“De white folks was hard on us. Dey would whup us ’bout de leas’ li’l thang.” Mingo White, ex-slave from Alabama, could not remember his age, but, although he had been only a boy in slavery times, he could remember some other things. His parents had been separated by sale and his childhood had been filled with fear and hard work. He was among a minority of the slaves of the South in having had to work hard as a boy, for whatever the sins of the slaveholders, they did not normally send young blacks to the cotton fields before the age of twelve and then they kept them as half-hands for several years. Mingo White, however, had to keep up with the adults or suffer the driver’s lash. When slaves on his plantation did not get whipped for slow or poor work, they got whipped for holding prayer meetings without permission or for a variety of other, often more trivial, matters.
William Towns, also of Alabama, had a different story to tell. “Mr. Young,” he said of his master, “didn’t have to worry ’bout his hands runnin’ away, ’cause he wasn’t a mean man like some of de slaveholders was…. Life was kiner happy durin’ slavery ’cause we never knowed nothing ’bout any yuther sort of life or freedom.” He too had been just a boy—age seven at the beginning of the war—but his childhood had been the more typical. Children on the plantations were usually allowed to be children until rather late. If they did not have to witness their parents being whipped or suffer their parents being sold away from them, they were in a good position to enjoy some carefree years. The miseries came later.
Both Towns and White, along with more than 2,000 other black men and women, were interviewed by members of a special WPA project in the 1930s. Most of these aged ex-slaves insisted that they “had de good massa”; in fact, more often than not, they “had de bestest massa in de worl’.” Yet a close reading of their accounts reveals that for them “bestest” was a relative term. For some it meant that the master did not separate families; for others that he did little or no whipping; or that he was generous with food, clothing, shelter, and leisure time. Towns describes some grim experiences on the plantation of “de good massa,” and White describes some bright moments and acts of kindness on the plantation of his “mean massa.” If we put aside the occasional saints and sadists, the slaveholders and their regimes usually mixed humanity with severity, and the slaves experienced some of both most of the time, but in different proportions, as we see from the narratives.
“Sometimes,” said Towns, “I visits wid ol’ Mingo White an’ me an’ him talks over dem days dat me an’ him was boys. We gits to talkin’ an’ ‘fore you knows it ol’ Mingo is cryin’ lak a baby. ‘Cordin’ to what he says he is lucky ter be a-livin’. Dis is one thing I never likes ter talk ’bout. When slavery was goin’ on it was all right for me ’cause I never had it hard, but it jes’ wan’t right to treat human bein’s dat way. If we hadn’t a had to work an’ slave for nothin’ we might have some-pin’ to show for what we did do, an’ wouldn’t have to live from pillar to pos’ now.”
After more than thirty years of inaccessibility, except to scholars, these invaluable manuscripts have now appeared in print, thanks to the dedication of Professor George P. Rawick, whose introductory volume to The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography plunges us into the life and culture that the slaves created for themselves. Specialists will want to read the narratives in full, but the general reader can turn to an excellent selection, edited by Norman R. Yet-man,1 and to Rawick’s interpretive volume From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community, which draws heavily—perhaps too much so—on the narratives themselves. Rawick presents a picture of plantation life from the viewpoint of the slave quarters, and his bold and provocative readings of the narratives go a long way toward an understanding of the master-slave relationship. However arguable its specific views or regrettable its prose, this is the most valuable book I know of by a white man about slave life in the United States.
Rawick seeks to explain how the slaves made their own world and resisted the pressures to become creatures of their masters’ wills. At his best he is brilliant, and he is always thoughtful and challenging. His singular contribution has been to demonstrate the extent to which the slaves drew on their African heritage, on their contact with Indians and whites, both poor and rich, and especially on their own plantation experience to shape a world view of their own. Rawick sees the blacks’ attitude toward work, for example, as a much more complicated matter than one of resistance to oppressive conditions. He insists that the impulses of blacks to defend themselves against harsh work demands are accompanied by positive preferences for a rhythm of work and leisure that reflected the pre-industrial culture of both Africa and the slave plantations themselves. He examines the rhythms of work that emerged among the slaves along with such matters as their preference for collective rather than individual work, and he shows how pertinent these questions are to today’s growing debate over the value and limits of the puritan work ethic.
Rawick’s demonstration of this kind of distinctiveness, a project he shares with a growing number of white and black scholars,2 ought to help bury the absurd notion that black nationalism can be understood as merely or even primarily a pathological reaction to white racism.
That slavery bound master and slave, white and black, together in a common experience is undeniable. But it also tore them apart and laid the foundations for the emergence of two peoples whose national differences are as great as their similarities. The antagonism thus created is not likely to be overcome by the latest “integrationist” con games of American liberalism, however much they are disguised in sanctimonious rhetoric by its latest presidential messiah and his entourage, the same people who promised us a War on Poverty and gave us the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, and the war in Vietnam.
