African in America logo tabled version
Judgment Day
Part 1: 1450-1750
Part 2: 1750-1805
Part 3: 1791-1831
<---Part 4: 1831-1865

Narrative | Resource Bank | Teacher's Guide

Antebellum Slavery
Buried in tattered and filthy blankets ... here, in their hour of sickness, lay those whose health and strength are spent in unrequited labor for us ... to buy for us all the luxuries which health can revel in.

- Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble

The marriage of ardent abolitionist Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler, heir to one of the largest slaveholding plantations in the nation, mirrored the unhappy union between southern slaveholders and northern abolitionists in the years leading up to the Civil War. The courtship between the spirited and independent Kemble, an acclaimed British actress, and the rich, infatuated Butler turned into an embittered battle of wills over the source of Pierce's wealth: his family plantation where 730 slaves lived on St. Simon's and Butler Islands. When she married, Kemble left the stage, but she continued to write and publish her journals. Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, written during her four-month stay on Butler Island, gives an eyewitness account of the miserable living conditions, infant mortality, and physical and sexual abuse endured by the slaves. She did not publish her journal until May of 1863, long after the couple's scandalous and public divorce in 1849.

Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler
Butler Island
Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation

Kemble initially thought the slaves were well off, and her early descriptions betray how influenced she was by the racism of the time. But as she came to know the inhabitants of the island, and as the slave women began to confide in her, her views changed drastically. Kemble's earnest petitions on their account, and her honest efforts to come to an egalitarian understanding, foreshadowed those of the nation, as abolitionist whites struggled to move from a patronizing approach to a more comprehensive understanding of blacks as their equals and a willingness to share power and leadership with them in the abolitionist societies.
In The Management of the Butler Estate, Roswell King Jr., the overseer of Pierce Butler's plantation for many years, gives his own description of plantation life.
Over the years, Pierce Butler squandered his fortune, losing an estimated $700,000 ($24,000 was said to have been lost in one card game; $700,000 in today's dollars would amount to more than $10 million). In 1857, he decided to liquidate his "movable" property in the largest sale of human beings in the history of the United States. The sale was held at a racetrack in Savannah, Georgia and lasted for two days. This event became known as The Weeping Time, as family after family waited to be bid on. Although husbands, wives, and small children were kept together, extended family members of the tiny island community were scattered far and wide. The sale netted $303,850, which went toward Butler paying off his debts and continuing to live in high style.

The Weeping Time
What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation

"Perhaps the greatest horror of slavery was that you were denied your own children. You were denied indeed your own birthright. You were born into the world, but the self that you were, descended from your family, ...was taken away from you. You were suspended in time. You were in limbo. You could not even have your self under slavery. Your selfhood was denied."

- Catherine Clinton, historian

The majority of slaves lived on cotton plantations, where they often worked under the supervision of black drivers and white overseers from dawn to dusk, and sometimes longer. Some slaves on rice plantations worked under a task system where if they finished a certain amount of work at the end of the day, they were free to tend their own gardens. Slaves did skilled and unskilled work: the heavy physical labor of clearing the land and tending the crops as well as building houses and ironsmithing. Household slaves cooked, cleaned, and nursed the master's children.

Unsanitary living conditions and inadequate nutrition led to illness, which was compounded by hard labor. In the swampy, coastal rice regions of South Carolina and Georgia, the prevalence of malaria led to high rates of child mortality. Slave women had to endure sexual exploitation, often bearing the children of their masters and overseers. Slaves were disciplined by whipping, imprisonment, torture, and mutilation -- sometimes leading to death -- and being sold off. Under the southern Slave Codes, they were considered property and could not testify against a white person in court. Families could at any time be separated; children could be sold away.

Despite the terrible difficulties of living under slavery, and perhaps because of them, slaves formed strong communities within the plantation's boundaries. Isolated from the larger world, these communities of families supported each other, maintaining many African cultural practices, including music, dance and rituals. Many practiced Christianity with strong African influences. Nonetheless, they knew that at any time their family and community could be disrupted.

Life Under Slavery

[W]hat the family did for African Americans, was create a world outside of the world of work. It allowed for significant others. It allowed a male slave to be more than just a brute beast. It allowed him to be a father, to be a son. It allowed women to be mothers and to take on roles that [were] outside of that of a slave, of a servant. On the one hand, you see, the slavemaster wanted this family because he wanted the slaves to reproduce and to do it in a rather natural way. But in allowing for that, they allowed for a whole world to develop, because out of families came communities. And with communities came a world that the slavemaster hardly ever knew, didn't know, and didn't venture into.

- Deborah Gray White, historian

The relationship between masters and slaves was complex. Many slaveowners justified their exploitation of slaves by assuming that they were unintelligent and incapable of deep feeling, or by proclaiming that they were like members of the family, fed, clothed, and sheltered. The institution of slavery had negative effects on slaveowners, as well as on slaves.

In 1830, the total slave population in the U.S. was more than 2 million (U.S. Census), worth over a billion dollars to their owners. The economic importance of slavery increased in the years leading up to the Civil War. Although in the North, a gradual process of emancipation had taken place after the Revolutionary War, in the South, the number and importance of slaves increased with the rise of the cotton industry. President Andrew Jackson removed the Native Americans living in the lower South to less desirable land out west, thus opening roughly 25 million more acres to cotton cultivation.

Andrew Jackson's 2nd Annual Message
Indian Removal

Northern businessmen were involved in shipping the cotton and running the mills that produced cotton fabric, providing wealth for a few and jobs and products for many more. Washington, D.C. became a major center for the domestic slave trade, with a slaveholding president, and with Congress voting in a "gag rule" in the 1830s, which prevented abolitionist petitions from even being read on the floor. Arguments in favor of slavery centered on the economic importance of cotton, the "positive good" theory that slave labor was necessary for the nation's progress, the "scientifically proved" inferiority of the Negro, the belief that the slave class was necessary for the cultural development of the ruling class, and the belief that slaves were better off materially than free blacks or white workers and that the "school of slavery" civilized the "barbarians." Because blackness was associated with inferiority, even whites who did not own slaves benefited from slavery, since it made them feel part of the ruling class.

In Norfolk, Virginia in 1853, Mrs. Margaret Douglas began to teach black children how to read and write in her home. She was subsequently brought to trial and sentenced to a month in prison.

The Case of Mrs. Margaret Douglass

George Fitzhugh advocates slavery
Judge Henry Hammond advocates slavery

Next: Abolitionism

Part 4 Narrative:
Map: From Coast to Coast
• Antebellum Slavery
Fugitive Slaves and Northern Racism
Westward Expansion
The Civil War

Part 4: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide

Africans in America: Home | Resource Bank Index | Search | Shop

WGBH | PBS Online | ©