United states history


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The slave system included a variety of restrictions and punishments designed to maintain social control over the black population. In this account Moses Grandy, a fugitive slave, described some of the measures.
...We had to work, even in long summer days, till twelve o'clock, before we tasted a morsel, men, women, and children all being served alike. At noon the cart appeared with our breakfast... There was bread, of which a piece was cut for each person, there was small hominy boiled...and two herrings for each of the men and women, and one for each of the children. Our drink was the water in the ditches... The salt fish made us always thirsty. However thirsty a slave may be, he is not allowed to leave his employment for a moment to get water; he can only have it when the hands have reached the ditch, at the end of the rows. The overseer stood with his watch in his hand to give us just an hour; when he said, 'Rise,' we had to rise and go to work again.... One black man in kept on purpose to whip the others in the field; and if he does not flog with sufficient severity, he is flogged himself.

The treatment of slaves is mildest near the border, where the free and slave states join; it becomes more severe, the farther we go from the free states. It is more severe in the west and south than where I lived... On the frontier between the slave and free States there is a guard; no colored person can go over a ferry without a pass. By these regulations, and the...patrols, escape is made next to impossible.

Formerly slaves were allowed to have religious meetings...but after the [Nat Turner] insurrection...they were forbidden to meet even for worship. Often they are flogged if they are found singing or praying at home. They may go to the places of worship used by the whites; but they like their own meetings better... A number of slaves went into a wood to hold meetings; when they were found out, they were flogged... Three were shot, two of whom were killed.

...There are men who make a trade of whipping negroes; they ride about inquiring for jobs of persons who keep no overseer; if there is a negro to be whipped, whether man or woman, this man is employed when he calls, and does it immediately; his fee is half a dollar. Widows and other females, having negroes, get them whipped this way. Many mistresses will insist on the slave who has been flogged begging pardon for her fault on her knees, and thanking her for the correction...

The severe punishments...for trifling offenses, or none at all...and the agonizing feelings they endure at being separated from the dearest connections, drive many of them to desperation... They hide themselves in the woods, where they remain for months, and, in some cases for years. When caught, they are flogged...their backs pickled, [vinegar applied to the back] and the flogging repeated. After months of this torture, the back is allowed to heal, and the slave is sold away.
Source: Moses Grandy, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, (Boston, 1844), pp. 16 17, 34 41.

Black feminist theorist Michelle Wallace suggests in the passage below the various ways in which slavery's racial and gender roles impacted on the attitudes toward black people and particularly on the dynamics of interaction between black women and men.
As the function of the Southern white woman changed, the life of the black woman continued just as if the country were in its first stages of growth. She labored in the fields beside he husband, developed muscles in her arms, bore the lash and the wrath of her master. Her labor and trials became inextricably associated with her skin color, even though not so long before the colonial woman had not been much better off....

Gradually a network of lies developed to justify the continuance of the master/slave relationship, the selling of children away from their mothers, the separation of wives and husband, the breeding of slaves like animals. After the constitutional ban on slave importation, which took effect in 1808, the market required that a brutal emphasis be placed upon the stud capabilities of the black man and upon the black woman's fertility. The theory of the inferiority of blacks began to be elaborated upon and take hold. It was at this point that the black woman gained her reputation for invulnerability. She was the key to the labor supply. No one wished to admit that she felt as any woman would about the loss of her children, or that she had any particularly deep attachment to her husband, since he might also have to be sold. Her first duty had to be to the master of the house.

She was believed to be not only emotionally callous but physically invulnerable-stronger than white women and the physical equal of any man of her race. She was stronger than white women in order to justify her performing a kind of labor most white women were now presumed to be incapable of. She had to be considered at least the physical equal of the black man so that he would not feel justified in attempting to protect her.

She was labeled sexually promiscuous because it was imperative that her womb supply the labor force. The father might be her master, a neighboring white man, the overseer, a slave assigned to her by her master; her marriage was not recognized by law.

