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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Enslavement

5.
Slide Show, Enslaved men & women, details from photograph by Henry P. Moore, 1862
South Carolina, 1862
Labor
- Plantation labor, selections from WPA narratives, 1930s (PDF)
- House "servants," letters to their mistress, 1838
    Letter #1             Letter #2
- Shipyard worker, Frederick Douglass narrative, 1855 (PDF)
- Boatman, Richard Jones, WPA narrative, 1937 (PDF)


"'Bout all I remembers 'bout slavery is how hard the hands had to work. . . No use to say word 'bout bein' tired," recalls Ambus Gray of his youth enslaved in Alabama. For him and the vast majority of enslaved blacks on southern plantations, "field hand" was their job description, and sunrise-to-sunset toil was their fate. Some were selected as "house servants"; others were trained as craftsmen—blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, weavers, sawyers, hostlers (horse groomers), and coopers (barrel makers). Many were "hired out" for a fee, often in cities and towns that offered opportunities for education, profit, autonomy—and escape. Here we read selections that illustrate the variety of work performed by enslaved blacks in the South—and how they related to their role as forced labor in an economy that could not exist without them.

  1. Plantation labor. Of the four million enslaved people in the U.S. in 1860, nine out of ten lived on farms and plantations (mostly cotton plantations), and half lived in the Deep South. In the 1930s, many aging survivors were interviewed about their lives by white people employed by the federal government as part of the New Deal. In this collection of brief excerpts from the interviews, twenty African Americans describe their work on southern plantations during the earliest years of their lives. How does the eighty-year span between their emancipation and their narratives influence their accounts?

  2. House "servants." Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson were house slaves in Virginia who managed the plantation home when their owner, David Campbell, moved to Richmond to serve as governor. In these two letters from 1838, dictated to and written by a white man, the women report to Campbell's wife and daughter on the plantation's crops, livestock, and workers, and relate personal feelings about religion, aging, and the family's plans for other slaves. Note the familiar yet deferential tone of the letters, and the apparently genuine expressions of affection. What do the women request from their mistresses about the work required of them? (Compare with the drivers' letters in Topic #4.)

  3. Shipyard worker. About five percent of enslaved African Americans were industrial workers in mines, iron works, textile mills, and, like Frederick Douglass, in shipyards. Born enslaved in Maryland in 1818, Douglass was hired out as a teenager to a shipbuilder in Baltimore. From 1835 until he escaped to the North in 1838, Douglass worked as a caulker, sealing the seams of ship planks to make them watertight. In these excerpts from his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), he recounts his white coworkers' hostility (which the bosses fostered), his later success as an independent caulker (although still forced to give his earnings to his master), and his growing desire for freedom. Compare Douglass's account of these years in this narrative with those published in 1845 and much later in 1881.

  4. Boatman. For twenty-four years Richard Jones served as a boatman on the Broad River in South Carolina, transporting his owner's cotton downriver to be sold. Interviewed almost a century later in 1937, Jones vividly recalls his river journeys, the skill and teamwork required, and his sense of accomplishment in the dangerous work. What led his owner to praise him as a brave man? With what attitude does Jones relate this event?

Compare these texts with those in Theme IV: IDENTITY (Entrepreneurs, Artists, and Poets), and with the narratives in #1 of this section: An Enslaved Person's Life. (21 pages.)


Discussion questions
  1. What varieties of forced labor did slaves perform on southern farms and plantations in the mid 1800s?
  2. How did enslaved people relate to their work, and to the fact that it was forced?
  3. How did enslaved people (most of whom expected to die enslaved) construct a sense of identity and accomplishment through their work?
  4. In what ways could slaves exercise initiative, creativity, and possession of their labor?
  5. What varieties of master/slave relationships evolved, as indicated by these readings? How was power exercised on each side of the relationship? (Also see #6: Master/Slave.)
  6. How did some enslaved persons reconcile affection for their owners with contempt for the institution of slavery?
  7. What factors enhanced or exhausted the endurance of enslaved persons?
  8. Compare the labor of field slaves and house slaves, and of plantation and city workers. What different challenges and opportunities did slaves encounter in these settings?
  9. What is revealed in the nineteenth-century documents as a group? in the twentieth-century documents? How do they differ, and why?
  10. Create dialogues in which these former slaves discuss their work experiences, their slaveholders, and their attitudes toward slavery. All the speakers in the right column are WPA interviewees (PDF) of the 1930s.

              [WPA narratives]
    Frederick Douglass, shipyard worker and Richard Jones, river boatman
    Richard Jones, river boatman and Charley Williams, field slave
    Lethe Jackson, house slave and Sarah Gudger, field slave
    Lethe Jackson, house slave and Ria Sorrell, field slave
    Hannah Campbell, house slave and Mary Ella Grandberry, field slave
    Hannah Campbell, house slave and Adeline Johnson, house slave


  1. Create dialogues between speakers in this section (Labor) and speakers in section #1: An Enslaved Person's Life.

        [Section 1: An Enslaved Person's Life]
    Charley Williams, field slave and Jacob Stroyer, field slave
    Richard Jones, river boatman and Charley Williams, field slave
    Lethe Jackson, house slave and Sarah Gudger, field slave
    Lethe Jackson, house slave and Ria Sorrell, field slave
    Hannah Campbell, house slave and Mary Ella Grandberry, field slave
    Hannah Campbell, house slave and Adeline Johnson, house slave


Framing Questions
  •  How did enslavement in America affect Africans and their descendants?
  •  How did enslaved peoples maintain selfhood in the slave-master relationship?
  •  What aspects of slavery did freed men and women emphasize when relating their experiences?
  •  How did a person respond to being the slave of another?
  •  What impact did slavery have on white people?

Printing
Plantation labor:  7
House "servants":  5
Shipyard worker:  6
Boatman:  3
TOTAL 21 pages
Supplemental Sites
Frederick Douglass autobiographies, full text in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library) North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), Introduction, Dr. William A. Andrews, UNC-Chapel Hill

Hannah Campbell and Lethe Jackson, overview from Duke University Library

Montcalm plantation, Virginia, photographs, from Duke University Library

On being "hired out," narrative excerpt, 1859, in Slavery and the Making of America, (PBS)

WPA Slave Narratives, 1930s, Library of Congress
An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman A. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865




Images: Enslaved men & women, details from photograph by Henry P. Moore captioned "Slaves of the rebel Genl. Thomas F. Drayton, Hilton Head, S.C.," May 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.


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ENSLAVEMENT
1. An Enslaved Person's Life   2. Sale   3. Plantation   4. Driver
  5. Labor   6. Master/Slave   7. Resistance   8. Runaways








TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation


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