Stolen Childhood

Stolen Childhood
Slave Youth in 19th Century America
By Wilma King

Chapter One: Slave Children and Youth in the Family and Community

Oh, child! thou art a little slave: And all of thee that grows, Will be another's weight of flesh,--But thine the weight of woes Thou art a little slave, my child And much I grieve and mourn That to so dark a destiny My lovely babe I've borne.

- The Slave Mother's Address to her Infant Child

If childhood was a special time for enslaved children, it was because their parents made it so. They stood between them and slaveholders who sought to control them psychologically and to break their wills to resist. Parents also looked out for their children's physical well-being. Frederick Douglass recalled how his mother came to his rescue after the cook Aunt Katy refused to give him bread. His mother's intercession taught him that he "was not only a child, but somebody's child." He remembered that being upon his mother's knee, at that moment, made him prouder than being a king upon a throne."(1)

Enslaved parents had an unusually heavy responsibility, for they not only had to survive, but they also had to ensure that their children survived under conditions that were tantamount to perpetual war between slaveholders fighting to control their chattel while the bond servants were struggling to free themselves from the control of others. The African heritage was an important factor in how enslaved mothers and fathers guided their children through the strife. This chapter examines the place of children in the slave family and community, the conditions surrounding their birth, the attitudes of enslaved children toward their parents and siblings, and the attitudes of slaveowners toward their youthful chattel.(2)

Child-rearing practices among African Americans had roots in their traditional customs; motherhood, however, took on two unique characteristics for enslaved women in the United States, First, because of an accepted pattern of matrilineal or matrifocal families in traditional African societies, many African women reared children without help form the Fathers. Moreover, the disproportionate number of men taken by salve traders left many women with dependent children to care for and a grater portion of the work, ordinarily completed by men, to perform. The women managed with the help of other women. Like their sisters in Africa, many American slave women adjusted to patenting without spouses due to circumstances beyond their control such as imbalances in the sex ratio and the propensity of slaveowners to sell men separately. Second, motherblood--an honorable status in African society--was no longer an exclusive matter between a woman and her partner once enslaved in North America. Parents viewed their children as family, while owners often saw them as chattel with profit-making potentials.(3)

Thomas Jefferson's meaning was obvious when he wrote that "a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man." He considered the "labor of a breeding woman as no object" and instructed his plantation manager to impress upon the overseer that "it is not their labor, but then increase which as the first consideration with us." Jefferson was not alone in this philosophy. In 1858 an unidentified author contributed "'Profits of a Farming'--Facts and Figures" to the Southern Cultivator, which explains his view about the value of reproduction:

I own a woman who cost me $400 when a girl in 1827. Admit she make me nothing--only worth her victuals and clothing. She now has three children, worth over $3000 and have been field hands say three years in that tune making enough to pay their expenses before they were half hands, and then I have the profit of all half hands. She has only three boys and a girl out of a dozen; yet, with all her bad management, she has paid me ten percent interest, for their work was to be an average good, and I would not this might touch $700 for her. Her oldest boy is worth $1250 cash, and I can get it.

This kind of attitude made, slave parents, especially mothers, part of a twisted mire of tradition and greed. Their children were part of that quagmire, held fast by punishments, sales, or threats thereof.(4)

Despite the tumultuous nature of chattel slavery, many bond servants formed binding relationships, established families, and developed lives for themselves within the confines of bondage. Many slaveowners acknowledged conjugal relationships, recorded slave births by family units, and insisted upon monogamy. They reasoned that marriage and children fostered "happiness" and usurped restiveness. When Jim and Ellen, slaves belonging to the Sumter County, South Carolina, planter McDonald Furman, "commenced housekeeping" in 1838, he gave them "a bench table, 2 iron pots, a dutch oven skillet. 2 tin buckets, 4 cups, 2 pans, 3 spoons, [and] a bedstead "The gifts indicated his interest in maintaining their household and life together. Most slaveowners did not endow newlyweds in this manner.(5)

William Ethelbert Ervin, a plantation owner in Lowndes County Mississippi, made provisions in 1847 for slave families to live in their own houses and recognized a division of labor which required the husband to provide wood and lookout for his family's well-being. He was to "wait on his wife" and she, in turn, was to "cook&wash for [her] husband and her children and attend to the mending of cloths." slaveowners sometimes forbade marital discord in the quarters by spelling out rules. At least one slaveholder believed it was "disgraceful for a man to raise his hand in violence against a feeble woman" whom he viewed as a wife, mother and companion in leisure."(6)

In a half-century of record keeping, the Virginia planter John C. Cohoon listed his slaves in family units with the father's name appearing first, which suggests that he viewed men as the heads of the household. The one exception was the pair Rachel and David. It appears that Rachel had at least one child before Cohoon either acquired David or David became Rachel's spouse. Regardless of the placement of parents' names, slaveholders made provisions for their offspring. "The little negro children," wrote one slaveholder, "must be taken care of. Another plantation record said, "The Children must be particularly attended to," before adding, "for rearing them as not only a duty, but also the most profitable part of plantation business."(7)

