large numbers of enslaved laborers to produce, also spurred manumissions. Another large group of free Black people in the South had been free residents of Louisiana before the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, while still other free Black people came from Cuba and Haiti.

Most free Black people in the South lived in cities, and a majority of free Black people were lighter-skinned women, a reflection of the interracial unions that formed between White men and Black women. Everywhere in the United States, Blackness had come to be associated with slavery, the station at the bottom of the social ladder. Both Whites and those with African ancestry tended to delineate varying degrees of lightness in skin color in a social hierarchy. In the slaveholding South, different names described one’s distance from Blackness or Whiteness: mulattos (those with one Black and one White parent), quadroons (those with one Black grandparent), and octoroons (those with one Black great-grandparent). Lighter-skinned Black people often looked down on their darker counterparts, an indication of the ways in which both White and Black people internalized the racism of the age.

A collage painting depicts a tall, dark-skinned woman standing beside her small daughter, who has more European features, with lighter skin and curly, dark hair. Both women are elaborately dressed. In the background, a large, stately house is visible.

Figure 7. Free people of color were present throughout the American South, particularly in urban areas like Charleston and New Orleans. Some were relatively well off, like this femme de couleur libre who posed with her mixed-race child in front of her New Orleans home, maintaining a middling position between free White people and enslaved Black people. Families with members that had widely varying ethnic characteristics were not uncommon at the time, especially in the larger cities. Free woman of color with quadroon daughter; late 18th century collage painting, New Orleans.

Some free Black people in the South owned enslaved people themselves. Andrew Durnford, for example, was born in New Orleans in 1800, three years before the Louisiana Purchase. His father was White, and his mother was a free Black. Durnford became an American citizen after the Louisiana Purchase, rising to prominence as a Louisiana sugar planter and enslaver. William Ellison, another free Black person who amassed great wealth and power in the South, was born with a slave status in 1790 in South Carolina. After buying his freedom and that of his wife and daughter, he proceeded to purchase his own enslaved people, whom he then put to work manufacturing cotton gins. By the eve of the Civil War, Ellison had become one of the richest and largest enslavers in the entire state.

The phenomenon of free Black people amassing large fortunes within a slave society predicated on racial difference, however, was exceedingly rare. Most free Black people in the South lived under the specter of slavery and faced many obstacles. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, southern states increasingly made manumission illegal. They also devised laws that divested free Blacks of their rights, such as the right to testify against Whites in court or the right to seek employment where they pleased. Interestingly, it was in the upper southern states that such laws were the harshest. In Virginia, for example, legislators made efforts to require free Black people to leave the state. In parts of the Deep South, free Black people were able to maintain their rights more easily. The difference in treatment between free Black people in the Deep South and those in the Upper South, historians have surmised, came down to economics. In the Deep South, slavery as an institution was strong and profitable. In the Upper South, the opposite was true. The anxiety of this economic uncertainty manifested in the form of harsh laws that targeted free Black people.

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Review Question

How did both enslavers and slaves use the concept of paternalism to their advantage?


manumission: the formal granting of freedom to enslaved people

paternalism: the premise that southern White enslavers acted in the best interests of the enslaved

  1. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Frank Shuffelton (New York: Penguin, 1999), 145.
  2. See “Excessive Slave Population: The Remedy,” De Bow’s Review 12, no. 2 (February 1852): 184–185, also quoted in Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 13.
  3. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Boston: n.p., 1861), 85.