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Life for enslaved men and women

During the nineteenth century, enslaved African Americans worked on large plantations in the US South under brutal conditions. 


  • In the early 19th century, most enslaved men and women worked on large agricultural plantations as house servants or field hands.
  • Life for enslaved men and women was brutal; they were subject to repression, harsh punishments, and strict racial policing.
  • Enslaved people adopted a variety of mechanisms to cope with the degrading realities of life on the plantation. They resisted slavery through everyday acts, while also occasionally plotting larger-scale revolts.
  • Enslaved men and women created their own unique religious culture in the US South, combining elements of Christianity and West African traditions and spiritual beliefs.

Life on the plantation

In the early 19th century, most enslaved people in the US South performed primarily agricultural work. By 1850, only 400,000 enslaved people lived in urban areas—where many engaged in skilled labor such as carpentry, blacksmithing, and pottery. Almost three million worked on farms and plantations. Because most of the agricultural output of the South was produced on large plantations, more than half of all enslaved men and women lived on plantations that had more than 20 enslaved laborers; about a quarter lived on plantations that had more than 50.1
Photograph shows approximately one hundred enslaved people standing in front of slave cabins, carrying their belongings in anticipation of leaving.
Photograph of formerly enslaved South Carolinians preparing to leave the plantation after the Emancipation Proclamation, 1862. Image credit: Timothy O'Sullivan, courtesy of Google Arts & Culture
Large plantations had field hands and house servants. House servants performed tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and driving, while the field hands labored for up to 20 hours a day clearing land, planting seed, and harvesting crops. Although enslaved men and women sometimes were able to exercise a degree of autonomy in their work—such as on rice plantations in South Carolina—field hands typically worked in a gang-labor system, under which large groups of enslaved laborers toiled under the supervision of an overseer.
The division of labor on most plantations was gender-based, with women typically in charge of duties such as sewing, cooking, quilting, cleaning the house, supervising the children, and serving as midwives—though many enslaved women worked in the fields as well.

Brutality and resistance

Life for most enslaved men and women was brutal and harsh. They were frequently separated from their family members because most slaveowners had no compunction about splitting up families in order to improve their own financial situation.2
Photograph shows a formerly-enslaved African American family in South Carolina, 1862. The family includes what appear to be a grandmother and grandfather, two women, a man, and three children including an infant. Two other children sit on the steps of a cabin in the background.
Photograph of a formerly-enslaved family in South Carolina, 1862. Image credit: Timothy O'Sullivan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Moreover, as slavery expanded in the Lower South in the early 19th century, legal codes governing the behavior of enslaved men and women became more harsh. Enslaved people were not allowed to defend themselves against violence from whites, nor did they have any legal standing in the courts. They were not allowed to testify, unless it was against another enslaved person or a free black person. They could not enter into contracts, nor could they own property; they were not allowed to leave their owner’s property without express permission.
Punishments for infractions were severe. Whipping was prescribed for minor offenses, and branding, mutilation, and even death were employed as punishment for more serious transgressions. Slave patrols—basically militias of free white men—were created to oversee and enforce the slave codes. Such strict racial policing was designed partly to ensure that enslaved people would never be able to revolt against those who held them in bondage.3
Despite all the precautions that white Southerners took to prevent slave rebellions, they did sometimes occur. In 1831, for instance, Nat Turner, an enslaved Virginia man whose owner had taught him to read and who was viewed as a prophet by the other enslaved men and women, organized an insurrection. The uprising began with the killing of Turner’s owner, and within 24 hours, the enslaved rebels managed to kill 60 white people. The revolt was ultimately crushed by law enforcement, and Turner and 13 other slaves were executed. The insurrection terrified white Southerners and resulted in the formulation of even more stringent legal codes governing the behavior of enslaved people.4
Resistance to slavery did not just manifest in organized plots and rebellions. Enslaved men and women engaged in acts of everyday resistance, such as stealing food to supplement their meager rations or feigning illness to get out of working. Slaves also performed acts of sabotage, such as breaking farm tools or purposely destroying crops. Sometimes they went so far as to injure, maim, or even kill themselves in order to escape the brutal reality of a life of forced servitude. Others simply fled the plantation, seeking to escape to freedom in the North.5
Engraving depicts Nat Turner, wearing torn clothes and carrying a sword, being held at rifle-point by Benjamin Phipps in a forest setting.
William Henry Shelton, engraving depicting the 1831 capture of Nat Turner, 1876. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Religion and slave culture

Religion played a big role in the lives of many enslaved men and women. Slaveholders often encouraged, condoned, or turned a blind eye to religious activity and worship among their slaves. In some cities of the South, slaves formed their own congregations with their own preachers and religious services. The biblical story of the exodus, during which Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, held special resonance for enslaved people.6
Slave culture in the US South drew on influences other than Christianity. West African spiritual traditions and beliefs were a huge part of the culture of enslaved men and women. Some of these traditions included the belief in the power of totems and protective charms, and the practice of conjuring—predicting the future. Enslaved people held their own gatherings and celebrations where they danced, sang, and told folktales.7

What do you think?

How did enslaved people cope with the routine repression and degradation of life on the plantation?
Why do you think the slave codes were so strict?
How would you characterize slave culture in the US South?
From what influences did the culture of enslaved men and women in the South draw upon? Do you think this culture was a source of hope or relief for enslaved people?

