COLBERT COUNTY, ALABAMA
SOME ASPECTS OF SLAVERY
IN THE MUSCLE SHOALS AREA
© 1974, by
Dr. Kenneth R. Johnson
Used here with permission of author.
Slavery was a part of the rich and diverse history of the Muscle shoals area. Many men and women of the black race contributed generously to that history. In order to understand the history of the Muscle Shoals area, those facets of that history having to do with the institution of Negro servitude must be examined. This paper seeks to explore certain aspects of slavery including slave labor, hiring, marriage and family, buying and selling, resistance to the slave system, and measures taken to control and maintain the slave system This is not a thorough coverage of the subject, and due to limited information about local conditions, many questions remain unanswered about those aspects of slavery that are examined.
Historical records do not indicate when the first slaves were brought into the Muscle shoals area. But long before Alabama became a state in the Union, forces were at work that resulted in slavery being established in northwest Alabama. The French, Spanish, and British who at various times claimed the Shoals area all accepted the practice of slavery in their colonial territories. The American Revolution resulted in slavery being abolished in states north of the Mason-Dixon line, but it remained firmly established by law in states south of that line.
A question prominent in the minds of some Americans was should slavery be permitted in the territories owned by the United States? This question was partially answered in 1787 when the Northwest Ordinance was passed prohibiting the spread of slavery into the territory north of the Ohio River. No such restrictive legislation was passed for the territory south of the Ohio River. As settlers from the original southern states moved into Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama shortly after the American Revolution, they brought their slave property with them. While this westward spread of slavery was going on, the Federal Constitution was adopted in 1788. It made slavery a legal institution under the protection of Federal authority.
The Alabama Territorial Census taken in 1818 indicated that slaves constituted about 16 percent of the population of Franklin County and 13.6 percent of the population of Lauderdale County. This census revealed that Lauderdale County had 267 slaves in a total population of 1,965, while Franklin County had 430 slaves in a total population of 2,690. By the time Alabama became a state in the union in 1819, slaves made up a significant part of the social and economic life of Alabama. 1
As in other parts of Alabama most of the slaves worked on cotton plantations. Many slaves had never worked in cotton prior to their arrival in Alabama. But the ordinary slave had little difficulty adjusting to the simple tools and routine involved in cotton production. While cotton production was the main source of wealth for the planters, slave labor was used to produce many non-cash crops. For example, in 1860 the 313 slaves on John Peters 6,620 acre plantation in Lauderdale County produced 618 bales of cotton, 25, 000 bushels of corn, 1,006 bushels of wheat, 500 bushels of rye, and 11,000 bushels of oats. 2 While the slaves’ primary work was in agriculture, they worked at many other tasks about the plantation. They cleared additional land, built buildings, repaired equipment and fences, slaughtered livestock, cut firewood, sawed lumber, preserved food, and performed numerous other tasks. Slaves usually worked at these jobs in the winter or during wet weather when work could not be carried on in the fields. The larger plantations usually had some full time non-agricultural workers such as shoemaker, blacksmith, cook, house servant and such. For example on the Bernard McKiernan plantation situated about six miles east of Tuscumbia, a slave named William Handy was a shoemaker, charged with the duty of making and repairing shoes for the slaves on the plantation.3
Most slaves on the plantations seemed to prefer any type of labor to field work. a house servant and cook usually had better clothes, food, and treatment than a field hand. Also, the work was generally more stimulating and permitted greater freedom. Slave craftsmen such as the blacksmith were freer to work at their own pace and were more self-directed due to a lack of close supervision. The valet of Goodloe Warren Malone gained great favor with his master and was able to dress and travel in the best style with his master. The “Black Mammy” on the Jimmie Wells Rutland plantation was famous for her fine cooking. But not all slaves enjoyed these favored positions. On the McKiernan plantation three cooks were expected to care for all the small children while preparing food in a hot and ill-equipped kitchen for the master’s family and about fifty slaves. This unpleasant and heavy responsibility plus the disturbing presence of a demanding mistress made some slaves welcome the opportunity to return to the cotton fields.4
Many slaves did not live on a plantation and worked at tasks unrelated to plantation life. Some built roads, canals, bridges, and did other types of construction. For example, James Fennell, first president of the State Bank at Decatur, used his slaves in the erection of the bank building. The slaves cut large stone pillars and hauled them to Decatur using wheels made of tree trunks drawn by oxen.5 Other Slaves worked in the Florence brickyard, in the tannery, and as seamstresses, gardeners, waiters, cooks, janitors, stock and delivery boys, deck hands and stevedores, and at numerous other tasks. Most were unskilled laborers but some were highly valued for their special abilities.