By the nineteenth century, compationate marriages were common, and marital fidelity was accepted among many slaved. Moreover, there were some long lasting unions where children grew to maturity in the presence of parents who went to great lengths to remain together. For example, in October 1842 Sukey and Ersey, to enslaved women in St. Louis, suggested having themselves and their young children sold to someone in their vicinity once they learned of a pending separation, a subject of "much pain" from their respective husbands. They could no "bare to go to Texas, with a parcel of strangers." Being "much attached" to their husbands and children, the women who described themselves as in "much distress" begged their owner to consider their request."(8)

The slaveholders financial status and need for laborers determined the numbers of slaves they owned. For example, by 1860 approximately on-half of the slaveholders in Maryland owned less than three slave; therefore, it is unlikely that each adult slave had a spouse in the same household. Whenever it was feasible, slaveowners avoided difficulties, including unauthorized visits and runaway slaves, associated with abroad marriages. Thomas Jefferson encouraged his bond servants to choose spouses at Monticello with "wedding presents." If they complied with his wishes, he gave them a pot and a bed. Despite such incentives, Jefferson's financial status still determined if the couple remained together. Nevertheless, slaves tried to forge a family life through regular visits, which sometimes interfered with their daily routines."(9)

Children born to men and women owned by different persons became the property of the mother's owner. The father's owner experienced no increase in wealth or workers. John C Cohoon serves as an example in this matter. He recorded 104 births among the sixteen families he owned. Of the children, thirty were born into six female-headed households where family sizes ranged from two to nine children. Cohoon listed Dick Petris, John Saunders, and Henry Arthur as the fathers of several of these children. There is no further information about the men. Nevertheless, their progeny added value to Cohoon's coffer.(10)

The status or the children was clear, but little is known about what their mothers thought about increasing the population or what they could do to shape their children's future. In studies related to childbirth, Natalie Shainess argues that an expectant mother's attitude about her femininity, values, and relationship with an unborn child's father determines how the woman views her pregnancy. Unable to control fertility and make decision about their bodies, enslaved women had little to saw outside of their own worlds about these crucial matters. The amount and kind of support they received form the children's fathers and the larger community also determined how they functioned during pregnancy.(11)

Proslavery critics often claimed that abolitionists used stories of sexual exploitation to politicize their cause; nevertheless, slave women often became pregnant through forced cohabitation or rape. In such cases, it was unrealistic for victims of sexual abuse to expect any consideration form the men if pregnancy resulted. Under different circumstances attentiveness form the fathers depended upon variables including whether the parents belonged to one owner or were partners in abroad marriages.(12)

Prenatal care for enslaved women in the modern sense was not available, but there were publications which discussed pregnancy. For example, the 1834 Domestic Medicine of Poor Man's Medicine contains the chapter "cautions during Pregnancy" with remedies for such maladies as colic, heartburn, cramps, and Frequency of elimination. Enlightened slaveowners were likely to have bought and read such books, and they may have disseminated the information to bondwomen. Moreover, the women probably benefited from folk medicine and advice form older women and midwives in the slave community.(13)

Pregnant women were often ignorant of their bodily functions and needs during gestation. They did not own their persons, nor did they have the resources to assure healthy pregnancies and safe deliveries. "Their work could interfere with the blood supply to the placenta and jeopardize the health of the fetus. Some slaveholders were aware of the relationship between heavy physical labor and low-birth weight babies, but they were not aware of the connection to high infant mortality rates.(14)

An unborn child's fate rested with slaveowners, who required physical labor from the pregnant an nonpregnant alike. When Jenny a weaver owned by the Virginia iron master David Ross, missed work, he was "suspicious of her real complaint." Afterwards, Jenny suffered a miscarriage. Ross wrote "similar accidents to her's is the natural lot of humanity," but he remained puzzled about the circumstances. He believed "imprudent punishments[,] accidental hurts[,] falling down or violent alarms" were possible cases even so, Jenny had not experienced any unusual disruptions. Ross then wondered about her work as a weaver. "If it be injurious to pregnant women," he wrote, "I never was informed of it." He appeared concerned when he wrote, "I hope she is doing well." Possibilities for financial loss, reduced productivity, and a tinge of guilt were factors responsible for Ross's new attitude about her condition.(15)

Ross's suspicion about Jenny's absence does not mean he was insensitive Pregnancy often excused women from heavy labor, and they sometimes made such claims solely to escape work. Owners, Ross included, were cautious about women "playing the lady" at their expense. "Breeding and sucking women" usually received special work assignments. One slaveowner informed his overseen that "such women as may be near being confined must be put only to light work." On other plantations aged slaves, children, and pregnant women worked in "trash gangs," agricultural labor units which performed less serenuous chores."(16)

Until owners and overseers knew the women were pregnant, they continued their work as usual. Two women, Treaty and Lousine, who belonged to the Georgia slaveholder John B. Lamar, suffered miscarriages in 1855. Lamar suspected that his overseer Stancil Barwick was abusive, but Barwick maintained that he did not know that Treaty was pregnant and was not aware of Lousine's "condition" until she aborted the fetus. It is possible that neither he nor the women were aware of their conditions or that their work caused the miscarriages.(17)