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Raymond Lam
    Why do slave owners treat their slaves so terribly? Do you think slavery is deprives African Slaves their freedom why or why not explain?
    (7 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Nina
      Because slave owners held a firm belief in their own superiority as a race, while on some level they recognized that the people they enslaved were human. They were harsh to prevent the possibility of an uprising and to break the spirits of the slaves. Slavery deprives Africans of their freedom because they answer only to their master, and do not, in any way, rule their own life. Slaves were given strict rules, and the most minor infractions caused them to be whipped. They had to be submissive, and weren't allowed to speak out, to state their opinions, or they could be whipped. They also weren't paid for their work. That's the difference between slavery and freedom- no choices.
      (39 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Ivellisses Segovia
    Was Nat turner justified by killing his owner? Why did he, if his owner was good to him?
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Sabrina McSpadden Gonzalez Carnesi
      I am first and foremost, flabbergasted that some people think there is documentation of Africans that were bartered and captured due to European promotion of tribalism in Africa to aid in finding human commodity.... that ancestry was documented in the United States. If that was the case, little black children in this country would not whisper to each other that they don't know what to do when teachers like to assign that fabulous timeline sometime in the first half of the K12 experience on family history. I cannot get past 1875 or so myself on the black American ancestry line, but everything else in me goes back to creation. Nobody even had literacy skill or word of mouth eloquence of Alex Haley's family to document their entire genealogy. That is why his autobiographical book was so groundbreaking.

      Go look at the slave records of plantations and see how they documented the enslaved. Look at the slave laws in the precious Confederate States that had to keep adding addendums to keep generations after generations of human stock docile so they will remain orally and mentally illiterate and stripped of anything close to self-esteem. Why would Nate Turner kill his owner? Does primal rage for being subjected to a culture that looks at you as less than an animal have anything to do with the human condition?

      I know that I might sound abrupt, but in a hemisphere that was built off the survivors of the Middle Passage where close to 100 million bones are lying on the floor of the Atlantic, someone ask if there is a book that documents the act? Go to the insurance companies that underwrote the ships. NYLife (AIG now) Insurance sold over 500 policies. Look at how Wall Street made their profit and slave owners used slaves as collateral for bank loans in JP Morgan Chase, NYLife/Aetna/USLife, and Wells Fargo ( Wachovia, which was WF's predecessor).

      I also ask this: Why would an enslaver who was raised to believe the Bible supported their superiority over anything of color even think to feel empathy of something they think is less than an animal...and look at today and see how the uneven attendance to this in law is left up to each individual state, just like voting is today.

      Notice that none of this is in curriculum to address this major component of the USA's development. Oh, but then in Texas a San Antonio teacher in a charter school literally asked 8th grade students to list 'positive aspects' of slavery in 2018! because the educational system in this country does not allow for truth in their history.

      Daina Ramey Berry wrote an excellent book called "The Price for Their Pound of Flesh" (2017, Beacon Press) that took 10 years of research but uses all primary sources and documents the economic value of a slave from birth to death and even a ghost price after death.
      (29 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Sans
    why did Nat Turner kill a slave owner who was nice to him? i read he even admitted that the owner was nice to him. I mean, why?
    (13 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Destiny Hunter
    Also, is it true that slavery lasted for a long time because of the law that the status of a child was based upon the status of his/her mother?
    (9 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Zev Oster
    I seems like Nat Turner made a strategic error. This wouldn't be the first time an undermanned slave revolt failed miserably, causing harsher slave laws and setting back the final goal. It may have been wiser if he used the cabal to smuggle the most important philosophers, orators, and leaders of the new movement and added a personalized passage along the underground railroad, where, weapons, sympathizers, and messages could get in out of the slave states with ease, and where a far better plan could be devised. Of course, the longer that went on the higher chance it had of being detected. Still, it's better than doing something history suggests will never work. Then again, what do I know?
    (12 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user bbhatt29
    Why do they make the children separated from their families?

    why couldn't they just go to someone who would have helped them like someone who was an abolitionist and in a higher position that people would actually listen honestly this was the second biggest mistake in history under the first which was calling women a witch and punishing them just so because they can read and write
    (8 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Enslaved people were considered to be less than human. They were considered to be property. Even if they made things, those things belonged to the owner of the slave.
      When two slaves made a baby, that baby was also the property of the owner, and could be sold for money.
      This was wrong, Wrong, WRONG. But it is part of some people's culture, and they celebrate it.
      (8 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user NPSof™
    A lot of slave owners were Republicans, and no wonder they're so mean
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user dc04202
    If the children treat their parents harshly why do the parents take care of them?
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      Parents are programmed to take care of their children. Every living thing's goal is to survive and proliferate primarily, and even though humans have the rational thought to resist this, parents still take care of kids because they feel a desire to protect the continuity of the human race. Even if the child treats them harshly or is an enormous burden, many parents wouldn't stop taking care of them because of their unconscious desires. Sometimes kids will treat their parents harshly because they feel as if they are capable of surviving on their own and no longer need the affection of the parent to help them survive. Sorry I can't give you more, I'd suggest looking further into parental psychology if you want to learn more.
      (12 votes)
  • primosaur sapling style avatar for user Curtis
    to answer your question 'what are some good books on slavery, segregation, and the Civil War,' I have read a good book by the series I Survived. It is called the Battle of Gettysburg. It's about a little slave boy and his sister, how they run away at the time of the Civil War, and join forces with the North. It is very exciting and fun to read.
    (7 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Iyanna624
    During slavery didn't you have to look or have a certain skin tone in order to be a house servant instead of working on the field
    (6 votes)
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