When the civil War came, slaves were often called upon to perform new and additional tasks. When in 1861 the Union armies were threatening Fort Donelson and Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, a call was sent out for 300 slaves to help erect the fortifications for that area. Although slave owners feared the loss of their property and were reluctant to let their slaves go, many slaves were used in this defensive effort. When William Dickson, Owen O. Nelson, and Dr. Lewis Sadler organized a gun factory in Leighton, much of the work was done by slave labor. Also a slave owner might take a slave along with him as a body servant when he entered military service.6
Slave owners increasingly hired their slaves out to work for others. Many circumstances might lead a slave owner to hire out his slaves. Through natural births a master might have more slaves than he needed. During winter many planters had little work for their slaves. In some instances individuals bought slaves strictly for rental purposes. Other persons inherited slaves and having no need for their services, south to turn a profit by selling or renting their services to others. Hiring out a slave not only brought an annual income of about $100, but the master was usually relieved of the responsibility of feeding, clothing, housing, and providing medical care for the slave.
Hired slaves performed essentially the same kinds of labor that an owner might demand of his own slaves. Some planters hired slaves to work in cotton fields, but it seems that most were employed in non-agricultural jobs. In 1834 the commissioners responsible for constructing the canals at the mouth of Shoals Creek, Blue Water, and at Taylor’s Bluff advertised for five hundred slaves. They offered to hire the slaves by the year or for shorter periods at the convenience of the planters. The annual rental was $150 if the owner provided clothing and medication for the slaves. If the company provided these items then the wage would be $120 per year or $15 per month (26 working days).7
Merchants and professional men also hired slaves. A slave named Peter, owned by Mrs. Sarah Hogun, was hired on an annual basis in the 1840’s to a merchant in Tuscumbia. He earned about $85 to 4100 per year for his mistress and was provided food, clothing, medical care, and a shack behind the store to live in. His work consisted of keeping the store clean, the shelves stocked, running errands, building fires in winter, and other miscellaneous chares according to the wishes of the master. This same salve in 1843 was hired to the Rev. Mr. Stedman, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tuscumbia. In this capacity he worked as a house servant, gardener, and water carrier. He also kept the church clean and heated.8
Local governments also hired slaves. The Board of Aldermen of Florence on February 1, 1841, decided to hire five slaves for the purpose of working the town streets. The slaves were hired from their owners for $12.50 per month with the town providing housing, board, and clothing.9
Slaves with definite skills were in the greatest demand and earned the largest income for their owners. In Limestone County in 1848 a slave named Alfred was hired out as a carpenter for $1 per day and was furnished “the usual clothing.” When LaGrange college became the LaGrange Military Academy in 1857, a “drum and bugle corps” was needed. Three slaves with musical talents were hired to satisfy this need. 10
It is difficult if not impossible to know just how much slave hiring took place in the Muscle shoals area. Judging from the number of newspaper advertisement, it increased greatly between 1830 and 1860. The following was not unusual.
I will hire to the highest bidder in town of Florence
for the year 1850, the Negroes belonging to Mary
A. Moffelt (say twenty). Said hiring to take place at
the county courthouse on Tuesday the 25th December,
instances. Terms as usual.
James W. Sloss, Agent11
All ages and kinds of slaves were offered for hire. S. R. Cockrill advertised that he wished “to hire out a number of negroes, men, women, boys, and girls.” another announcement stated that “65 or 70 likely negroes will be hired at Leighton on Saturday 30th instance, Dec. 22, 1837.”12
The claim is made by some historians that the increased hiring of slaves was an indication that the slave system was declining. The limited information available about the shoals area suggests that the hiring of slaves merely demonstrated the flexibility of the slave system and the capacity of that system to satisfy the demand for many types of labor.
BUYING and SELLING SLAVES
Buying and selling slaves was an essential part of the slave system as with all kinds of private property. There was no permanent slave market in the shoals area. The transfer of slave property locally was usually by means of a private sale, advertisement in a newspaper, or by auction. The sale of slaves did not occur every day or even every week, but sales were common.