Every tenet of the mythology about her was used to reinforce the notion of the spinelessness and unreliability of the black man, as well as the notion of the frivolity and vulnerability of white women. The business of sexual and racial definition, hideously intertwined, had become a matter of balancing extremes. That white was powerful meant that black had to be powerless. That white men were omnipotent meant that white women had to be impotent. But slavery produced further complications: black women had to be strong in ways that white women were not allowed to be, black men had to be weak in ways that white men were not allowed to be.
Source: Michele Wallace, Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman, (New York, 1979) pp. 137-138.

Because most slaves could not read and write only rarely do we have the opportunity to read the thoughts expressed by someone in bondage. Fanny Perry, a Harrison County, Texas slave woman has provided one such opportunity with the letter she wrote to her husband, Norfleet Perry, the personal servant of Theophilus Perry, who at the time was serving with the 28th Texas Cavalry in Arkansas. Here is Fanny's letter of December 28, 1862. We do not know if she and Norfleet were ever reunited during or after the Civil War.
Spring Hill, Dec. 28th 1862

My Dear Husband,

I would be mighty glad to see you and I wish you would write back here and let me know how you are getting on. I am doing tolerable well and have enjoyed very good health since you left. I haven't forgot you nor I never will forget you as long as the world stands, even if you forget me. My love is just as great as it was the first night I married you, and I hope it will be so with you. My heart and love is pinned to your breast, and I hope yours is to mine. If I never see you again, I hope to meet you in Heaven. There is not time night or day but what I am studying about you. I haven't had a letter from you in some time. I am very anxious to hear from you. I heard once that you were sick but I heard afterwards that you had got well. I hope your health will be good hereafter. Master gave us three days Christmas. I wish you could have been here to enjoy it with me for I did not enjoy myself much because you were not here. I went up to Miss Ock's to a candy stew last Friday night, I wish you could have been here to have gone with me. I know I would have enjoyed myself so much better. Mother, Father, Grandmama, Brothers & Sisters say Howdy and they hope you will do well. Be sure to answer this soon for I am always glad to hear from you. I hope it will not be long before you can come home.
Your Loving Wife

Source: Randolph B. Campbell and Donald K. Pickens, "'My Dear Husband,' A Texas Slave's Love Letter, 1862," Journal of Negro History 65:4(Fall 1980):361-364.

The Five Civilized Tribes, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokees Creeks and Seminoles all developed black slavery in their native homes stretching from North Carolina to Mississippi. Upon their removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in the 1830s, they brought slaves with them. In the account below Daniel and Mary Ann Littlefield describe the status and treatment of African Americans, slave and free, among the Five Tribes.
The greatest population, by far, was among the Seminoles. Between 1838 and 1843, nearly 500 blacks, both slave and free, removed with them. Many were freed by voluntary acts of their Seminole masters. Some...were free by virtue of their assistance to the United States as informers, guides, and scouts. The Seminoles had no laws restricting free blacks, who, like the Seminole slaves, were allowed to own property and carry weapons. Because they spoke English as well as the Indians' native tongue, several of the free blacks served as interpreters.

A number of free blacks also lived among the Creeks. Decades before their removal to the West, the Creeks had written laws which provided for the manumission of slavery by individual owners. A census of 1832 showed 21,762 Creeks and 502 slaves with only a few Creeks owning more than ten slaves. Among the Creeks were several free blacks who were heads of households. The free blacks were removed with the Creeks, and by the time the Civil War began some of them owned businesses such as boarding houses and stores...

There were fewer free blacks among the Cherokees despite large numbers of slaves among them. In 1835, on the eve of removal, there were 16,543 Cherokees and 1,592 slaves. By 1859 the number of slaves in the Cherokee Nation had reached 4,000. Slavery among the Cherokees was little different from that in the white South and the status of slaves and free blacks declined as laws became more severe... All persons of "negro or mulatto parentage" were excluded from holding office. The Cherokee Council [governing legislature] prohibited the teaching of slaves and free blacks not of Cherokee blood to read and write...and in the aftermath of a slave revolt in 1842, [it] ordered all free blacks, not freed by Cherokee citizens, to leave the nation by January 1, 1843.

Fewer slaves lived in the Choctaw Nation. An 1831 census listed 17,963 Choctaws and 512 slaves [and] eleven free blacks. In 1838 the Choctaws forbade cohabitation with a slave, the teaching of a slave to read or write without the owner's consent and the council's emancipating slaves without the owner's consent. Other laws prohibited intermarriage and persons of African descent from holding office.

