Eric V. Snow



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Slave children could play with the white master's children with little consciousness of racial differences until about six years of age or older. Harriet Jacobs remembered a scene where a white child played with her slave half-sister: "When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight." She did so, knowing what was likely in store for "her slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood" when grown-up, which was due to her beauty. Olmsted witnessed in Virginia on a train
[a] white girl, probably [the] daughter [of the white woman seated behind her], and a bright and very pretty mulatto girl. They [including an older black maid] all talked and laughed together; and the girls munched confectionary out of the same paper, with a familiarity and closeness of intimacy that would have been noticed with astonishment, if not with manifest displeasure, in almost any chance company at the North.194
Slave children played various formal games with one another and with the whites, such as marbles, hide-and-seek, hide-the-switch, horseshoe pitching, jump rope, and different versions of handball and stickball. They also played games representing their condition of bondage, such as auctioning one another off and whipping each other with switches. "Uncle" Smith Moore of Alabama reminisced about playing with the white boys when young, even riding colts and steer together. Kemble was greatly disturbed that Sally, her still very young daughter, would learn the wrong lessons from romping with slave playmates:
I was observing her to-day among her swarthy worshipers, for they follow her as such, and saw, with dismay, the universal eagerness with which they sprang to obey her little gestures of command. She said something about a swing, and in less than five minutes head man Frank had erected it for her, and a dozen young slaves were ready to swing little 'missis.' --, think of learning to rule despotically your fellow-creatures before the first lesson of self-government has been well spelt over!
Such deference, given to the master and mistress' offspring, soon inculcated the habit of command--or lording it over others--into their minds. A white child had to be seven to eleven years old before this habit seriously sank in, which is when the spark of reason ("concrete operations") first comes into life. Correspondingly, as the young slave passed age six, his parents taught him increasingly about the need to guard his words, especially as he may see such scenes as the overseer or master overruling his parents' authority, or even whipping them, thus making obvious the need to protect them and his fellow slaves in general from the whites' punishments.195
Plantation Day Care: How Slave Childhood Was Different
The central role of what amounted to institutionalized day care on the plantations was perhaps the biggest difference between the childhood of a slave and his white counterparts, in England or America. Since masters drove both the mothers as well as fathers into the fields to work, older brothers and sisters while under the eye of one or more old women who had retired from field labor largely cared for the youngest children left behind. For much of the day, since older children (not necessarily of the same family) watched younger ones, the children were left on their own. The old women did not care for the young children so much as watch the older children do so, as Genovese notes: "By and large, the children raised each other." Kemble saw on all the plantations she visited and lived on that children under the age of twelve cared for all babies in arms. Eight or nine year olds got the job of carrying nursing babies to their mothers in the field, and then back to the quarters, watching them during the hours their mothers (and fathers) worked elsewhere. As Kemble observed, "The only supervision exercised over either babies or ‘baby-minders’ was that of the old woman left in charge of the Infirmary, where she made her abode all day long." Obviously, the adults exercised little control over the children, except when they committed some major offense, since this aged bondswoman probably had her hands full just watching over the infirmary's patients. Needless to say, since these children fundamentally needed adult supervision themselves, having eight year olds watch over young babies (who were not necessarily their siblings) made for day care of dubious quality. Freedwoman Ellen Betts of Louisiana remembered caring for children when she was still a child herself:
Some them babies so fat and big I had to tote the feet while 'nother gal tote the head. I was such a little one, 'bout seven or eight year old. The big folks leave some toddy for colic and crying and such, and I done drink the toddy and let the children have the milk. I don't know no better. Lawsy me, it a wonder I ain't the biggest drunker in this here country, counting all the toddy I done put in my young belly!196

This woman admitted she was not the best babysitter when she herself was young. She surely provided poorer care than the babies' mothers or fathers would have; she certainly made for a worse role model for the babies under her supervision than nearly any adult present on the plantation would have. Almost inevitably parents have more self-interest and concern for their offspring than eight-year-old children who frequently were not even relatives of the babies in question. Such crude day care, made up of children watching babies under the loose supervision of one or more old women, resulted in less disciplined, more ignorant children than would have been the case had the slave women not been driven into the fields for a full workday, thus demonstrating that largely dissolving the sexual division of labor weakened the black family under slavery.


Is All Work Bad for Children?