The loss of a fetus among enslaved women was not uncommon. "I am never been safe in de family way," said Josephine Bacchus, an ex slave from South Carolina when interviewed by a work Projects Administration (WPA; interviewer in the 1930s. She attributed her inability to have a "nine month child" to the lack of "good attention" during slavery. In the late 1830s, slave women on a Georgia plantation owned by Pierce Mease Butler told their pitiable stories of aborted fetuses, difficult births, and infant deaths to his wife Frances Anne Kemble and asked her to help modify their work. The women were essentially correct in believing that a link existed between heavy work and the health of an unborn child, but heavy work is probably most detrimental daring the earlier stages of gestation.(18)

Regardless of the conditions, childbirth in antebellum America was frightening and dangerous for mothers of any race or class. Possibilities of death, the mother's or child's, sometimes both, accompanied pregnancies. Two significant changes occurred in the nineteenth century to ease such anxieties. As male doctors slowly replaced midwives, some men were simultaneously participating in childbirth. Doctors and husbands often provided safer deliveries and emotional support. White women were the primary beneficiaries of these changes, Midwives, female relatives, or friends ordinarily delivered slave children, but if complications arose beyond the ken of those present, slaveowners sought the help of medical doctors. Abroad marriages, work schedules, and other separations usually precluded the presence of many slave fathers.(19)

There is an extant account of one slave father participating in the births of his children, which occurred under adverse conditions. The mother, a runaway living in a cave, bore three children with the help of only her husband, who "waited on her with each child." Although older girls sometimes assisted their mothers, the woman's children were too young to help.(20)

The legal status of an African American woman determined that of her child. The Virginia assembly passed a law in 1662 declaring that "all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother." This was contrary to English common law, which based status upon the condition of fathers. Slave women relagated their children to a life of bondage since slavery, in the United States, was an inherited condition. Children belonged to slaveholders for life even if their mothers became free after childbirth.(21)

Unlike its legal status, the size of a slave family varied. Many births were one and one half to two and one half years apart. Systematic breastfeeding in conjunction with general poor postnatal health, which interfered with the Fertility of enslaved women, may account for the spacing of their children. Other factors, abstinence while breastfeeding and involuntary abstinence because of abroad marriages, also help to explain the intervals between births miscarriages, still-borns, or infants dying before receiving a name and having it placed in record books are other factors for consideration.(22)

If enslaved children survived more than a few days, one of the most important activities in the newborn baby's household was the selection of a name. Africans usually waited a week or more before naming their children and marked the occasion with a celebration. American slaves probably did not hold a celebration, but they followed the African tradition of naming children in honor of close relatives, thereby placing the child firmly within the kin network. Female children received their grandmother's name more frequently than their own mother's name. The firstborn male often received his father's given name or that of a grandfather. The ex slave Isiah Jefferies's anecdote about this name indicates his parents' desire to establish generational connections and his grandfather's respect for that linkage. Jefferies's peers called him "Uncle Zery", by contrast, his grandfather refused to use the title. "I was named after him," Jefferies stated, and he believed his grandfather was "too proud of dat fact to call me any nickname.(23)

Five of the families owned by John C. Cohoon were direct descendants of Jacob and Fanny, the parents of eight children. Their son henry, born October 2, 1811, married Harriet and fathered fifteen children. Two of their children, James Henry and Henry, received their father's name Henry, known as Harry perhaps to avoid confusion. Only on of the children, James Henry, had a middle name. Further family linkages are evident in the names of a son and daughter, Jacob and Fanny, for the paternal grandparents.(24)

Jacob and Fanny's second child Mary became the author of a daughter on February 27, 1836, and of a son on September 14, 1937. Mary and her husband Bob named the children for their maternal grandparents. Harry and Harriet also named as a son and daughter in honor of their paternal grandparents. Harry had avoided confusion with his name and that of his sons on one hand but probably exacerbated it among Mary's children and his own offspring on the other hand. Ultimately, respect for Harry's parents was paramount.

Another of the older couple's children, Rachel, born in 1828, was the mother of six children born between 1850 and 1862. Two of her offspring bore names Rachel's siblings, but the grandparents' names do not reappear. The same was true of Matilda, Jacob and Fanny's daughter who was born in 1835. Only Margaret, another of Jacob and Fanny's daughters and born in 1831, did not duplicate family names for any of her children.(25)

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was also customary for slave children in receive African "day names" such as Cudjo, Mingo, and Coffee. During the nineteenth century there were noticeable changes in naming practices, at least among slaves in the South Carolina low country. The use of day names which actually denoted the day of birth gave way to the practice of using those names as family names. Traditionally, girls born on Friday received the name Phebe or Phoebe, but the use of the name in the nineteenth century bore little relationship to the day of birth. The Cohoon slaves, Harry and Harriet, named their ninth child Easter, although she was born in mid September Slaves did not use place names such as London, York, and Troy as frequently as before, but when new states came into the Union names including Missouri and Indiana appeared. As slaves became more familiar with biblical personalities, they selected names of amiable figures and avoided those with less desirable qualities, such as Delilah and Jezebel or Saul and Absalom.(26)

