12 May, 2010

First Hand Accounts Of American Slavery In The 19th Century

Written on the back of this photograph:
"Oh, let me live in Freedom's Land, or die if still a slave."

Goose Creek Plantation in North Carolina.

A old slave and his home.

 It was very common during the beginning of the 19th century to read about escaped slaves in Southern newspapers. The following ads are from the year 1838. Branding slaves (burning letters or symbols into their skin like you would do to cattle) seemed to be a fairly common practice. Notice that Mary, in the last ad, was referred to as a 'girl' and therefore was probably no older than a teen. If you'd like to see more you can check out my other post on slave ads. More can also be found on the website sited at the bottom of this post. Warning: it's not for the squeamish.
Mr. Micajah Ricks, Nash County, North Carolina, in the Raleigh "Standard," July 18, 1838.
"Ranaway, a negro woman and two children; a few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face, I tried to make the letter M."

 Mr. William Overstreet, Benton, Yazoo Co. Mi. in the "Lexington (Kentucky) Observer," July 22, 1838.
"Ranaway a negro man named Henry, his left eye out, some scars from a dirk on and under his left arm, and much scarred with the whip."

Mr. J. P. Ashford, Adams Co. Mi. in the "Natchez Courier," August 24, 1838.
"Ranaway a negro girl called Mary, has a small scar over her eye, a good many teeth missing, the letter A. is branded on her cheek and forehead.

 Two slave children.

Slave women picking cotton.

Despite what many people might automatically assume it was not just the men who treated slaves horribly. There are many accounts of Southern women brutalizing and even murdering their slaves. The next story is from a letter dated March 5, 1839 written by Mr. John Clarke. 'Mrs. Turner' is the wife of Fielding S. Turner, who was Judge of the Criminal Court in New Orleans . The Turners moved to Lexington, Kentucky and it was here that Mr. Clarke, the writer, became familiar with the family. He says:
        "Mrs. Turner was originally a Boston lady. She is from 35 to 40 years of age, and the wife of Judge Turner, formerly of New Orleans, and worth a large fortune in slaves and plantations. I repeatedly heard, while in Lexington, Kentucky, during the winter of 1836-7, of the wanton cruelty practised by this woman upon her slaves, and that she had caused several to be whipped to death; but I never heard that she was suspected of being deranged, otherwise than by the indulgence of an ungoverned temper, until I heard that her husband was attempting to incarcerate her in the Lunatic Asylum. The citizens of Lexington, believing the charge to be a false one, rose and prevented the accomplishment for a time, until, lulled by the fair promises of his friends, they left his domicil, and in the dead of night she was taken by force, and conveyed to the asylum. This proceeding being judged illegal by her friends, a suit was instituted to liberate her. I heard the testimony on the trial, which related only to proceedings had in order to getting her admitted into the asylum; and no facts came out relative to her treatment of her slaves, other than of a general character.
        "Some days after the above trial, (which by the way did not come to an ultimate decision, as I believe) I was present in my brother's office, when Judge Turner, in a long conversation with my brother on the subject of his trials with his wife, said, 'That woman has been the immediate cause of the death of six of my servants, by her severities.'
        "I was repeatedly told, while I was there, that she drove a colored boy from the second story window, a distance of 15 to 18 feet, on to the pavement, which made him a cripple for a time."
A boy and his fiddle. 

A father and daughter outside their home.

At a public meeting in Lane Seminary, Ohio in 1833 the Reverend Colman S. Hodges (who lived in West Virginia) made the following statement. 
 "I have frequently seen the mistress of a family in Virginia, with whom I was well acquainted, beat the woman who performed the kitchen work, with a stick two feet and a half long, and nearly as thick as my wrist; striking her over the head, and across the small of the back, as she was bent over at her work, with as much spite as you would a snake, and for what I should consider no offence at all. There lived in this same family a young man, a slave, who was in the habit of running away. He returned one time after a week's absence. The master took him into the barn, stripped him entirely naked, tied him up by his hands so high that he could not reach the floor, tied his feet together, and put a small rail between his legs, so that he could not avoid the blows, and commenced whipping him. He told me that he gave him five hundred lashes. At any rate, he was covered with wounds from head to foot. Not a place as big as my hand but what was cut. Such things as these are perfectly common all over Virginia; at least so far as I am acquainted. Generally, planters avoid punishing their slaves before strangers."

 "Martha and her son, Bob" in Georgia.

 "Uncle Gabriel's Cabin" in South Carolina. His master's house is in the distance.

This post contains excerpts from the book American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses by Theodore D. Weld which was published in 1839. The electronic version is available online from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (The link can be found in my Recommended Reading).

These amazing pictures are courtesy Okinawa Soba.


gio said...

thanks for your article on slavery in the US in the 19th century. The images are powerful in conveying the plight of the slaves. Painful history of oppression that repeats itself endlessly and without hope. The subtitle of your blog is remarkable! Thanks for the good job and for going straight to the point with short texts. I am looking forward to your next post.

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