Disagreements with many of Rawick’s interpretations of the slave narratives may be laid aside, but one must make a criticism of his editing. Although Rawick warns readers of some of the dangers in an uncritical use of the narratives, he himself is not wary enough. The narratives are full of suggestive detail and, as Rawick’s sensitive reading of them demonstrates, they can be of great use to historians. But they also suffer from grave limitations, which, if one is not aware of them, can produce historical romance or bad history. The people interviewed were old. Not only did they speak of events long past but the recollections themselves were necessarily affected by virtually a lifetime of freedom. On the other hand, this lag in time has its compensation: the narratives are especially valuable in understanding Reconstruction and the sufferings and hopes of the Southern black community during the Depression of the 1930s. The repeated references to Franklin D. Roosevelt and to New Deal legislation deserve close attention from social historians of twentieth-century America.
At the time of emancipation, however, most of those interviewed were children, who were largely sheltered from the harsher realities of slave life by circumstances, by the indulgence even of harsh masters, and above all by the moving efforts of their parents to protect them. Most of the interviewers were white, and clearly the old blacks often said what they thought their interrogators wanted to hear. “Oh, I been know your father en your grandfather en all of dem,” Lizzie Davis told her interviewer. “Bless mercy, child, I don’t want to tell you nothin’ but what to please you.” But these and other warnings ought not to be understood as discrediting the material. Rather, like all other sources, including the family papers and diaries of the planters, they must be read and used with care, and checked against other evidence.
The planters and their families loved to write letters and keep diaries, which, happily for historians, their descendants collected and preserved. The libraries of the University of North Carolina, Louisiana State University, Duke University, as well as many other university libraries and state archives contain more of such materials than the most diligent scholar could read in an uninterrupted lifetime. Among these papers have been two sets that are now available to the public: a large selection of the voluminous family letters and papers of the Reverend C. C. Jones of Georgia and his family, and the diary of the South’s great agricultural scientist and militant secessionist, Edmund Ruffin of Virginia.
Both volumes have been superbly and lovingly edited, but are subject to the same qualifications as the slave narratives, and their editors are open to the same criticism. But both Yale University Press, which published this magnificent edition of the Jones papers, and Louisiana State University Press, which brought out the Ruffin diary, could not have found better editors. The Children of Pride is a beautiful book—at $19.95 it is a bargain these days—and includes a valuable if excessively detailed cast of characters (it is almost 300 pages long). Robert Manson Myers’s selection of the Jones papers could hardly be better, and his own account of the history of the Jones family from the palmy last days of the old regime to the bitter travail of war, defeat, and death is gentle and sympathetic, but also respects those strong and proud people too much to slip into sentimentality.
The family letters themselves, which make up most of this big book, open to the modern reader the thoughts, affairs, and sensibilities of some of the most graceful, sensitive, and haughty personalities in the master class. Hardly a question of importance remained outside their reflection. The letters discuss the differences between city and rural life, relations between masters and slaves, the sexual exploitation of black women, and the efforts to convert black slaves to the whites’ notion of Christianity. They not only describe the family life of whites and blacks in the Big House but they also valuably document the growth and intensity of secessionist feeling—as well as the internecine warfare among the slaveholders themselves.
Many slaveholders remained wary of extremist demands for secession and held out for loyalty to the Union. But their commitment to the slave regime was no less stern than that of the ultra-secessionists themselves. As these conservative men of property were made to face the hard choice, they came down on the side of their responsibilities as the ruling class and demonstrated no less passion for the Confederate cause than did the ultrists. These letters provide guidance to those who would understand the nuances and vicissitudes of the slaveholders’ painful struggle with themselves to determine the real nature and depth of their loyalties and duties.
The Diary of Edmund Ruffin, although primarily concerned with politics and economics, also contributes to an understanding of master-slave relations. Ruffin’s views on the habits and attitudes toward work of the slaves, for example, are illuminating. Ruffin saw quite clearly that slaves would prefer harder to lighter tasks so long as they did not have to work alone. If he could not be expected to understand the grounds for this choice, his astute observations provide the kind of material necessary to develop analyses such as the one Rawick offers. Ruffin was an uncommonly intelligent man who has, with justice, been called the Father of American Soil Chemistry. His important Essay on Calcareous Manure was considered a classic (it has recently been republished by Harvard University Press). He was also a pro-slavery fanatic and rabid secessionist, whose ardor for the cause earned him the honor of firing the first shot—at least the first ceremonial shot—at Fort Sumter. When the Confederacy fell he committed suicide. His diary is unusually revealing about the mind and politics of the men who led the Old South to Armageddon.