Is all work bad for children, slave and otherwise? Although child labor has gained much notoriety from the textile industry in England during the industrial revolution because of the intensity and length of the work day that the children endured, could not something more casual, especially when part of the family economy under the parents' direct supervision, be in fact valuable to children in building discipline and training them for their future roles in society? Looking at the institution of slavery through the eyes of a middle class Englishwoman, Kemble saw the idleness of the children as a problem, not an asset, since it increased the women's work load:
Every able-bodied woman is made the most of in being driven afield as long as, under all and any circumstances, she is able to wield a hoe; but on the other hand, stout, hale, hearty girls and boys, of from eight to twelve and older, are allowed to lounge about, filthy and idle, with no pretense of an occupation but what they call 'tend baby.'
This task actively took little of their day, since it mainly involved carrying the babies needing to be nursed to their mothers in the fields and back. Besides this, the older children basically left them to kick, roll, and rest about in or near their cabins, activities they often joined in themselves. If Kemble is believed, the slave children on her husband's estates were less creative in their pastimes than others elsewhere! If the lives of young slaves were empty of education, work, or training for an occupation, filling them instead with aimless leisure time was of "questionable benefit"--even though the children enjoyed it!--when taking a broader view.197

Being communally cared for, slave children were correspondingly fed communally as well, in a remarkably crude, animal-like manner. Throughout the South adults on plantations fed them as if they were pigs. Typically, one or more old women, having charge of the slave children's day care, placed food in a trough, and called the children to eat. After scrambling to show up first, they quickly dug in. Equipped only with their bare hands or perhaps a piece of wood, they gobbled down as much as they could grab in order to get the most. Frederick Douglass described the feedings he experienced when young on his master's Maryland plantation:


We [children] were not regularly allowanced. Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would comes and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.
"Uncle" Abner in Arkansas, in a memory saturated with the nostalgia of a care-free childhood (or deference to the white interviewer), remembered a similar procedure:
Granny put a big trough on de po'ch, an' pile de food in. Lawsy! No food taste so good since! Cawn bread an' yams, an' hunks o' meat. Milk ter drink in de tin cups. Eat yo' stummick full, fight wid de res' o' de chillun erwhile, an' roll over on de flo' ter sleep!
It seems that, because of how he was raised, he still did not realize even as an old man how degrading trough feedings were. The crude communal feeding of slave children, to the extent it was done, obliterated the slave family's role in providing for their children directly. These feedings must have told slave children early in life that they were different from whites because no white child was fed out of a trough, as Genovese notes.198 The master and mistress, by feeding slaves this way, often treated them like the cows, pigs, and horses in their barns and sties, as their most valuable livestock, not as fellow human beings, not withstanding any possible contrary propaganda.
The Slave Childhood: Good, Bad, or Indifferent?
It is rather rash to make a summary judgment of the quality of life for millions of slave children. But generalizations, with the attendant qualifications and exclusions, are necessary so the past can be viewed more clearly than the jumbling confusion caused by listing a hundred or a thousand concrete particulars which most people soon forget. The childhood of slaves featured little work until the immediate pre-teen years, little or no education, and an abundance of play time. The plantation system minimized the role of parents in raising their children by obliterating the sexual division of labor in fieldwork, leaving the children largely to their own devices under the daily but loose supervision of one or more elderly "grannies" for much of the day. Communally feeding the children like animals was merely a product of the crude day care system established on the plantation. This system left the children unusually ignorant even for an uneducated class of people, since younger children had much less knowledge and fewer lessons from experience to pass on, and simply couldn’t care as much or as well as the babies’ mothers and fathers did. This childhood of idleness and ignorance made the transition to regular fieldwork all the more jarring, as the masters and mistresses, who may have earlier indulged their pickaninnies, thrust them out into the fields under the threat of the lash. As Olmsted observed: "The only whipping of slaves I have seen in Virginia, has been of these wild, lazy children, as they are being broke in to work. They cannot be depended upon a minute, out of sight."199 The individual relationships a child has with his or her parents is the main determinate of the quality of a person's childhood. For the broader issue of the negative effects slavery had on inter-family relationships because of the master's or mistress' interfering in them for work discipline purposes, see below (pp. 167-176). Nevertheless, because of a lack of parental/adult supervision, the slave childhood may have been often enjoyable, at least until the reality of low caste status came fully crashing in mentally and emotionally somewhere between ages six and twelve (or when regular work began), but it made for unusually ill-disciplined, ignorant youngsters whose parents largely squeezed their civilizing function into Sundays or between when they worked and slept.

Hodge's Childhood: More Work, but More Worthwhile?
