One of the most expected questions when touring the slave quarters at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or in almost any modern-day discussion of American slavery, is how could an otherwise seemingly intelligent and decent human being keep slaves. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves continued to be bought and sold in parts of the South for some 60-70 years. Why did many slave owners, even at this point, not free their slaves?
To begin to understand such a mindset, let’s try to put ourselves into the culture of the time. The economy and livelihood of the American South had been built with slave labor. Slaves cleared the land, cut the trees, built the plantation houses, and sowed and harvested the cotton, tobacco, and food. The South had become dependent on the slave economy, not even existing in most imaginations the ability to live without such a system.
Some slaves were treated well, others horribly, but all were treated as property to be bought, sold, and managed. Slaves sold for anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars each, depending on their age, sex, strength, skill, and reputation for obedience. An $800 slave price in 1850 was maybe the equivalent of about $24,000 in today’s economy,1 and many slave owners had large numbers of slaves. Therefore, the thought of freeing one’s slaves was ridiculous. Economic suicide. At Thomas Jefferson’s death, for example, he was deeply in debt, having lost his wealth, and his slaves were sold to pay his debts.
One way for slave owners to increase their slave numbers without such high buying costs was to impregnate their female slaves to give birth to new slaves. Back to Jefferson, who is known to have had a seemingly loving relationship with a slave woman following his wife’s early death, he had 6 free children with his wife and 6 slave children with his slave, who was the half white half-sister of his wife (born to a slave woman who had been impregnated by Jefferson’s wife’s plantation-owning father). Thus Jefferson had working slaves who were ¾ white and just as related to him as the 6 who lived prominently as children of the President of the US, but who lived oh so differently.
Even after the war, when slaves were “freed,” many Southern landowners banded against Emancipation, continuing to operate without change, probably with increased fear and anger toward the government though, leading to even stronger resolve and violence. They had accumulated a fortune in slaves, not only in the great cost of the slaves themselves, but in the labor of crops that brought their income. No government was going to take their own property away from them, or the only livelihood that could imagine having, they said as they banded together with guns and whatever else, to protect what they believed was theirs. In their minds, emancipation was maybe comparable to being told today that we must turn our houses and all our future paychecks over to the government. It was economics and a desperate struggle of power.1
Morally though, how could slave owners live with themselves, treating other human beings so inhumanely? How could they sell a young child away from his mother, a wife away from her husband, a teenage girl as a sex object? How could men use slave girls and grandmothers for their personal sexual pleasure (and often share them with their male friends and relatives)? How did they justify the inhumane beatings, especially to the questions of their wives and young children who were usually more sensitive to the slaves’ humanity?
Culture always makes its justifications. According to the law, black people were not fully human. More like animals than people, it was often explained. They were said to be not intelligent enough to be useful in other ways, not human enough to hurt long from separation, perhaps like puppies being taken from their mother, and not able to learn except in the sense of being trained.2 God created them for the purpose of working for the white people, it was explained.
Part 2: Why did the black people stay? Why didn’t they just leave, or refuse to work?
Despite the complexity of any such question, there are some pretty obvious reasons the black people cooperated. One is fear. They saw and experienced regularly the severe beatings of those who were disobedient. They witnessed complaining workers being sold from their families. They witnessed slow or hesitant workers stripped and flogged with a whip, sometimes to near death. They were forced to watch attempted runaways being hanged or shot as examples to everyone else. Fear was instilled in them daily, and the fear was real.
Another partial answer is illiteracy. Slaves were not allowed to be educated, so they were not able to read news or write letters, limiting their communication to what they heard from each other or their “masters.” Even when Emancipation came, many slaves had no way of knowing anything about it.
And even if they had heard that they were “free,” there was reason number 3, the good ole’ boys association. Were they able to escape from their “masters” and run to the “authorities” for help, their fate would have only worsened, as the “authorities” were in cahoots with the landowners, most owning matching white capes and hoods. True escape meant making it over the Mason-Dixon, which is quite a trip on foot, with skin-color that cannot be disguised, and a very real risk of being caught and killed on the way.
Lastly, there was a gentler spirit within the black slaves, a spirit of hope, often in God, that God had not forsaken them but would deliver them. They might have even been taught by their “masters” that the Bible said slaves must obey their masters,3 and they wanted to be obedient to God. Slaves often sang what we now call “negro spirituals” as they worked, songs about Biblical stories of deliverance, which gave them hope for their own.
Even in the 1960s, long after slavery, the south was entrenched in the same racial hatred – Jim Crow laws and hooded lynchings. Yet, the black population did not band together in revolt, but rather were led by church leaders to peacefully protest for the right to be treated as human beings. Even met with violent shootings, hangings, hosing, and church bombings, they chose to keep their protest for change nonviolent.
Part 3: What Now?
If a culture repeatedly and consistently teaches that black people are subhuman and created to be white people’s slaves, or that God chose men to be the masters over women, or that gay people are going to hell unless they change, it becomes an accepted “fact,” justifying and overriding any questionable actions or thoughts to the contrary, especially when God and the Bible are worked into the equation somewhere. If we think about it, there is nothing outside our own limited personal experience that we could possibly know except that we have heard it, or read it from somewhere. We undoubtedly have “learned” many “facts” that were always wrong, but in our minds, they will ever be the only possible right.
We cannot undo a complicated history of slavery and racism. There are scars in the South that will never heal. But it is up to us, now, this generation, to move beyond the scars. First we must hear the stories, not close our ears to them. They are ours. The players were our own ancestors. Our blood is their blood. We can read books4, watch movies5, and open our minds and hearts to each others’ stories. There is much darkness in our past, and there are threatening storm clouds in our present. Only we can make the way for a clear new dawning. We are the ancestors of our children, our grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren. They are depending on us to make for them a better world. How slavery ever happened is a complicated and painful question, but our new question is how can we never allow such oppression again.
1http://www.measuringworth.com/slavery.php It is interesting to note that roughly 80% of all free men in the 1860 South owned no slaves, and that 90% owned no more than 4. (I have not checked the accuracy of any of these figures taken from this linked website. Please share with me if you have different data you consider more accurate.)
2In The Emancipation of Robert Sadler, a young house slave, used as a personal slave to the owner’s child or children, was called the children’s “new black puppy.”
3Uncle Tom’s Cabin (published 1852)includes a slave woman quoting that Bible mandate to her husband
Freeman Fiction, Emancipation and after (Leonard Pitts Jr., 2012)
The Emancipation of Robert Sadler biography of post-emancipation slave (R. Sadler & M. Chapian, 1975)
Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs for young readers (Mary E. Lyons, 1992)
Redfield Farm Fiction, Underground Railroad (Judith Redline Coopey, 2010)
The Help Fiction, Post-slavery (Kathryn Stockett, 2009)
To Kill a Mockingbird Fiction, post-slavery (Harper Lee, 1960)
5 Recommended Movies:
Roots tv miniseries (1977)
To Kill a Mockingbird Fiction, post-slavery (1962)
Freedom Riders post-slavery (2011)
Night John (1996)
Ruby Bridges children’s movie, post-slavery (1998)
The Help Fiction, Post-slavery (2011)
The Tuskegee Airmen Post-slavery (1995)
The Biography of Miss Jane Pittman (1973)
The Untold Story of Emmett Till Post-slavery (2005)
Four Little Girls Post-slavery (1997)
The King’s Speech Post-slavery (2011)
The Long Walk Home Post-slavery (1990)
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