Occasionally slaveholders involved themselves in the naming process and bestowed Greek and Christian names upon newborn slaves. Slaveholders also chose the names of popular heroes. Is is unlikely that Maria acted alone when naming her son Polk, born April 29, 1845, especially after learning that his younger brother was named "in honour of General [Zachary] Taylor" by the owner, a western Tennessee businessman, John Houston Bills. When Lucinda gave birth to a baby boy in 1849. Bills wrote, "Call him Jefferson for that Apostle of Liberty." The use of historic names on the Bills plantation shows his influence rather than the women's being au courant with national events or admiring Thomas Jefferson, the "Apostle of Liberty" who emancipated a few slaves during his lifetime.(27)

Slaveowners intervened silently in the naming process with their own surnames, which reflected ownership rather than kinship. It was not uncommon to refer to slaves as John Newton's Sally or Sarah Willingsley's Osborne. Jacob Stroyer explained that his father, an African, secretly maintained the name Stroyer; however, he used Singleton, his owner's surname while enslaved.(28)

The assessment of slave children ranked higher with slaveholders than the naming of children. Newborns were assets of little worth, but over time their financial value appreciated. The price of slaves varied according to age, sex, and health. The 1819 inventory and appraisal of slaves belonging to Robert Moore Raddick listed twenty-one year-old Maria as worth $325 and her eighteen month old daughter as worth $80. The value of the thirty-year-old Charlotte was $275 and her three year-old son Charles's was $150, while her daughter Edith, a "child at breast," was worth only $25.Mingo, an old and ill slave, was worthless according to the record. The Louisiana slaveholder James Coles Bruce listed the seventy-year-old slave "Old Daniel" and described him as "old and described." The remark "no earthly use" followed the name of One Leg Bob, a fifty-year-old-male. The age and health of these two men rendered them worthless monetarily. Plantation inventories display a callous indifference in listing the value of slaves, yet they were handy references should slaveholders wish to sell or hire out their slaves for pecuniary purposes.(29)

Frances Kemble, an astute observer of conditions on her husband's plantation, noted that some enslaved women had a "distinct and perfect knowledge of their value to their owners as property." She conceded that they were not far off the mark in thinking they added to the number of their owner's "livestock by bringing new slaves into the world." They made claims upon his "consideration and good will" in proportion to the number of children they bore. Kemble based her observation, in part, upon the mothers who proudly informed her of the size of their families. "Look missis," a woman called out, "little niggets for you and massa; plenty little niggets for you."(30)

Not all enslaved parents put a price tag on their children or used them as bargaining chips. Some mothers and fathers were sorely distressed ar delivering their offspring into a life of bondage. At the birth of his daughter, Henry Bibb vowed never to father another child while enslaved. Thomas II. Jones's wails were pricing. "I am a father and have had the same feeling of unspeakable anguish as I looked upon my precious babes," he cried, "and have thought of the ignorance, degradation and woe which they must endure as slaves."(31)

By contrast, April Ellison, a Winnsboro, South Carolina, gin maker, exuded indifference toward his daughter, Maria Ann, after he became free in 1816. As a prosperous landowner, Ellison built a new life for himself and purchased Matilda and their daughter Eliza Ann, while Maria Ann apparently the offspring of Ellison and another woman remained in bondage. After fourteen years of freedom. Ellison bought Maria Ann, but he never emancipated her. William McCreight, a white man whom Ellison trusted, held title to his daughter, who lived as a free person. Despite this fact, she remained enslave technically.(32)

Regardless of a parent's attitude, each slave birth increased the assets of owners who did not ignore slave children. The reverberation of the words. "The little negro children must he taken care of," was left open to interpretation. When contemplating the purpose of Susan along with her three- and five-year-old daughters Margaret and Adelaide, Tryphena Fox, wife of a medical doctor in Louisiana, weighed the positives and negatives. "Of course it increased my cares," she wrote, "for having invested much in one purchase." Fox paid $1,400 for the pregnant woman and the two children in late 1857. "The slaveholder's awareness of the long range value of the purchase was obvious when she asserted, "It will be to my interest to see that the children are well taken care of and clothed and fed."(33)

Well cared-for children grew into strong healthy adults who could render life-long service, and slaveowners were ever cognizant of that potential. The gulf between a slaveowner's desire and reality often hinged upon the health of the children, whom through no fault of their mothers, entered the world with meager chances of survival. The historian John Blassingame declares that they suffered from neglect and a variety of ills. "Treated by densely ignorant mothers or little more enlightened planters," he writes, "they died in droves. "The deaths of the children often had little to do with the lack of proper medical treatment. What the mothers and children ate is of greater importance. The majority of them breastfed the children, but their poor prenatal and postnatal diets limited the milk's supply of nutrients necessary to support life and prevent diseases. Many suckling children consumed milk that would not keep them alive or healthy. Furthermore, the mothers had limited time in which to care for children because of the demands for their labor.(34)