William Kauffman Scarborough’s edition of this first volume of the diary is skillful, with excellent notes about the political events and personalities of the period. Scarborough is himself among the most knowledgeable and able of the Southern historians of our generation. That he has not been fully appreciated can surely have nothing to do with his being an outspoken supporter of George Wallace, for we all know, don’t we, that the academic world is above such prejudices in its judgment of scholarship and intellectual work.
The slave narratives, the Ruffin diary, and particularly the Jones papers reveal that the planters received a severe jolt from their slaves during and immediately after the war. It was not so much that their slaves often deserted to the Union Army—that was to be expected from ignorant and credulous field hands—but that so many of the house slaves, drivers, and trusted, not to say pampered, favorites often led the exodus. From one end of the South to the other, the planters, bewildered and hurt, cried out in anguish. An ungrateful people! Traitors! After all we did for them! For these planters it was the moment of truth. What hurt the most was the unavoidable conclusion that they had not known their “black family” after all.
The view from the Big House and the view from the quarters could never have been the same. But the planters—and to some extent the slaves too—could not afford to know what they in fact did know. Mrs. Eva B. Jones, writing to her mother-in-law, Mrs. Mary Jones, June 13, 1865: “Adeline, Grace, and Polly have all departed in search of freedom, without bidding any of us an affectionate adieu.” Mrs. Mary Jones to her daughter, Mrs. Mary Mallard, November 7, 1865: “I am thoroughly disgusted with the whole race. I could fill my sheet with details of dishonesty at Montevideo and Arcadia, but my heart sickens at the recital, and a prospect of dwelling with them. For the present it appears duty to do so.”
The author of these lines was not just any slaveholder. She was the widow of the famous Reverend C.C. Jones, who had spent his energy and jeopardized his life in a lifelong campaign to bring Christianity (or at least his Christianity) to the slaves. She was the mother of the distinguished mayor of Savannah, himself a worthy heir of the great patriarchal tradition of the aristocratic Georgia coast. She had grown up as a member of the most paternalistic and responsible section of the Southern ruling class and as mistress of a household raised on the doctrine of kindness, affection, and patience toward blacks. “I am very sorry,” her niece once wrote her, “to hear of the death of your servant Eve. We feel these losses more than Northerners think; the tie is next to our relatives.” And when her husband, to whom she was deeply attached, died, she herself turned to her servants for consolation, confident that they would respond graciously.
When Mrs. Jones turned to her black family for consolation she did something perfectly natural in her world. The ability of the slaves to sympathize with the suffering of their masters during and after the war is a marvelous if untold story, and nothing could be more wrong than to see it as Uncle Tomism. Dr. Du Bois always insisted that the finest qualities of black people have always been turned against them by whites. If, as was usually the case, the slaves refused to kill whites and wreak terrible vengeance, they were held in contempt as cowards. If, as they sometimes did, they proved that they could be as sadistic as their tormentors, then they were said to be cannibalistic black savages. Mrs. Jones probably knew better. She probably knew that the real story was that even the humiliations and degradation of slavery did not destroy the humanity and decency of a compassionate people. But she probably also knew, in her own distorted way, that if slavery pulled blacks and whites apart, it also bound them fiercely together.
For Southerners, black and white, even the simplest statements of the human condition have always had to be expressed within this tragically antagonistic unity. William Colbert of Alabama hated the “mean man” he had had for a master. He ended his testimony with this reflection:
De massa had three boys to go to war, but dere wasn’t one to come home. All the chillen he had was killed. Massa, he los’ all his money and de house soon begin droppin’ away to nothin’. Us niggers one by one lef’ de ole place and de las’ time I seed de home plantation I was standin’ on a hill. I looked back on it for de las’ time through a patch of scrub pines and it look so lonely. Dere wasn’t but one person in sight, de massa. He was a settin’ in a wicker chair in de yard lookin’ out ober a small field of cotton and cawn. Dere was of’ crosses in de graveyard in de side lawn where he was a-settin’. De fo’th one was his wife. I lost my ole woman too thirty-seven years ago, and all dis time I’se been a carryin’ on like de massa—all alone.
September 21, 1972
Life Under the “Peculiar Institution”: Selections from the Slave Narrative Collection (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970). Included in Yetman’s excellent volume are appendices that trace the history and background of the collection. Of the other books that either excerpt the narratives or draw on them for interpretive essays one is outstanding: Julius Lester’s brief but beautiful To Be a Slave (Dell, 1970). ↩
Finally scholars are beginning to follow the great W. E. B. Du Bois by investigating the cultural history of the slaves. We are now getting good studies of eighteenth-century slavery that pay attention to cultural questions and draw on anthropology, Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Oxford University Press, 1972), shows what can be done, and Peter Wood’s forthcoming study of early South Carolina promises much. ↩