Slaves, like other property, were sold for a variety of reasons. In January 1851 Andrew Jackson (not President Andrew Jackson) offered a negro man, his wife and five children for sale” not. . . for any fault but simply for the want of money.” He also offered four mules for sale in the same ad. Two years earlier Hugh Simpson offered his tan-yard for sale with all the hides and leather along with “two negro men, both experienced tanners, one a first rate currier and finisher. . .” Joseph Hough advertised the sale of stock, farming utensils, and “twenty likely negroes” to settle an estate. John A. Nooe advertised that he would sell a piece of land and the following slaves at Barton’s Corner in Tuscumbia to settle an estate: Rhoda, Mingo, George, Palty, Tennessee, Mourning, Hester, Essex, Eliza, James, Ellen, Elizabeth, Susan, Bacchus, Nancy, Mahaly, Martha, Peter, Mary Ann “and the increase of the female slaves since the deed of Trust.”13 The Lauderdale County Deed Record Book shows that slaves described as “Bob about 17 years of black complexion, Nancy about 17 or yellow complexion, Ann about 10 of yellow complexion and Moses about 45 of yellow complexion” had been pledged as security for a debt and were to be sold to satisfy the obligation. On other occasions a slave was simply required to work out his master’s debt rather than be sold. James and David Lewis gave a slave named Newman to John Simpson and company to work until a debt of $250 was paid plus expenses.14
The age, health, color, sex, and special abilities of a slave were often important factors in a sale James Gray offered for sale “an excellent house servant and seamstress, twenty seven years old and a young woman with four children.” O. P. Asher offered to sell at Public auction “a likely negro woman – good cook, washer, and ironer for low cash price.” 15 While slaves of all ages were sold, the young slaves commanded the greatest interest. The first recorded slave sale in Lauderdale County was the sale of a woman, age eighteen, for $550 in 1820. Most recorded sales in the 1820’s were of children. “A negro child called Meriah,” brought $100 while a Negro boy “Jime, age about 16 and a girl named Winny, age 12” sold for $750 in 1824. A Negro boy was sold for $400, a girl named Charlotte for $256.25 and “a negro girl named Bernice, age six” sold for $150. 16 As the Muscle Shoals area became more settled and slave population increased, it seems that the sale of children was less common. But the practice did continue and the following bill of sales strongly suggest that prices increased:17
Tuscumbia, Ala. April 21st, 1857
Received of S. A. Stigger Twelve Hundred and
fifty dollars in full for a certain yellow negro boy
Tom about fourteen years of age which boy I
warrant to be sound in body and mind and free
from the claims of all persons whomsoever.
Given under my hand and seal date above written.
Buyers nearly always purchased slaves because of their ability to work. Therefore health was an important factor in a slave sale. If a seller misrepresented the health or condition of a slave, a buyer could and often did resort to court action to recover damages. For example, a slave was sold in Tuscumbia to a buyer in Jackson, Tennessee. The buyer, feeling that he had been deceived about the health of the slave which “was fatally diseased . . . and died of that disease,” brought suit to recover “the difference between her actual value and the value she would have been if sound.” Dr. Robb S. Abernathy, a prominent medical doctor of Tuscumbia, was a major witness when this case came to trial.18
Sales were seldom for the purpose of making the salve happy or to improve his lot although a few slaves were bought or sold at their request, there was nothing inherent in the slave system that would make a master seriously consider such a request. The wishes of the slave were honored and slave families were held together only when the master had developed a personal interest in the salve that out weighed economic consideration, or when the economic considerations and the slave’s wishes happened to be the same.
The Alabama law made clear the legal status of the slave. “The state or condition of negro or African slavery is established by law in this state; conferring on the master property in and the right to the time, labor and services of the slave, and to enforce obedience . . . to all his lawful commands . . . . 19
Apparently the great mass of slaves deeply resented this system that kept them in bondage. They especially resented the harsh treatment that was often meted out by unsympathetic masters and overseers. Slaves showed their desire for freedom in many ways.
One clear example of slaves wanting freedom came in 1840 when he Alabama Whigs held a convention in Tuscumbia. Slaves, hearing the white politicians make speeches about liberty and freedom, received the impression that freedom would soon be enjoyed by all. Premature rejoicing by the slaves aroused white fears of a slave rebellion and brought repression. 20
The desire to be free could also be seen in the fact that a few slaves bought their freedom. Peter Still, while hired to a merchant in Tuscumbia, was able to save enough money to purchase his freedom in 1850. Frederick Tucker, a slave in Limestone County, was permitted to hire himself out. He was able to save $700 and bought his freedom in 1859. 21 Only a very few could buy their freedom, but their actions may be seen as an indication of a general desire of others to do the same.
Probably the most common acts of resistance to slavery were the small acts that could hardly be identified. This kind of resistance showed itself in ways such as breaking tools, working slowly and inefficiently, pretending sickness, all of which tended to make life easier for the slave and less profitable for the master. Some slaves resorted to violence such as burning buildings, killing livestock, and sometimes murdering the master or other white people. These extreme acts were often for revenge as well as resistance to the slave system.
Probably the act of resistance that attracted the greatest attention was that of running away. Slaves usually ran away to work or to escape some threatened punishment. In the early days, if a slave ran away hoping to escape the slave system, he often joined an Indian tribe. After the Indians were removed, runaway slaves usually tried to go northward to free territory. A slave family owned by Bernard McKiernan, with the aid of a white abolitionist, escaped in a row boat down the Tennessee River heading for Canada. They were apprehended in Indiana and brought back. Some runaway slaves expected to remain in the south by pretending to be free blacks. 22
Runaway slaves often stayed in the woods near their home plantation or hid out near a neighboring plantation on which a relative or friend lived. The runaway would often return to the slave quarters at night where he could receive food and other essentials from friends. Life for the runaway slave was filled with constant danger. With no home, no dependable source of food, and inadequate clothing, he was subject to all the hazards of the forest and the constant danger of being captured. Often he was dressed in a manner that would attract attention. For example, a slave named Charles from Lauderdale County ran away wearing a cotton shirt and pantaloons. A drawing chain was fastened around his ankle with a house lock. Some slaves were, according to newspaper advertisements, wearing iron collars with long prongs or horns and some were wearing bells. Also, some wore chains, handcuffs, and other such fetters. In 1838 Frances [sic] Durett of Lexington advertised that one of his mulatto slaves had run away wearing a pair of handcuffs and a pair of drawing chains.23 While these forms of dress and instruments of control were not typical, they were undeniable an aspect of slavery, and they reduced a runaway slave’s chance of remaining free.