The Chickasaws did not hold large numbers of slaves before removal. But at that time many Chickasaws sold their homes in invested in slaves whom they moved to the West [and] opened large plantations [using] their blacks in agricultural labor.... The Chickasaws....regarded their slaves in the same manner as white owners. In the late 1850s the Chickasaws forbade their council from emancipating slaves without the owner's consent... County judges were authorized to order [free] blacks out of their respective counties. Those who refused to go were to be sold...as slaves...
Source: Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., and Mary Ann Littlefield, "The Beams Family: Free Blacks in Indian Territory," Journal of Negro History, 61:1 (January 1976), pp. 17-21.

Hundreds of black Texas slaves made their way to freedom in Mexico in the years before the Civil War. Here is a brief glimpse of the lives of fugitive slaves in Mexico written by Fredrick Law Olmstead following his famous journey across Texas in the mid-1850s.
Very few persons were moving in the streets, or engaged in any kind of labor... As we turned a corner near the bank, we came suddenly upon two negroes, as they were crossing the street. One of them was startled, and looking ashamed and confounded, turned hesitantly back and walked away from us; whereas some Mexican children laughed, and the other negro, looking at us, grinned impudently--expressing plainly enough--"I am not afraid of you." He touched his hat, however, when I nodded to him, and then, putting his hands in his pockets, as if he hadn't meant to, stepped up on one of the sand-bank caverns, whistling. Thither, wishing to have some conversation with him, I followed. He very civilly informed me, in answer to inquiries, that he was born in Virginia, and had been brought South by a trader and sold to a gentleman who had brought him to Texas, from whom he had run away four or five years ago. He would like...to see old Virginia again, that he would--if he could be free. He was a mechanic, and could earn a dollar very easily, by his trade, every day. He could speak Spanish fluently, and had traveled extensively in Mexico, sometimes on his own business, and sometimes as a servant or muleteer. Once he had been beyond Durango, or nearly to the Pacific; and, northward, to Chihuahua, and he professed to be competent, as a guide, to any part of Northern Mexico. He had joined the Catholic Church, he said, and he was very well satisfied with the country.

Runaways were constantly arriving here; two had got over, as I had previously been informed, the night before. He could not guess how many came in a year, but he could count forty, that he had known of, in the last three months. At other points, further down the river, a great many more came than here. He supposed a good many got lost and starved to death, or were killed on the way, between the settlements and the river. Most of them brought with them money, which they had earned and hoarded for the purpose, or some small articles which they had stolen from their masters. They had never been used to taking care of themselves, and when they first got here they were so excited with being free, and with being made so much of by these Mexican women, that they spent all they brought very soon; generally they gave it all away to the women, and in a short time they had nothing to live upon, and, not knowing the language of the country, they wouldn't find any work to do, and often they were very poor and miserable. But, after they had learned the language, which did not generally take them long, if they chose to be industrious, they could live very comfortably. Wages were low, but they had all they earned for their own, and a man's living did not cost him much here. Colored men, who were industrious and saving, always did well... The Mexican Government was very just to them, they could always have their rights as fully protected as if they were Mexican-born. He mentioned to me several negroes whom he had seen, in different parts of the country, who had acquired wealth, and positions of honor. Some of them had connected themselves, by marriage, with rich old Spanish families, who thought as much of themselves as the best white people in Virginia. In fact, a colored man, if he could behave himself decently, had rather an advantage over a white American, he thought. The people generally liked them better. These Texas folks were too rough to suit them.

I believe these statements to have been pretty nearly true; he had no object, that I could discover, to exaggerate the facts either way, and showed no feeling except a little resentment towards the women, who probably wheedled him out of his earnings. They were confirmed, also, in all essential particulars, by every foreigner I saw, who had lived or traveled in this part of Mexico, as well as by Mexicans themselves, with whom I was able to converse on the subject. It is repeated as a standing joke--I suppose I have heard it fifty times in the Texas taverns, and always to the great amusement of the company--that a nigger in Mexico is just as good as a white man, and if you don't treat him civilly he will have you hauled up and fined by an alcalde. The poor yellow-faced, priest-ridden heathen, actually hold, in earnest, the ideas on this subject put forth in that good old joke of our fathers--the Declaration of American Independence.