Enslaved mothers, sometimes seen by owners as mere conduits through which they received a study labor supply, could not control physical conditions that fostered high incidence of mortality and morbidity among their children. Even a cursory look at the medical research on slaves shows the limitations they faced when protecting themselves and their children. Richard Steckel, for example, answers questions about the health of slaves with height records acquired from 10,562 manifests kept by American ship captains engaged in coastal and interregional slave trade between 1820 and 1860 along with the mortality data in plantation records, and the growth curves from eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century populations. Steckel concludes that the quality of life for slave children was exceedingly poor. American slaves, in early childhood, were small in stature by comparison with Caribbean slaves and in the selected American and European population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Enslaved American children were also smaller than children in developing countries today. There is a connection between the low birth weights of children and the general poor health of women before delivery, including prenatal dietary deficiency, infected amniotic fluids, and heavy work.(35)

Infant mortality rates were light, and communicable diseases were color blind in antebellum America. Slaveowners and slaves alike lived with sickness and death. Planter diaries and overseer records teem with notations of illness and death. One slaveholder complained in 1861 of the "unprecedented mortality" on his plantation, Twenty of his slaves died within fourteen years. Fevers, intestinal worms, measles, and whooping cough took their toll.(36)

Slaves and slaveholders sometimes resorted to home remedies to ward off maladies, For the "summer complain," the Louisiana slaveholder Franklin Hudson used a homemade remedy in 1832 with "good success." The medicine consisted of two quarts of blackberry juice, boiled for a "short time" with one-half ounce of pulverized nurmeg, clove, cinnamon, and one-quarter ounce of allspice. After cooling, the recipe called for a pint of brandy. The dosages ranged from a "teaspoonful to a wine glass according to the age of the patient." By 1852 Hudson claimed that tea made from the "tops of grass" was an excellent remedy for the summer complaint.(37)

Slaves also dispensed traditional remedies passed down from the older generation. Herbal and pine top teas soothed ailing youngsters. Ada Davis, who was born in 1857 said, "Mammy wuz a fair miss," but she added, "Dey com to get her from fat and near"--suggesting that the woman was better than fair. The girl learned to prepare and dispense medicines to treat "stomach trubble" and to cure coughs. She believed in the healing qualities of herbs and roots. The methods of treatment were not always in keeping with owners' wishes.(38)

The frequency of illness in the general population caused slave infirmities and deaths to receive little sympathy from many owners. Everard Green Baker, a slaveowner in Mississippi, recorded the death of a seven-year-old slave child who held his hand until her last breath. Afterwards, "she was opened&a large wad of worms [were] found in the smaller bowels." Concluding that the worms caused the child's death. Baker finalized his notations with "weather warm very" The South Carolina slaveowner David Gavin showed no greater sentiments when he summarized his business succinctly at the end of 1859, "Celia's child died about four months old[,] died saturday the 12. That is two Negroes and three horses I have lost this year." The deaths, whether animal or human, translated into financial losses for Gavin, whereas the death was an emotional loss for Celia.(39)

Although daily plantation records appear heatless, diaries often show more consideration for the dead and bereaved. In 1848 A. C. Griffin commiscrated about the death of a white neighbor's child. "I hope she bears it with fortitude. "She added, "I is very seldom, a family as hers can be raised." Mothers, white and black, came to live the reality that some of their children would do not live to maturity. The dreaded reality was even more real for slave mothers, whose children died at greater rates than white children. Sickle cell anemia, an incurable life-threatening disease, also took its toll among the slave population. In a study of deaths among the African American population in seven slaveholding states in 1849 and 1850, Kenneth and Virginia Kiple found that 51 percent of the deaths among the nonwhite population occurred among children nine years of age and under. Slave children in that age group constituted 31 percent of the sample. These statistics suggest that slave mothers needed and extraordinary amount of fortitude to adjust to the large number of deaths among their children.(40)

The Kiples admit that the slave children nine years of age and under fell into an "actuarially perilous category" became of deaths related to several ailments including tetanus, teething, and lockjaw. The slave's chance of living from these ailments was four times greater than that of their white contemporaries. If slave children survived their early years and entered the labor force when they were ten years of age or older, their health improved because of increased food allowances. Until that time, slave parents grappled with the illnesses and deaths.(41)

Slaveowners sometimes took an interest in the health of slave children for reasons that had nothing to do with financial matters. When John Bills's slave woman. Lucinda, delivered a stillborn child in 1860, he observed, "The poor woman is much distressed," and showed concern for her. By contrast, when Susan's "fine mulatto boy" died. Tryphena Pox charged her with neglect. The baby had caught a cold and "died from the effect of it" while in the owner's arms. Fox commiserated, "I feel badly about its death for it was a pretty baby." To be sure, her sentiments were far-reaching, and she admitted taking "a fancy" to the infant who was near the age of her own child, who had died several weeks earlier. Rather than offer consolation to another grieving mother. For implied that Susan was callous. the deaths of their children did not change the mistress-maid relationship since the women inhabited different spheres, separated by race and class. Common experiences did not bring them together.(42)