If the master had reason to believe that his slave was near the plantation, he could call in a professional “slave catcher” or go himself in search of the slave. Dogs were often used in the search. Apparently most plantations did not have “negro dogs,” but some did. Also, the professional slave catchers owned dogs. The following ad appeared in the Sumerville (Lawrence County) Weekly Democrat, October 3, 1860. 24
I have a splendid pack of NEGRO DOGS—the
south cannot excel them. Part of them I purchased
of C. A. Grant, of Lawrence County, Alabama. If any
person wants to buy a pack of good Negro Dogs I
can suit them. I will sell a bargain in them; or if any
person wants me to hunt with them, my price is $5
per day and all expenses paid, and all rewards, and
$10 for catching a negro; and when I catch a negro
that his master has not got me employed to hunt, I
charge him $10 if I catch him in his own county; if I
catch him out of his own county, I charge him $25.
If any person wants me to hunt for them, I can
be found 21/2 miles west of Decatur, or address by
letter at Decatur, Alabama.
H. W. Norwood
James Williams, a slave who escaped northward from Alabama, described the “negro dogs” this way:
these hounds, when young, are taught to run after the
negro boys; and being always kept confined except when
let out in pursuit of runaways, they seldom fail of
overtaking the fugitive, and seem to enjoy the sport of
hunting men as much as other dogs do that of chasing a
fox or deer.25
When dogs were used to hunt slaves, they were usually kept on a leash. On other occasions they were turned loose to run the slave the same way they would run a deer or fox. In such cases the slave could be severely injured or killed by the dogs unless he could find safety in a tree. Samuel Ragland of Madison County advertised that his runaway salve, Isham, could be identified by scar on the breast and the underlip which resulted from the bite of a dog. 26 The use of slave catchers with dogs was unpleasant but apparently a common aspect of the slave system.
If a master thought his runaway slave had left the plantation are he could notify law enforcement authorities and advertise in the newspapers. Usually an advertisement included an offer of a reward for the apprehension of the runaway. The advertisements also reveal much about slavery. Josiah Hawkins offered a twenty dollar reward for the recovery of a mulatto slave named John, age about 35. The advertisement states that “His neck has been injured which causes him to stoop and use it very carefully. It is probably that he is lurking about Nashville or in the vicinity of John Shane, where he has a sister. As he is an artful fellow, he may have secured some instrument for writing and proporting that he is free.” Benjamin Taylor of Center Star offered a $50 reward for the apprehension of “my boy DAVE” age about 46. 27 The following was a typical advertisement: 28
CATCH THE RUNAWAY!
Runaway from the subscriber about two weeks ago,
a negro man, John (calls himself John Slaughter) thirty two
or three years old, five foot and 8 or 9 inches high, rather
spare and inclined to be round shouldered. A great talker
and sometimes stammers a little. Pretends to be a good
mechanic at almost anything and prides himself in being
a fortune teller.
He may be making for a free state and any information
of said negro will be thankfully received or a liberal
reward paid for his confinement in jail, with information
so that I can get him. Houston’s Store, Alabama.
T. L. MINOR
A slave owner could always call upon the public authorities to assist in recapturing runaway slaves. In all cases Alabama law authorized any person to apprehend a runaway slave and turn him over to the county authorities or return him to the owner. For such service a person was entitled to $6 for each slave caught and other reasonable charges even if no reward was offered. If the owner of a captured runaway slave was not known, the slave was turned over to the sheriff of the county. He was required by law to publish a description of the slave and marks of identification in the nearest newspaper for six months. 29 The following example was typical. 30
Committed to jail in Lauderdale County on Wednesday
the 24th instance a negro man who calls himself George
and says he belongs to John Martin of Moulton, Lawrence
County. Said Negro is about 5 ft 8 or 10 inches high,
very dark color and supposed to be about 30 to 35 years
The owner is requested to come forward, prove prop-
erty, pay charges, and take him away or he will be
dealt with according to the law.
D. J. Hamm, Jailor
If the owner did not come forth and claim the slave within the six months time limit, the slave was sold and the proceeds turned over to the county treasurer.
There is no single group or type of slave that ran away or offered resistance to the slave system. Under some conditions any slave, regardless of age or sex, might act against the system and for his own betterment. But some were more prone to runaway than others. John Blassingame in his book THE SLAVE COMMUNITY concludes that most runaway slaves were young, robust men between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five. This seems to be true for the Muscle Shoals area. 31
When slaves were captured, they were usually punished. The amount and kind of punishment was often influenced by the amount of work to be one at that time. Whipping was the most common punishment. In the ore extreme cases, the slave was forced to wear a bell, chains, a heavy metal collar, and/or kept in a small dark poorly ventilated cell for a period of time. Inasmuch as the master wanted the slave’s services, there was a natural reluctance to punish in a way that would limit that service.