The runaways are generally reported to be very poor and miserable, which, it is natural to suppose, they must be. Yet there is something a little strange about this. It is those that remain near the frontier that suffer most; they who have got far into the interior are said to be almost invariably doing passably well. A gang of runaways, who are not generally able to speak Spanish, have settled together within a few days' walk of Eagle Pass, and I have heard them spoken of as being in a more destitute and wretched condition than any others. Let any one of them present himself at Eagle Pass, and he would be greedily snatched up by the first American that he would meet, and restored, at once, to his old comfortable, careless life. The escape from the wretchedness of freedom is certainly much easier to the negro in Mexico than has been his previous flight from slavery, yet I did not hear of a single case of his availing himself of this advantage. If it ever occur, it must be as one to a thousand of those going the other way.

Dr. Stillman (Letters to the Crayon, 1856) notices having seen at Fort Inge a powerful and manly-looking mulatto, in the hands of a returning party of last year's filibustering expedition, who had been three times brought from beyond the Rio Grande. Once, when seized, his cries awoke his Mexican neighbors, and the captor had to run for it. Once, after having been captured, and when the claim to him had been sold for fifty dollars, he escaped with a horse and a six-shooter. Once, again, he escaped from the field where his temporary holder had set him at work on the Leona. In revenge for this carelessness, a suit was then pending for these temporary services.

The impulse must be a strong one, the tyranny extremely cruel, the irksomeness of slavery keenly irritating, or the longing for liberty much greater than is usually attributed to the African race, which induces a slave to attempt an escape to Mexico. The masters take care, when negroes are brought into Western Texas, that they are informed (certainly never with any reservation, and sometimes, as I have had personal evidence, with amusing extravagance) of the dangers and difficulties to be encountered by a runaway.

There is a permanent reward offered by the state for their recovery, and a considerable number of men make a business of hunting them. Most of the frontier rangers are ready at any time to make a couple of hundred dollars, by taking them up, if they come in their way. If so taken, they are severely punished, though if they return voluntarily they are commonly pardoned. If they escape immediate capture by dogs or men, there is then the great dry desert country to be crossed, with the danger of falling in with savages, or of being attacked by panthers or wolves, or of being bitten or stung by the numerous reptiles that abound in it; of drowning miserably at the last of the fords; in winter, of freezing in a norther, and, at all seasons, of famishing in the wilderness from the want of means to procure food.

Bravo negro! Say I. He faces all that is terrible to man for the chance of liberty, from hunger and thirst to every nasty form of four-footed and two-footed devil. I fear I should myself suffer the last servile indignities before setting foot in such a net of concentrated torture. I pity the man whose sympathies would not warm to a dog under these odds. How can they be held back from the slave who is driven to assert his claim to manhood?...

Source: Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey Through Texas--Or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier, (New York, Mason Brothers, 1859), pp. 323-327.

By 1852 Utah had become the only territory to legalize both black and Indian slavery. Lester Bush, Jr., a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, described the evolution of Mormon doctrines on blacks and slavery against the background of the antebellum slavery controversy. Part of his account is reprinted below.
There once was a time, albeit brief, when a "Negro problem" did not exist for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During those early months in New York and Ohio...the Gospel was for "all nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples...." A Negro, "Black Pete," was among the first converts in Ohio... W.W. Phelps opened a mission to Missouri in July, 1831, and preached to...Negroes among his first audience. The following year another black, Elijah Abel, was baptized in Maryland. [Abel was later named a priest in the church and lived for a time in Prophet Joseph Smith's home.]