When examining the many causes of death among young slaves, smothering or overlaying has received an unusual amount of attention. The inability to explain these deaths led to the assumption that careless, "wearied" mothers were responsible for the deaths. In one slaveholder's mind, the mother was responsible, regardless of the cause. He wrote, "Dolly overlaid her child (Catherine), about five months old." Victims of "overlaying" or "suffocation" were generally infants between two weeks and one year of age who died without obvious signs of illness during the coldest months of the year. When explaining the death of her child, the former Tunica, Mississippi, slave Tabby Abby told a federal interviewer that she fell asleep while breast-feeding her only and "rolled over him and smothered him to death." A tone of guilt lingered in her voice. Abby, like many slave mothers, held herself liable and suffered a needless ordeal.(43)

When comparing contemporary infant mortality rates with antebellum records of suffocation, there are similarities. Medical historian Todd Savitt suggests that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS: rather than suffocation caused these deaths. The SIDS explanation is plausible since deaths from "suffocation" continued after slavery ended when reasons for resistance were no longer present. Additionally, the high death rates among African American infants continued notwithstanding changes in the working conditions of many mothers. This further suggests that "tired and careless" women did not overlay their children. Current research suggests that numerous children, regardless of race, class, or the season of the year, stop breathing momentarily during sleep. The cause of SIDS remains a mystery.(44)

Poor prenatal care and diets rich in calorie content but inadequate in nutrients, combined with heavy physical work were overriding factors in low birth weights and the resulting high infant mortality rates. Frances Kemble thought that "the number [of children] they bear as compared with the number they rear [is] a fair gauge of the effect of the system on their health and that of their offspring."(45)

The childless Everard Green Baker, a Mississippi planter, agonized over the death of his dog Luck and wrote: "I do not know what feeling a parent has for a child but if our affections for our species are proportionate to those we entertain for the favorite of the brute creation, I never wish to have children if they are to die before me." He eventually became a father and was overwrought when his son fell in 1850.(46)

The high incidence of illness and death among their children affected slave and slaveholding parents. Their reactions ran the full gamut. Many consoled themselves with their religion and saw death as the will of a supreme being, a liberator freeing the deceased from a life of drudgery or a grantor of eternal rest and piece. When talking about her child's death, Tabby Abby said, "I like to went crazy for a long time atta dat." Aside from the mental anguish, some slave mothers were visibly shaken. The former South Carolina slave, Fannie Moore, described her mother's reaction when her younger brother died. The girl cared for the child during the day except when their grandmother could get away "from the white folks' kitchen." When the woman returned from the field one night and learned of the child's death, she knelt "by de bed and cry her heart out," Moore recalled. The mother was also at work when the child's uncle carried the body in a pine box to the cemetery. The girl observed the burial from a distance as her mother "just plow and cry as she watch 'em put George in de ground."(47)

Insensitivity to the woman's need to care for her ailing child compounded her anguish, while further heartlessness kept her from the burial, which was a customary observance in the lives of Africans. This was the hardship of a slave woman who left no written records. Although young, Moore shared her mother's grief. Freedom relieved the girl of this potential agony, but the anguish her mother faced made an indelible impression.

The enslaved woman Lydia felt a sense of relief when death liberated her child from bondage. Her husband, an African, prepared the child's body for burial along with "a small bow and several arrows; a little bag of parched meal; a miniature canoe, about a foot long, and a little paddle." Having armed the boy with a sharpened nail attached to a stick and buried him with a piece of white muslin decorated with "several curious and strange figures," the father anticipated his son's return to his "relations and countrymen," who because of this ritual would recognize and receive the child upon his arrival.(48)

Enslaved mothers had a duty to preserve life, yet they received a short reprieve for neonatal care before returning to work. No doubt a spiritual such as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" or "Nobody Knows the Trouble I Have Had" held meaning for parents and children. The demand for labor impeded bonding and childcare. Some owners allowed one month off and assigned light work following childbirth, while others were less considerate. Slavery robbed many youngsters of a safe and nurturing childhood.

Fanny, one of nearly thirty slaves belonging to an Alabama planter, was "lying in" according to the plantation record in early August 1844, and her name reappears on an August 29, 1844, list of working slaves. Another slave, Charity delivered a child on September 4, 1844, and was back at work one month later. Both women gave birth during the harvest season, when there was a great need for hands. The amount of cotton that they picked did not equal that of the other women, who made up a substantial portion of the labor force, nor when the new mothers had picked previously, because they either left the field regularly to feed their infants or they were not physically able to resume a full work day so soon after parturition.(49)

One of the most unsettling events in the lives of slaves was the early separation of mothers and children when the women returned to work. In small households, individual childcare arrangements were made. Children sometimes accompanied parents to work. Ideally, domestic servants managed well with their children as they cooked, cleaned, or wove fabric, but there were plenty of places where children could have mishaps. Falling down stairs or creeping too near open fireplaces could be equally disastrous. Harriet Jacobs's toddler wandered outside and feel asleep under the house. Fortunately for the child, she did not attract the attention of a large snake which was basking in the coolness nearby.(50)

The children of field hands sometimes accompanied their parents to work. If mothers did not strap the smallest children who could not keep up on their backs, they left them on pallets at the end of rows, near fences, or under trees away from the hot sun. They also made swings in trees or hammocks between trees to keep the babies up off the ground. In the parents absence, the children could get into mischief or perilous situations.(51)