MAINTAINING THE SLAVE SYSTEM
The institution of slavery was a part of the whole way of life in the Muscle Shoals area. The maintenance of the slave labor system and the related race relations system involved every person regardless of race of legal status. Society was organized in such a way as to maintain the system, to keep the slaves in slavery, and to protect the larger society from rebellious slaves.
The Alabama legislature enacted an elaborate set of laws commonly known as the Save Code. According to this code, slaves were not permitted to travel off the plantation without a written pass. In towns a curfew existed. A slave was not to “keep or carry a gun, powder, shot, club, or weapon except the tools given him to work with.” A slave could not own a dog. No more than five slaves could assemble except for religious and burial services. Numerous other such regulations tended to prevent the slaves’ escape, rebellion, or a disruption of orderly society. 32
The master had primary responsibility for controlling slaves. If a slave was caught violating a state law by the master on the plantation, he was usually dealt with as the master saw fit. Every master supplemented state laws by making rules governing the daily life of slaves. He enforced these rules using whatever method he deemed wise and administered punishment when the rules were broken. Whipping and withholding privileges were common punishment, but more harsh measures were used when the master chose to use them. Trouble on the plantation often resulted from a lack of wise and fair supervision of slaves. This seemed to be especially true where masters delegated their authority to overseers. Most overseers on the McKiernan plantation were disliked by the slaves and enjoyed little respect from the master. Goodloe Pride, a young resident of west Franklin County had to drop out of college and supervise the family slaves when they began to have trouble with the overseer. Pride reported that he treated the slaves humanely, clothed and fed them well, always found enough work for them to do, and therefore had no trouble with them. 33
A slave engaged in any unlawful act could be legally apprehended by any white person. The offending slave could be turned over to the master or placed in custody of the sheriff and brought before a Justice of the Peace for trial. If the offense was minor, the slave would be punished by whipping. For example, a slave carrying a weapon was to receive thirty nine lashes on his bare back. 34 When a slave was accused of a major crime, he could be brought before the county criminal court. In 1840 a Limestone County slave named Charles was charged with murder and convicted by a jury of twelve white men. He was sentenced to be hanged at some convenient place within one mile of the courthouse. 35
The slave masters, overseers, and regular law enforcement officials were incapable of policing the slave community and keeping the slave in his legal position. To supplement this regular authority and bring community support behind an orderly slave system, the Alabama legislature created the Patrol system. All white male slave owners below the age of 65 and all other free whites between 18 and 45 except commissioned officers in the militia were required to perform patrol duty. In March of each year the Justice of the Peace in each precinct was required by State law to make a list of eligible persons in the precinct and divide them into patrols of about five persons with a leader. Each patrol would be assigned a portion of the precinct and at least once a week or more often if necessary, the assigned area must be patrolled at night. The patrol had the authority to apprehend any black person engaged in an unlawful act. If the violation was minor the black might be given a warning, or the patrol could administer a whipping on the spot and return the slave to the proper place. The patrol had the authority to go onto any plantation and enter any slave cabin by force if necessary. It was authorized to maintain law and order in the slave community, and to accomplish this they were authorize to punish slaves by shipping up to thirty nine stripes. 36
Apparently the patrol system in the muscle Shoals area was rather lax, and probably was not organized in may precincts each year. When the slave community was calm, white fears relaxed and the patrol system ceased to function or did so in a lackluster manner. In areas where slaves existed in large numbers, patrols were more active. They were especially active when rumors of slave rebellions were circulating. The patrol system probably better than any other single thing indicates that slavery was maintained not be a few large planters but by the whole society.
The task of maintaining order in the slave community was made easier by the absence of any organization or person in the Muscle shoals area working for the abolition of slavery. Some northerners who came down to teach in schools or engage in business did not favor slavery but did not attack the system openly. There was a branch of the African Colonization society at LaGrange College in the 1830’s. The members of the society heard “abolitionist speeches” at their meetings, but there is no indication that these speeches influenced the attitudes of the hearers or had any impact on the community at large. Also, the Society was not an abolitionist organization. 37 Its aim was to return free blacks to Africa. Supporters of slavery strongly supported the organization financially. Critics of the society, especially the free blacks, claimed that it actually strengthened slavery. There was no organization or individual in the Muscle Shoals area openly resisting slavery or offering assistance to runaway slaves.
Not much has been written about slave life in the Muscle Shoals area. Presumably their life style was not much different from that in other areas of the South. The Alabama law required that “The master must treat his slave with humanity and must not inflict upon him any cruel punishment; he must provide him with a sufficiency of healthy food and necessary clothing; cause him to be properly attended during sickness, and provide for his necessary wants in old age.” 38 If the provisions of this law were not met, the slaves had no real recourse in that they could not bring suit against their master. Also, the Alabama courts ruled that the master had final authority in determining the wants and needs of his slaves. 39 Public authorities commonly took little or no action against a master unless he was guilty of the most extreme abuses in public.
