The conditions slaves faced depended on the size of the plantation or farm where they worked, the work they had to do, and, of course, the whim of their master. Those who worked the fields with their owner and his family tended to receive better treatment than plantation slaves under an overseer, who was interested only in maximizing the harvest and had no direct investment in their well‐being. Household slaves, blacksmiths, carpenters, and drivers (slaves responsible for a gang of workers) were better off than field hands. Ultimately, any slave's fate was determined by his or her owner; the use of corporal punishment and the granting of privileges, such as allowing a visit to a nearby plantation, were his decisions alone.
Slave Society and Culture
Labor and subsistence. Field hands—men, women, and children—might work as long as sixteen hours a day during the harvest and ten or more hours a day in winter; the work week was typically six days long, with Saturday usually a half day. Slaves were organized into gangs of about twenty‐five under a driver and overseer ( the gang system), or individuals were given a specific job to do each day ( the task system). Punishment was inflicted by the overseer or driver if the assigned job was not completed or done poorly or if equipment was lost or damaged. Usually, punishment meant a whipping, but extra work and a reduction in food rations were other forms of discipline. Consistently good work was rewarded by extra food, a pass to visit friends or family on another plantation, or the privilege of having a vegetable garden.
Ready‐made clothes were generally given to men twice a year, and everyone received new shoes about once a year; women were provided with cloth to make dresses for themselves and clothes for their children. Some plantations ran a kitchen for the slaves, but it was more common for food to be distributed weekly to individuals and families. Typically, rations consisted of cornmeal, salt pork or bacon, and molasses. The number of calories was adequate, but the diet had little variety and was heavy on starch and fats. It could be supplemented with fish, small game, chickens, and vegetables from a garden, if the master approved. On large plantations, slave quarters were located near the fields and main house. They were one‐ or two‐room dirt‐floored cabins that were hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. More than one family usually lived in a cabin.
The overall slave population was not generally healthy. The combination of hard physical labor, corporal punishment, a diet often lacking nutritional value, and poor living conditions contributed to a very high infant mortality rate—at least 20 percent of the slave children died before the age of five—and a much lower life expectancy than southern whites. While it was in the economic interest of planters to keep their slaves healthy, most did not provide satisfactory medical care. A few large plantations had infirmaries, but conditions in them were often worse than in the slave quarters.
The slave family. While without legal standing, slave marriages were accepted by most planters because they believed marriage made slaves easier to control and less likely to run away. The marriage ceremony itself might have consisted of a man and woman “ jumping the broom,” a custom that affirmed their commitment to each other before the slave community; a formal wedding in the main house with the planter and his family; or just a simple agreement from the owner. A planter or farmer's acceptance of marriage did not mean, however, that he respected the institution. Selling wives away from husbands or children from parents was common, as was the sexual abuse of slave women. Slave children who were sent to another plantation would be taken in by a family belonging to their new owner.
Despite the ever‐present threat of having their family torn apart, slaves did their best to maintain stability. The division of responsibility between husband and wife was much the same as in white society: the husband acted as the head of the household and was a provider—fishing and hunting for extra food, collecting firewood, and fixing up the cabin; the wife cared for their children when they were very young and did the cooking, sewing, and any other domestic chores. Many slave narratives, accounts of slavery told by the slaves themselves, note how much work women did after they had spent a long day in the field tending cotton. A pregnant woman would work in the fields as long as the overseer believed she could do her job. Mothers would be given time off to nurse a young child who was sick. Beyond mother, father, and children was an extended family of uncles, aunts, and grandparents as well as individuals who had no direct familial ties, all providing a strong support network in the slave community.
Slave religion and culture. In much the same way they viewed slave marriage, planters also saw religion as a means of controlling their slaves, and they encouraged it. Slaves, in a prayer house built on the plantation or at services in their master's nearby church, heard time and again a simple sermon—obey your master and do not steal or lie. But the slaves also developed their own religion, often an amalgam of evangelical Christianity and West‐African beliefs and practices, and it was the source of a very different message. At services held secretly during the evening in the slave quarters or nearby woods, prayers, songs, and sermons focused on ultimate deliverance from bondage. Not at all surprising was the emphasis on Moses, the “promised land,” and the Israelites' release from Egypt in both slave religion and song.
Music, particularly what became known as the “Negro spiritual,” was an important part of slave culture. It seemed to southern whites that slaves sang all the time, and apologists for slavery argued that this showed slaves were happy and content with their lot. They evidently ignored the songs' lyrics about the burden of backbreaking labor; sorrow over the breakup of families; and hope for the end to slavery, either in the hereafter or sooner, if escape to the North could be arranged.