On plantations with twenty or more slaves, youngsters went to nurseries where their care was in the hands of slaves either too infirm, too old, or too young to work elsewhere. On the White Hill Plantation in Virginia, a woman "with a halt in her step" attended to the children. When the South Carolina slave Friday became unable to work full time, his job was to "notice the yard and the little Negroes." In situations where scores of children needed care, the help was often inadequate and attention wanting. The James Gadsden nursery had nearly seventy children up to fifteen years of age, while a Florida plantation had forty two youngsters needing care while their parents worked. In the latter situation, only an elderly man and woman worked along the assistance of youngsters to care for the smaller children. The large number of children coupled with the long hours and limited help made it impossible to provide good care.(52)

General accounts indicate that plantation nurseries were far from adequate. By contrast, Susan Bradford Eppes remembered pleasant scenes from her family's plantation when "Aunt Dinah" ran the day nursery "like the kindergarten of today." Eppes claimed the old woman "told stories, demonstrated how to make animals from potatoes, orange thorns, a few feathers." The teacher also gave attention to "practical living" by helping "her pupils 'set table' with mats made of the green leaves of the jonquils, cups and saucers of acorns, dishes of hickory hulls and any gay bit of china they could find; and had them bake mud pies in a broken stove." Needless to say, Aunt Dinah was in the vanguard of the kindergarten movement for enslaved children.(53)

Of more importance than the entertaining narratives and creative crafts were chances for the children and elderly slaves, serving in loco parentis, to develop relationships. Children became attached to caregivers and entered into fictive associations. The extended family, no doubt, existed on financially stable households which did not undergo major transitions upon an owner's death. In the absence of relatives, surrogates of fictive families were valuable. Related or not, older slaves often showed kindness to children. The plethora of "aunts" and "uncles" indicates that children learned early on to show deference to their elders in keeping with a traditional African custom.(54)

Just as enslaved parents had little or no control over the care of their children while they worked, they had little to say about what their children wore. Slaveholders issued children one or two garments, called a "shirt" if worn by boys or a "dress" if worn by girls, each year. Booker T. Washington remembered that the shirt's fabric was "largely refuse," which made it feel like "a dozen or more chestnut burrs" rubbing upon the skin. It was the "most trying ordeal" that he was "forced to endure as a slave boy." There was no mention of shoes for slaves who went barefoot until the coldest months Slaveholders either bought cheaply made brogans or manufactured them at home.(55)

Slaveholders were more concerned about the cost of the slaves clothes and shoes than about their comfort. To save money. McDonald Furman ordered the slave children's clothing cut before the annual distribution of material. This prevented the parents from "wasting or trading off their cloth." On some plantations the wives of slaveowners were responsible for making all clothing. Furman's miserly attitude contrasted sharply with Tryphena Fox's notion about clothing for the enslaved child Adelaide. Fox delighted in making for the five-year old girl a "dress up" garment, which she "ruffled . . .&look pains to make it fit her very nicely." She also intended to make a "nice white apron" for Adelaide which was more for style than function. This was a clear departure from the usual shift young slaves wore. Of course, differences in the relationships between the slaveholders and their youthful chattel and the sizes of the Fox and Furman holdings were important in shaping their attitudes.(56)

What slaves wore drew attention from casual observers, visitors, and travelers. The slaveholders were aware of their remarks. Comments about the clothing of slaves prompted W. W. Gilmer to address the matter in the April 1852 Southern Cultivator. "A lot of ragged little negroes," he wrote, "always gives a loud impression to strangers. "Gilmer drew a connection between material well being and malleability. On another level, ragged, dirty slave children fostered comments about negligent patents. It was virtually impossible to keep creeping and crawling children clean in cabins with dirt floors. Besides, slaves ordinarily worked until nightfall and had little time afterwards to attend to personal needs. Furthermore, the harsh laundry method including the use of lye soap or mud contributed to the deterioration of their meager clothing supply.(57)

Slave children were aware of their clothing especially when in the proximity of well-cared-for children of slaveowners or others. One owner claimed a little girl walked "five times faster" wearing a "new" dress handed down to her from a white child. Proud and puffed up, the girl's younger brother showed a similar delight as he strutted around in a "new" bonnet. Slave children did not have to see other children to know of their conditions when suffering from the winter cold. Additionally, cost-conscious owners paid little attention to growth patterns and allowed boys to wear shirts well beyond a time when they met ordinary standards of modesty. An officer in the First Pennsylvania Regiment remembered the inadequate clothes of adolescent boys in Virginia as they served dinners He wrote:

I am surprised this does not hurt the feelings of the Fair Sex to see young boys of about Fourteen and Fifteen years Old to Attend them. Their whole nakedness Exposed and I can Assure you It would Surprize a person to see these d-- d black boys how well they are hung. This hardly changed over the years. Gilmer believed an adequate supply of clothes elevated their self-esteem and improved their behavior. Frederick Douglass rejected the idea. "The feeding and clothing the well," Douglass said as he pondered about his childhood, "could not a tone for making my liberty from me."(58)