All slave owners provided some kind of housing and food for their slaves. On the large plantations, slave cabins made up the slave quarters which were situated behind the master’s house and near the other building such as the barn, stable, blacksmith shop, smokehouse, etc. In the towns slaves usually lived in shacks behind the master’s house or behind the places where they worked. The slave dwellings usually had one room and a large fireplace for heat in winter and for cooking. Foods were issued usually on a family basis. The amount and kind of food to be issued was determined by the master. The slave mother prepared most meals for the family, except during certain seasons such as cotton picking time when every person was needed in the field as much as possible. On those occasions one or two slaves (usually women) cooked for the entire group. When a family owned only or two slaves, the white mistress would prepare food for the slaves while preparing it for the family. Conditions varied greatly.
It is impossible to know how adequate the slave housing and diets were. They were usually eager to enrich their diet by fishing, hunting, and buying small items. Hog killing time and Christmas were important times of the year because they brought supplements and variations to the salve’s regular diet. Yet the same was true of the whites. It is true that most slaves lived like the poorest members of society. Big mansions, fine clothing, expensive foods, and the instruments of a higher culture were not theirs. Yet in material things some slaves probably lived as well as some poor whites. The major difference between the slaves and the poor whites lay in the fact that the white men because of their color and legal status were free to improve their situation. Slaves, living in start contrast with their well to do masters, had little chance of improving their condition.
The slaves in the Muscle shoals area wore clothes different from most whites but similar to the clothing of slaves in other parts of Alabama. Newspaper advertisements suggest that slaves were generally provided heavy work shoes. In winter slaves were generally provided heavy work shoes. In winter they were provided clothes made of coarse woolen cloth which was often referred to as “Negro Kerseys.” A. W. Falk and Company of Florence advertised “Negro blankets and wool hats” and “Negro Kerseys” for sale in November, 1849. A competitor advertised “Army shoes for Negroes, a very superior article; very lo.” The same merchant offered “Ladies and Gentlemen’s calf and kid shoes and boots.” According to an ex-slave most slaves were poorly clothed and were eager to get new clothing and other items cast off by the whites. 40 It seems reasonable to conclude that slaves commonly wore a type of clothing that was coarse and cheap, but evidence at hand does not suggest that most slaves were inadequately clothed.
Slaves like all persons got sick and needed medical care. This was a responsibility of the master and handled differently by different masters. On many plantations slave women were given the responsibility of caring for the sick. a slave mother was responsible for her children except when work needed to be done. Then one or two women would be directed to care for the sick while others worked. Usually the master, mistress, or the overseer would check on the condition of the sick and issue directives. In some instances slave and free women gained local fame for their ability to care for the ill. On the Goodloe plantation in west Franklin County, Mrs. Mary Goodloe was well remembered, at least among the whites, for her watchful consideration of the welfare of her slaves. 41 Medical doctors were called only in the most extreme cases.
A sincere mutual respect sometimes arose between the master and servants. The slaves of Levi Gist and his wife seem to have had high regard for both. Jim Nunn of Lawrence County noted in his diary that a Mrs. Gamble’s slaves wept at her burial. 42 The will of Temperance J. Peters provided that $500 should be placed in the hands of her executor for the support and maintenance of “my old negro woman, Isabel.” 42 But not all old slaves were so fortunate. When the estate of Levi Gist was divided among the heirs, they decided to free one very old slave who could no longer work. After he wandered about the area between Tuscumbia and Leighton until near death, one of the Gist daughters took the old slave in. 43
In other cases the community assumed responsibility for older slaves. Lawrence County in 1842 paid $18.75 to a person for keeping an elderly colored pauper named Hanna. Madison County records show that the county treasurer was ordered to pay to William B. Green $35.00 for supporting a slave and ordered the slave sent to the poor house. 44
The displays of affection mentioned above were always within the context of the master-slave relationship and not between equals. The affection that whites felt for their slaves was in no sense an expression of discontentment with slavery. Slavery was the established way of life.
The relationship between master and slave sometimes took on characteristics that violated the socially accepted patterns of the times. Richard Rapier, an early businessman of Florence, made his slave servant his mistress. She bore him children and was cared for as a legal wife might be treated. 45 While this kind of relationship was frowned upon socially, it was usually treated as a private matter and was seldom written about. Yet this aspect of slavery sometimes became downright embarrassing. For example, Morris Vest came to Florence to marry Miss Nancy Ellis who owned some land and an attractive slave girl. A few days after his arrival but before the marriage, Mr. Vest absconded with the slave girl, causing the mistress to publish the details warning others against him. To recover her attractive property, she offered a $100 reward. 46 To punish her unfaithful lover, she offered a $150 reward. The unwillingness of society to accept marital relations between whites and blacks as normal, serves to emphasize the fact that slavery was a system of race relations as well as a system of enforced labor.