When comparing the lives of children of English agricultural workers and African-American slaves, two key differences stand out. First, the farmworkers’ children had lives filled with more work, since their age of going to work was lower, as well as more formal education, especially as the nineteenth century drew on, compared to the slaves’ offspring. These two activities inevitably cut back on the amount of playtime they had before around the age of twelve. Second, the farmworkers remained almost unaffected by the quality of life issues associated with how slavery subverted the slaves’ parental authority and weakened family life because the master or mistress imposed work discipline by manipulating the family members’ loyalties to one another by threatening sales or by whippings. Farmers could threaten to fire and blacklist their laborers, but since mostly only men made up the work force, especially in the south and outside the peak harvest and haymaking seasons, they simply lacked the power to interfere within the laborers' families to the same degree. Hodge's sons and daughters encountered far less fear and thus wore a thinner mask than the stereotypical “Sambo’s” children. Due to the sexual division of labor and, increasingly, mass education, the children of farm laborers were also normally much better supervised during the day than young slaves. The ill-effects of the primitive day care, such as that found on Southern plantations, hardly existed in rural England, because Mrs. Hodge normally was found at home, especially in the south. As male unemployment rates rose towards the end of the eighteenth century on into the early nineteenth, women and children were pushed out of the agricultural labor market and into the home.200 Although the children of farmworkers had less pleasure from playtime compared to the young slaves, their childhood likely was more worthwhile to the extent they received some formal education, some practical work experience (if the hours were not excessive, etc.), and were around adults more, including their parents, whose knowledge and experience in life made them much better role models than the eight year olds "minding baby" in the American South.
As demonstrated earlier in the section dealing with education (pp. 105-107), the children of agricultural laborers went to work normally a number of years before the children of slaves did, excepting in northern England where higher parental wages prevailed than in the south. Boys commonly began work at eight or nine years old in much of England. Caleb Bawcombe regularly began to help his father with the flock at age nine. But in relatively high-waged areas, children often only began to work regularly at age twelve, thirteen, or even fourteen. Since generally their first years at work were highly irregular and especially tied to seasonal labor demands, the age at which children first entered the labor force did not mean full time, year-around work began for them then. In Northamptonshire, country boys eight to ten years old worked for an estimated ten to twelve weeks a year at least for two shillings a week, which is hardly full-time employment. The authors of the 1867-68 Report found that work for children under age ten was "precarious, occasional, and fluctuating," but soon afterwards became increasingly regular, especially for boys. Working for the first time when he was nine, Arch said he scared crows for twelve months straight for several farmers. So he either had an unusual experience or he included the slack periods in between stints. Bird scaring was common, if seasonally irregular, work in Northampton for the youngest boys (seven or eight years old), giving them ten weeks of work (spring), three (summer), and three more (winter). In northern Northumberland, children rarely worked before age fourteen, except during summers, when eleven and twelve year olds did also. The normal July-November seasonal peak for agriculture provided much more work for children then than at other times. The Fens stood out as an exception, since there children worked with the winter turnip crop. This area was notorious for the gang system, which helped "to force children into premature employment." Yorkshire, without this system, had seasonal work for boys begin at age twelve.201 These ages for going to work (excepting Arch's) likely reflect some tightening of the labor market in the late 1860s in agricultural areas, (a key ingredient in the brief successes of Arch's National Agricultural Labourers' Union in the early 1870s), which makes projecting them backwards more than two or three decades hazardous.
Just How Common Was Child Labor, Especially in the Countryside?
