Defenders of slavery in Texas argued that slaves in the state led better lives than those in other states. Records of people who witnessed slave life suggest that this may be true. Nevertheless, Texas slaves longed for the day when they could be free and live their own lives. They dreamed of a time when their labor was their own and their families would be safe and secure. Many Texas slaves were willing to risk their lives to escape.
Slave Escapes and Rebellions. Texas newspapers and plantations records tell of an occasional escape attempt by slaves during the 1840s. By the 1850s, the number of slave escapes increased into the hundreds. A runaway slave would head for Mexico or Indian Territory or even attempt the long journey northward to Canada. Most slaves who tried to escape were caught and returned to their masters. Many were punished severely as examples to others.
The idea of a large slave rebellion frightened the white population. Concern about slave violence was particularly high in East Texas, where the majority of slaves were held. Several slaves planned an uprising in Colorado County in 1856. They acquired guns and hid them in their quarters. They intended to kill the plantation maters and then escape to Mexico. Before the slave rebellion could take place, the guns were discovered. Angry, frightened whites crushed the uprising. They killed several of the slaves and beat another 200 as punishment.
Slaves faced a terrible decision when considering escape. Most of them would have to leave family members whom they would never see again. They also faced the possibility of being caught. For these reasons, the vast majority of Texas slaves went about life on plantations, on small farms, and in cities as their ancestors had for generations. It was difficult existence for black Texans. But they survived the challenges of slave life with dignity and strength.
Where did runaway slaves escape to?
If caught what would happen?
What were the results of the slave rebellion in Colorado County? Why would slave owners react this way?
Slave’s Work. Slaves had to work at least six days a week. They usually had Sunday off, but there were many chores and family duties that had to be done on Sunday. For the plantation field hands, work began at daybreak. They ate a breakfast of bread, pork fat, and coffee in the fields. They also ate lunch near the workplace. Lunch might consist of bread and corn or potatoes, or maybe a vegetable stew. Then the slaves plowed or harvested until the sun went down. The slaves themselves usually prepared the evening meal. Many had gardens that provided fresh vegetables. Corn, bacon, sweet potatoes, and more bread rounded out the big meal of the day. On special occasions, beef was added to the diet.
When working in the cotton fields, slaves were expected to pick many pounds of cotton. Mary Kincheon Edwards, who lived near Austin, reported that she “picked two and three hundred pounds a day, and one day I picked 400.” Plantation slaves had other jobs in the cotton fields. Mariah Snyder, a slave woman in Panola County, ran a mule-powered cotton gin. Men usually did the heaviest work, such as plowing fields behind mules or teams of oxen.
Slaves in the cities worked at a variety of jobs. Some labored in factories. Others performed skilled labor such as carpentry. Slave women in the cities were housekeepers, cooks, or babysitters. Laves helped build the roads and railroads that brought the produce from country to city. And slave labor was very important to the docks and warehouses of Houston and Galveston. Slaves helped build the business buildings whose activities enriched these cities. Before the Civil War, slaves were about 25% of the population of Houston and Galveston.
As a rule, slaves in the cities had more freedom and led more rewarding lives than slaves on plantations. Many of them were “hired out” by their masters to work for other businesspeople. The slaveholders liked the hiring-out system because they got cash for the work of their slaves. Slaves liked it because they could escape the watchful eye of their masters, live away from them, and keep part of their wages. Urban slaves took this opportunity to start the first African American churches. Some even managed to open businesses, such as restaurants catering to slaves. Despite the advantages of city life, however, urban slaves still could be sold and uprooted at any moment.
Describe a typical day of a slave in Texas, include specific things they would do and the time line it would be done on.
What was the diet of a slave made up of?
If the slave was not in the fields where could they be found? Doing what?
Slaves’ Time Off. Slaves on the plantations lived in small one-room or two-room cabins. They build their own homes and furnished them with hand-carved tables, chairs, and beds. Outside the cabin, slaves often had a garden or a small cotton patch. Much of their free time was spent tending these gardens and doing personal chores. If slaves sold their vegetables or cotton, they could usually keep the money. Some slaves worked extra jobs after their regular duties were completed. They used the extra income to purchase food, clothes, or special gifts for family members.
The slaves spent what little time they had left after all their work was finished in the same way as most other Texans. They visited with their families and friends. In the evening they told stories or played games. Dances or family gathering were often held on Saturday night. On Sunday they went to church, had picnics or played music.
Music and religion were important in the slave community. While working in the fields, slaves sang songs called “field hollers” and “work changes.” After work, they played instruments such as fiddles and banjos. Music was a major part of the worship service at black churches as well. Spirituals rang through every southern black church, carrying messages of hope and faith. Religion held the slave community together and gave the people the strength and determination to face their lives of enslavement.
On a slaves day off what might they be found doing?