This initial period was brought to an end by the influx of Mormons into the Missouri mission in late 1831 and early 1832... In less than a year a rumor was afoot that [the Mormons] were "tampering" with the slaves. In the summer of 1833, W.W. Phelps published an article... Missourians interpreted as an invitation "to free negroes from other states to become 'Mormon' and settle among us." The local citizenry immediately drafted a list of accusations against the Saints, prominently featuring the anti-slavery issue.... In response Phelps issued an "Extra" explaining that he had been 'misunderstood'....and declared [no blacks] "will be admitted into the Church." The Mormons, in spite of their repeated denials, continued to be charged with anti-slavery activity in Missouri. In response, the next issue of the Messenger and Advocate, [the Church newspaper] was devoted to a rebuttal of abolitionism... However, far from professing divine insight the authors [including Joseph Smith] made it expressly clear that these were their personal views.

The Mormon exodus to the Salt Lake Valley did not free the Saints from the slavery controversy, for much of the national debate was focused on the West.... The constitution of Deseret was intentionally without reference to slavery and Brigham Young declared "as a people we are adverse to slavery but we do not wish to meddle in the subject." Though no law authorized...slavery in Utah, there were slaves in the territory. They were fully at liberty to leave their masters if they chose. Slaveowning converts were instructed to bring their slaves west if the slaves were willing to come, but were otherwise advised to "sell them" or let them go free. The first group of Mormons to enter the Salt Lake valley were accompanied by three Negro "servants." By 1850 nearly 100 blacks had arrived, approximately two-thirds of whom were slaves.

The "laissez-faire" approach to slavery came to an end in 1852. In his request for legislation on slavery Governor Brigham Young...declared "while servitude may and should exist...and [there are] those who are naturally designed to occupy the position of 'servant of servants'...we should not...make them beasts of the field, regarding not the humanity with attaches to the colored race...nor elevate them...to an equality with those whom Nature and Nature's God has indicated to be their masters."

Source: Lester E. Bush, Jr., "Mormonism's Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 8:(1973), pp. 11-25.

In 1850 the debate over the admission of California as a free state nearly prompted a civil war. The Compromise of 1850 was worked out to mollify both pro  and anti slavery interests. However New York Senator William H. Seward, who four years later became one of the founders of the Republican Party, spoke against the Compromise. Part of his address is reprinted below.

Four years ago, California, a Mexican province, scarcely inhabited and quite unexplored, was unknown even to our usually immoderate desires... To day, California is a state, more populous than the least and richer than several of the greatest of our thirty states. This same California, thus rich and populous, is here asking admission into the Union, and finds us debating the dissolution of the Union itself. Let California come in...California, the youthful queen of the Pacific, in her robes of freedom, gorgeously inlaid with gold  is doubly welcome...

But it is insisted that the admission of California shall be attended by a compromise of questions which have arisen out of slavery!

I am opposed to any such compromise, in any and all the forms in which it has been proposed.

What am I to receive in this compromise? Freedom in California. It is well; it is worth the sacrifice. But what am I to give as an equivalent? A recognition of the claim to perpetuate slavery in the District of Columbia; forbearance toward more stringent laws concerning the arrest of persons suspected of being slaves found in the free states; forbearance from the proviso of freedom in the charters of new territories....California brings gold and commerce as well as freedom. I am, then to surrender some portion of human freedom in the District of Columbia, and in New Mexico, for the mixed consideration of liberty, gold, and power, on the Pacific coast.

California ought to come in...whether slavery stand or fall in the District of Columbia...in New Mexico...and even whether slavery stand or fall in the slave states.

What is proposed is a political equilibrium. Every political equilibrium requires a physical equilibrium to rest upon... To constitute a physical equilibrium between the slave states and the free states, requires, first, an equality of territory... And this is already lost.

We hear nothing but slavery, and well can talk of nothing but slavery. And now our difficulties, embarrassments, and dangers, arise....from want of moral courage to meet this question of emancipation as we ought. I feel assured that slavery must give way...to the salutary instruction of economy, and to the ripening influences of humanity; that emancipation is inevitable, and is near...but I will adopt none but lawful, constitutional, and peaceful means, to secure even that end...

Let, then, those who distrust the Union make compromises to save it. I shall not impeach their wisdom, as I certainly cannot their patriotism; but, indulging no such apprehensions myself, I shall vote for the admission of California directly, without conditions, with qualifications, and without compromise...
Source: Richard N. Current and John A. Garraty, ed., Words that Made American History, Vol.I, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1965), pp. 446 459.

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