Earlier on, from the early eighteenth century until the 1840s, many contemporaries considered child unemployment and underemployment to be a problem, which puts in context Kemble's complaints about idle young slaves lounging about on her husbands' estates while the women were overworked.202 Agriculture presented further problems for employing children, for unlike mining or cotton spinning, domestic industry or factories, their small size and strength unambiguously worked against them. H.H. Vaughn noted in 1843 that, unlike climbing chimneys or running carts of coal in mines with low ceilings, smallness was no advantage: "In most out-door work weight and strength are an advantage." They could not easily be employed full time. R.H. Greg, in a 1837 defense of the factory system that saw industry as the savior of idle children, even exaggeratedly claimed: "Boys are of little use, girls of still less, in agricultural countries, before the age of 18." Now this view plainly overstates the case. The infamous masters of the gang system found gathering children (and women) into groups to weed or harvest root crops a perfectly workable solution to the Fens’s labor shortage. This area's farmers found the hiring of plowboys (ages eight to eleven), and children to weed (seven to eleven for boys, seven to thirteen for girls) financially wise. In Leicester, due to more land and root crops coming into cultivation, farmers employed children down to even six years old. Vaughn's claim still has its germ of truth, for children (like women) were in the "last hired, first fired" category; farmers normally viewed them as "a cheap and amenable labour force which could be used flexibly as the seasons dictated."203 But as many local labor markets tightened in the 1860s into the early 1870s, they were increasingly hired even in the long-depressed agricultural counties of the south of England. Somewhat earlier, the 1851 census found very few five to nine year olds (2.0 percent of boys, 1.4 percent of girls) were employed, and still many ten to fourteen were not employed (36.6 percent for boys, 19.9 percent for girls). True, it seems these figures may not accurately capture much of the part-time or seasonal work children engaged in.204 Still, they warn against extrapolating back the ages given for children going to work in the 1867-68 Report to periods of higher adult male unemployment in agricultural areas in the south of England, where industry generally was a weak competitor for labor.205
Traditionally, one important transitional point in the lives of laborers' children was when they were first hired into farm service under a yearly contract with a farmer who boarded them at his expense at his house. This career stage began generally around the age of fourteen; a later shift in status to day laborers developed after they married. Women went into service, not just men, especially in the more pastoral counties in the southwest as (especially) dairymaids. Fundamentally, "farm servant" was synonymous with being unmarried, and "day laborer" with being married. Service's chief benefit was to increase the young worker’s economic security. No threat of applying for parish relief in the slack winter months hung over those so employed, especially in arable areas with their greater the seasonal peaks and dips in the demand for labor compared to pastoral areas. This practice imposed greater stability on the young, encouraging them to save for a delayed marriage, especially because the monetary wages normally were paid in one lump sum near the end of the service period. The farm servant also received a settlement in the parish he lived in, allowing him to apply for parish relief there, after a year’s completed service. The experience of service followed by marriage and day labor gradually declined as the eighteenth century closed and the nineteenth opened in much of southern England, especially the southeastern grain-growing, arable region. What caused this decline? As population growth caused higher unemployment, farmers gained an incentive to hire labor only by the month, week, or even day. The poor laws' settlement provisions, which discouraged the yearly hirings that later gave farm servants the right to apply for relief in the parish of hire, were another factor. Then enclosure in combination with the poor laws in the south promoted population growth: Both encouraged early marriages since single people had trouble getting any relief, and discouraged saving, since the wages earned by now exclusively wage-dependent laborers were enough only for a bare subsistence. Farm service, as a key transition point of childhood into adulthood in the world of work, gradually became a relic of the past as the eighteenth century closed and the nineteenth century opened, except for northern areas and in certain occupations such as shepherd, where steady, year-around work was necessary. Increasingly, men and women (when employed at all) spent their whole careers as day laborers, without the farm servant stage in their work lives.206
The Parental Push for Child Labor
Parents had a strong financial incentive to put their children to work as soon as possible, excepting when schooling was a serious option. Some resisted this course, perhaps remembering their own more-carefree childhood.207 Working class parents typically faced the problem that during the family life cycle their income was at its lowest point when the number of young mouths needing to be filled was at its highest then when the children and their mother could do little work outside the home. When a family had (say) five children ages one, three, five, seven, and ten, the mother (granted the traditional sexual division of labor) had to watch the children and could not easily work at jobs outside the home. Children at these ages normally could not be put to work, except maybe the oldest. In agricultural districts without any domestic industry, often finding work for young children and their mothers was hard, even though their earnings were vitally necessary to put the family above the barest of subsistence levels. The New Poor Law fell hardest on families at this nadir point in their lives, because it eliminated the Speenhamland system's per child allowances paid by the parish. In areas of high unemployment, the natural tendency in England's patriarchal society was to minimize the unemployment rate for men at the cost of pushing women and children largely out of the labor market, excepting the peak summer months, which included harvest. Cobbett lamented the concentration of weaving and spinning in the north, which undermined the old domestic industries in the south, including weaving and spinning cloth just for household use, thus leaving women and children, especially girls, out of work (see above, pp. 53-54). As the sexual and regional divisions of labor increased in intensity, they helped to accentuate the natural burdens of the family life cycle for southern England's agricultural workers, excepting the few places where some domestic industry persisted. Because American slaves were guaranteed support in food and day care (at least in theory), they rarely had to face independently the pressures of the family life cycle, unlike English farmworkers. But the bondsmen’s guaranteed support and security came at the cost of independence and freedom, since the financial constraints on childbearing were largely eliminated by necessarily being their masters’ property. Hence, while the children of Hodge had to endure the tightening pressures of family life cycle when their parents had many offspring, which the children of slaves avoided, the farmworkers had much more independence and freedom of action, which slaves never enjoyed because of their unfree status.
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