A plantation was often a hive of activity. The planter’s residence anchored the central complex. Nearby there were often storage sheds, corrals, and slave housing.
Cotton growing so exhausted the soil that land had to be constantly cleared to open new fields, even on plantations where flooding periodically replenished the earth. An overseer and some slaves moved to housing near the new fields. Sometimes, even the planter followed. He would have a new residence built near the new fields.
Plantations were often largely self-sufficient. Machines helped in the tasks of grinding grains and corn, sawing lumber, or ginning and bailing cotton. There were countless skilled tasks needed to keep plantations functioning. Slaves performed many of them. Independent contractors did others. There were blacksmiths, wagon makers, well diggers, harness makers and carpenters. Mechanics kept the mills operating.
By far, slaves performed the majority of work. How they were treated varied, depending upon their skills and the dispositions of their owners. Plantation slaves were normally divided into three classes. There were house servants, field hands, and skilled craftsmen. The craftsmen included blacksmiths, carpenters, and masons.
Men, women, and children as young as seven years old worked as field hands. Day after day, they spent long hours, from dawn to dusk, under a scorching sun. Overseers stood ready, with whips in many instances, to ensure maximum productivity from everyone.
Owners had a financial interest in keeping slaves fed, clothed, and housed in order to prevent ill health from spreading and crippling the workforce. They also had a competing goal of trying to keep costs low. The resulting compromise often meant providing the bare minimum in subsistence.
Slaves’ quarters were generally flimsy wooden structures with one or two rooms and a fireplace. Their clothes were made of the cheapest fabric, often sewn by slave women. Food, rationed weekly, tended to be cheap and monotonous. Some plantation owners allowed slaves to supplement their diets with food grown in small private plots.
Some of the rare first-person descriptions of what it was like to be a slave came from interviews given by elderly blacks to writers hired by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Former slave George Womble of Columbus, born in 1843 in Georgia, remembered:
I never saw my father. He was sold before I was old enough to recognize him as being my father. I was still quite young when my mother was sold to a plantation owner who lived in New Orleans. As she was being put on the wagon to be taken away, I heard her say, “Let me see my poor child one more time because I know I’ll never see him again.” That was the last time I ever saw or heard of her.My master, who was Mr. Robert Ridley, had me placed in his house. I was taught to wait tables and to do all kind of house work. . . .When Marse Robert died, I was still a small boy. . . . I was sold to Mrs. Ridley’s brother, Enoch Womble. He paid his sister $500 for me.The slaves all got up long before day and prepared their breakfasts. Then, before it was light enough to see clearly they were standing in the field holding their hoes and other implements. . . .An overseer was hired by the master to see that the work was done properly. If any of the slaves were careless about their work, a sound whipping was administered. Field hands also got whippings when they failed to pick the required 300 pounds of cotton daily.
Julia Brown, another former slave in Georgia, was interviewed in Atlanta in 1939:
There were six of us children. . . . We didn’t stay together long. I was given away when I was just a baby. I never did see my mama again.I was given to the Mitchell family. . . . I was put to work in the fields when I was five years old, picking cotton and hoeing. I slept on the floor nine years, winter and summer, sick and well.I had such a hard time. That mistress Mitchell didn’t care what happened to us. . . . She used to lash us with a cowhide whip. When she died, I went from one family to another. All the owners was pretty much the same. . . . Some of the white folks [however] was very kind to their slaves. Some didn’t believe in slavery and some freed them before the war and even give them land and homes.
Slaves generally worked six days a week with Sundays off. Some enjoyed occasional festivities allowed by slave owners. Carrie Hudson, also from Georgia, recalled that her master sometimes allowed slaves to hold a dance on Saturday nights. She remembered there were also some other pleasurable moments. One of her favorites was Christmas time when “there would be plenty of fresh meat, and there was heaps of good chickens, turkeys, cake, candies, and just everything good.” For a week at Christmas, slaves were not required to work. They spent the time visiting each other’s cabins and feasting.
Regardless of the extent of the slaveholders’ good will, slaves were still prisoners with few, if any, opportunities for bettering their lives. In most cases, they were never allowed to leave the plantation or farm without written permission, a restriction backed by law in many southern states.
By 1770, in Georgia, for example, the law stipulated that slaves could not leave their owners’ land without a ticket signed by the owner or another person in charge of the slave. According to the law, “Every slave who shall be found without a ticket, or without a white person in his or her company, shall be punished with whipping on the bare back, not exceeding twenty lashes.”
1. Which of the following was not usually part of the central complex?
a. the planter’s residence
b. storage sheds
c. slave housing
d. new fields
2. According to the passage, what helped somewhat to overcome the effects on the soil of growing cotton?
a. fertilizerb. periodic floodingc. rotating crops.d. irrigation
3. In the time described in the passage, what did machines apparently not do?
a. grind grains and corn
b. harvest grains and corn
c. saw lumber
d. gin and bail cotton
4. Which of the following classes of slaves had the hardest life?
a. house servants
b. skilled craftsmen
c. field hands
5. Why did the owners provide basic subsistence to their slaves and nothing more?
a. It was in their best financial interest to do so.
b. They were not allowed to do more.
c. It would have been immoral to do more.
d. They felt that the better they treated the slaves, the harder they would work.
6. From the slave accounts in the passage, who started working in the fields at the age of five?
a. George Womble
b. Enoch Womble
c. Julia Brown
d. Carrie Hudson
7. From the slave accounts in the passage, who remembered some good times as a slave?
a. George Womble
b. Enoch Womble
c. Julia Brown
d. Carrie Hudson
8. From the slave accounts in the passage, whose story made you saddest? Why?