Families could and did augment food supplies by earning personal money through overwork and the sale of produce or any other articles of value, such as handmade baskets. They also cultivated gardens, raised poultry, collected berries and hunted game in their free time. Ordinarily, women had fewer opportunities for skilled overwork than men; consequently, they had less money to provide additional rations. However, there were a sourceful women who used other tactics to supplement the family rations. A former Missouri slave said, "My mamma could hung good ez any man." Furthermore, she traded the pelts for "calico prints n' trinkets."(59)

There is evidence to suggest that the lives of children living along the South Carolina and Georgia rice coast differed from those of children in other agricultural areas because of the nature of agricultural production in their region. It favored the task system, in which workers received specified assignments to complete by the end of the day or week. They set their own pace and worked without strict supervision, which allowed a degree of autonomy. At the completion of the job, laborers used any time left over for themselves. In their "free time," they pursued interests to make their lives more tolerable, including spending more time with their children. Some took on extra work to earn money for additional food (for example, sugar, coffee, flour), or clothing, for themselves and their children. Of greater importance, chances to buy freedom for themselves or their children existed.(60)

The children in Low Country households benefited materially from the task system when parents owned livestock and poultry which they sold or traded. The sale of goods involved negotiations, which indicates that slaves had some control over the arrangement. Slaves also insisted upon the observance of customary rights which protected their time and property from infringement by owners. Furthermore, the self-esteem of the children rose when their parents, whom they must have admired, could and did supplement their livelihood and made decisions regarding the family's well-being. With encouragement from parents or by their own initiative, some children had possessions of their own. One ex-slave said that he had raised stock "ever since I had sense," while another said that he had poultry "almost as soon as I could walk." It was not unusual for children to "inherit" property from their parents.(61)

In agricultural regions outside of the Low Country, parents had less to say about their children's material comfort; nevertheless, their emotional well being regardless of their domicile was of great importance. Bondage determined the quantity of time parents could spend with their children; consequently, mothers and fathers had to determine the quality of that time. The former slave John Collins of South Carolina, said his father "used to play wid mammy just lak she

was child." He recalled seeing him "ketch her under de armpits and jump her up mighty high to de rafters." To be sure, there were other pleasant scenes where slave families showed love and affection for each other. the North Carolina slave Allen, a partner in an abroad marriage, generally crossed a river to visit his wife and children, thereby shortcoming the distance between their abodes and lengthening their time together.(62)

The status of Allen's family was not unlike that of an untold number of other slave families involved in abroad marriages. The children of the South Carolina couple Sampson and Maria felt the sting of separations more keenly than Allen's children. Following an October 1847 visit to his wife and children, Sampson drowned while crossing the river to return to the rice plantation owned by Charles Manigault. Perhaps his children did not fully understand why their parents did not live together, but it is clear that Sampson cared about his wife and children, and he went to great lengths to visit them.(63)

As enslaved children matured, they established significant relationships with their siblings and peers. Narratives by ex-slave women offer detailed descriptions of early childhood and relationships among contemporaries more frequently than those of enslaved men. The lack of relevant questions or the relative newness of the sibling rivalry concept may explain the absence of its mention in the WPA narratives. It is likely that slaves shared experiences rather than competed against each other in any meaningful way. Slavery treated a sense of community or solidarity which faltered in a competitive atmosphere designed to benefit others. Slaves frequently assisted one another and when circumstances allowed created tolerable situations for each other. John Washington, for example, showed sensitivity for his younger brother Booker when he offered to "break in" Booker's new shirt. Booker considered John's sensitivity as "one of the most generous acts that I ever heard of one slave relative doing for another."(64)

Relationships with family members and others in the community helped the children and youth adjust to and endure slavery. "You know I am one man that do love my children," wrote an ex-slave. Although he had not seen the children in many years, the words were linked to memories of their time together before the involuntary separation. Perhaps memories of those times also assuaged the children. In many situations, parents played a major role in the lives of enslaved children. They used their influence and protection whenever possible Lucy Skipwith, a woman owned by the Virginian John Hartwell Cocke, successfully interceded on her daughter's behalf when he threatened to sell the girl in 1859 (65)

Lucy Skipwith succeeded only by capitalizing upon a close working relationship with Cocke which allowed her to ingratiate herself with him at every turn. The slaveowner spent much of his time in Virginia and during his absence from Hopewell, the Alabama plantation where Lucy lived, she kept him informed about intricate details of everyday life through regular correspondence. Lucy assumed power at Hopewell that no ordinary slave woman possessed. Cocke allowed it since she served as his eyes and ears during his absence. Knowing his interest in the children, Lucy touched a vulnerable spot when she argued that her daughter would be better off in the environment he provided at Hopewell than if she were sold to persons less concerned about her development. She turned her plea into a compliment, and Cocke repaid the favor.(66)

The energy needed to work and to rear children under adverse conditions exacted much from slave parents. They were often too burdened by the duties of being laborers to indulge their children, yet many never stopped trying to foster positive relationships with them.









Up Famous Black Americans Pilgrim's Point Stolen Childhood 19th Century New York

This article is from

Stolen Childhood : Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Blacks in the Diaspora)

Wilma King