SLAVES AND THE OWNERSHIP OF PROPERTY
Slaves could not enjoy the benefits of their own labor, accumulate wealth, or own property. The Alabama law stated that “No slave can own property, and any property purchased or held by a slave, not claimed by the master or owner must be sold by order of any Justice of the Peace; one half of the proceeds of the sale . . . to be paid to the informer, and the reside to the county treasury.” 47 This legal principle was clarified in the case of Brandon, et al. vs Merchants’ and Planters Bank of Huntsville when the presiding judge ruled that,
A slave is in absolute bondage; he has no civil rights,
and can hold no property, except at the will and pleasure
of his master. a slave is a rational being and endowed
with understanding and volition, like the rest of man-
kind; and whatever he lawfully acquires, and gains pos-
session of, by finding or otherwise, is the acquirement
and possession of the master. A slave cannot take prop-
erty by descent or purchase.48
Thus if a slave held any property, it was at the pleasure of the master, not the exercise of a legal right. Inasmuch as the slave had no legal property rights, he could not make legally binding contracts for the buying and selling of property. Actually the slave did not possess his own body. If a slave suffered bodily injury through the neglect of another person, the slave could take no action for the recovery of damages. But the owner of the slave could bring suit for damages. Likewise if a slave girl was raped by her master, the act might be frowned upon socially but legally the sexual act was noting more than an exercise of his property rights. If another person committed the rape, the master might bring suit for trespassing upon his property and possibly for damages.
Yet while slaves owned nothing legally, a few were able to gain possession of some wealth and use it to their advantage. Probably most masters did not object to their slaves possessing some small items of personal wealth including money, but in most cases slaves simple did not have the opportunity to gain wealth. This was especially true of slaves on plantations far from town. Yet some did have the opportunity. The salves were usually permitted to have small garden plots. The products could be used to enrich their diet. Some slaves, such as those on the McKiernan plantations, were permitted to carry their products into Tuscumbia or Florence for sale. On some occasions the McKiernan family bought vegetables from their own slaves. The slaves complained that their master would not always pay what was promised. 49 Apparently the money gained from these small sales could be used as the slave saw fit.
Slaves who lived in town or were permitted to hire themselves out, although that practice was illegal, had a much better opportunity to acquire wealth. In the 1840’s while he was a slave in Tuscumbia, Peter Still often worked for others in his spare time. For example, he was often responsible for starting fires in the Tuscumbia Female Academy, cleaning the interior of the Academy, and whitewashing the exterior of the building. He also worked at the Franklin House and other hotels, sweeping floors, washing dishes, and performing numerous other tasks. For these services Peter received money and material goods such as clothing, food, shoes, and other items. He was permitted to use these items as he saw fit, and they greatly enriched the material well-being of his family. But Peter never trusted his master completely. Knowing the master could take everything he acquired, Peter pretended to spend all his money while secretly storing some of it away. He saved enough to buy his freedom in 1850 and then encouraged and assisted his family in an escape attempt. 50 The danger of letting slaves acquire property was obvious.
The majority of the slaves had little influence on the material quality of life they experienced. But their value system was greatly influenced by it. White people generally upheld the virtue of hard work, honest, and saving money. The practice of these virtues brought the slave only more of the same work with few and temporary benefits if any. A successful crop may bring an extra day of celebration during Christmas season, a new suit of clothes, or a little more food. But hard work by the slave was more commonly evidenced by a larger mansion for the master, a bigger plantation, and an increase in the slave population. Perhaps equally important in the long run was the fact that slaves did not gain experience in managing wealth and planning and working to satisfy their own needs. Thus the slave system trained the slave to be a slave but not a responsible, sustaining individual in a free society.
Slaves had no more legal right to make a marriage contract than they had to own property. “One general principle prevails in all the States . . . that is that a slave cannot make a contract, not even the contract of matrimony.” 51 Christian churches did not lend their support to any particular type of salve marriages. There was no license required or registration of the marriages in public or religious offices.
Courtship and marriage, like every other aspect of slave life, was carried on within the limitations of the slave system. Slaves were limited in their freedom of courtship and their contact with members of the opposite sex. These limitations influenced the choice of partners in marriage. In situations where only a few slaves lived in an area, there was often no opportunity for marriage.
A slave marriage could be a formal ceremony in which vows were exchanged, or it could be a simple common law arrangement. Many slave marriages were performed by slave ministers. The slave owners could and often did perform ceremonies with equal validity. White ministers sometimes performed slave marriages. Some used a special set of vows which recognized the restraints of the slave system. These weddings were seldom if ever performed in churches. Many slave marriages occurred informally in the slave quarters when the man and woman simply started living together. Neither the church, state, nor society recognized the right of a slave to make a contract; therefore one type of slave marriage was as valid as another.
In some instances a marriage on a plantation was followed by a celebration by all the slaves. This usually involved relief from work for a few hours, a dance, and choice bits of food and drink provided at the master’s expense. The amount of work to be done and the attitude of the master toward the union determined the kind of celebration that would be held if any.
Masters’ attitudes toward slave marriages seem to have varied greatly with each situation. A master usually favored those marriages that promoted harmony in the slave community; he opposed marriages that created discord. A master could usually prevent an undesirable marriage, but not in all cases. In the 1820’s Levin, a slave on the Levi Gist plantation wanted to marry a girl on the Andrew Hogun plantation. Mr. Gist objected because he disapproved of the morality of the girl and her owner. Also, he did not want a marriage that would result in his slave leaving the plantation. Gist angrily forbade his slave, Levin, to leave the plantation to see his wife. When this order was disobeyed the slave was whipped severely. After the whipping Mr. Gist relented and permitted some visitation, but the marriage was never a happy one. On the John Hogun plantation south of Tuscumbia, young single slaves were watched closely. If a boy and girl showed any interest in each other, Hogun had a cabin built and locked them in for a day or so after pronouncing them man and wife. On the McKiernan plantation, the master arranged a marriage despite some reluctance on the part of the male slave. The male slave had run away on one occasion and apparently McKiernan hoped that marriage would reduce such wandering tendencies. 52
Masters also realized that slaves worked better and were less trouble when they were near their relatives. A slave owner would sometimes agree to buy the husband or wife of a slave from another person in order to bring the family together. An example of this consideration may be seen in the following letter to General John Coffee of Florence, Alabama. 53
Courtland 12th April 1830
Dear sir: At the solicitation of negro man Charles – the
bearer, together with my owning his wife, I address you
with a view to ascertain whether I can purchase him and
at what price. He mentioned to me that an exchange of
him for another would be preferred to selling him. I have
a negro man that I intend to sell, but the same reason
that induces me to wish to buy Charles will prevent
my exchanging him – that of separating him and his
wife. The age of Charles said to be 42, an objection
but that he and his wife might be together, I would
waver this. Please say what you will take on the 1st
Jany. next and when I can get him, if disposed to sell.
Yr. Ob. Servt.
Jno. M. Swoope
This willingness to try to bring members of slave families together was not a common practice; it usually represented a union of human and economic considerations which happened to work to the advantage of the slave and the master.
THE SLAVE FAMILY
It has often been claimed that slave families were weak and unstable. This weakness and instability resulted from the slave system which made it impossible for the slave families to function in a normal manner. the family function of reproduction was filled most successfully. But the successful birth of a healthy slave child might stimulate greater happiness to the master than the slave father. A master’s wealth increased with the birth of each healthy slave baby. If it grew to adulthood the value might well exceed $1000. In view of this economic value of reproduction, some masters went to great trouble and expense caring for slave mothers and young children, while other masters were relatively unconcerned.
The typical slave family had practically no economic function. a slave father or mother could take little action that would increase or improve the food, clothing, shelter, or medical care of the family. The master alone had the means of providing these necessities. He alone had the authority to set limits on their use. Slaves had neither the means nor the authority to provide the necessities of life for their family members. The helplessness of a slave father can be seen in the example of a slave on the Gist plantation, who had eleven children by his wife on the McKiernan plantation. Seven of the children died without a single visit from a medical doctor. The slave father and mother had neither the power to call a doctor nor the means to pay for such. In some instances the children died and were buried without the father, who was working on the other plantation, being notified. Yet this same slave loved his family so much that he built a larger log cabin for his family in his free time and when possible carried to them additional food and clothing to supplement that provided by the master. 54 Within the limitations of the slave system, this man was a good father.
The slave family was also made unstable by the slave’s inability to defend members of the family. If an overseer threatened to whip a slave man’s wife, the slave husband was helpless to intervene without running the risk of severe punishment himself. In most instances a slave father and mother had no legal right to protect their children or each other from the advances of any white person, especially the master. The slave child could not look to the father or the mother as the provider and guardian.
Many slave families were divided families. One parent might seldom be seen. There was never any assurance that the family would not be broken, regardless of the needs and wishes of the family embers. Slaves were property and as such they were sold when it was to the economic advantage of the master to do so. The execution of wills and mortgages was a common means of breaking up families. For example, the will of William Koger directed that his wife should have use of one-eighth of his slaves for her natural life, and the remaining slaves would be divided among his children and the children of the children that were dead. 55 There was practically no way this could be executed without breaking up slave families. While there may have been a reluctance on the part of some considerate masters to break up slave families, it was a matter of little consequence to others. Also, the slave family was of secondary importance to the economic interests and property rights of the master.
The slave experience in establishing a family, in assuming family responsibility, and maintaining permanent family relationships was greatly different from that of the members of the white community.
The slaves’ role in southern society was in many respects different from that of most free men, yet most slaves had man experiences and developed values that were common to most Americans. For example, the slaves by their labor and enterprise played a major part in developing the resources of northwest Alabama and thereby contributed to a better life for all settlers in the area. Also, the slave American developed a deep appreciation for individual freedom. In these respects, the slaves shared a common experience with the free Americans.
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