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Treatment of Slaves: Labor Conditions


                 William S. Drewry (1870 - 1948) presented a positive view of slavery in his book The Southampton Insurrection. He interviewed a number of old former slaves and noted how good their lives were before the Nat Turner rebellion. 



                 Consequently there was a division of labor under the slave regime exceeding that of any farm of the present day, which made it possible to assign each set of hands their duty and to dispense with the cruelties which have been mistakenly attributed to the slave system employed in the production of large tobacco and cotton crops. There were valuable cotton and tobacco farms, but none of them very extensive, and no one owned more than seventy-five or eighty slaves, the average number owned by a family being five or six. No overseer was needed, and when employed he occupied the position of general director and not arbitrary lord and master. He was responsible to the owner of the slaves, but the negro foreman also exercised authority and reported irregularities to his master. Thus the former was restrained by fear of losing his position. But the general custom was for each master to manage for himself, and place a foreman in the person of one of their own number over each squad of slaves assigned to a special duty. This system dispensed more or less with that class of “poor whites” which has so often been depicted as the evil of slavery. They did not consider it a disgrace to work side by side with the slaves, since they did not have the legal equality of the negro continually thrust at them.


                 With the consciousness of being able to rise to the position of foreman, each slave was incited to interest in his work. He realized that his master’s interest was his. The hog feeder was proud to exhibit his drove of hogs, the herdsman and shepherd pointed to their flocks with pride, and the hostler boasted of the fastest and best bred horses on the road. The old “stiller” smiled when his brandy was praised, and the cook was aware of her superiority. The old nurse was conscious of her power and the love and respect of the whites. Each department had its negro foreman and his or her associates, the former a master in his profession, instructing the latter in the mysteries thereof. By means of this class system among the slaves, the barriers of which could be overcome by diligence and respect, they were controlled with ease and inspired with ambition far surpassing that of the negro of today, who is conscious of his inability to attain the boasted equality with whites, and consequently mediates revenge and cherishes hatred.


                 Fealty and diligence were also encouraged by confidence on the part of the master, who rewarded his servants with crops, gardens, and other property, the proceeds from which were spent at their discretion. Slaves were often allowed to choose their own employer and make their own contracts.[1]  Holidays were frequent. From sunrise to sunset was the time for labor, but breakfast and dinner, in the meantime, occupied at least three hours. This limit was not strictly insisted on, as is shown by the reply of an old negro, who, when asked by his mistress why he was sitting on the fence while the sun was still above the horizon, replied; “Waitin’ for de sun to go down, mum.” Saturday was a holiday for the deserving, and Sunday was spent as the slave liked. If his was not promptly on hand Monday morning he was not punished.[1]


[1] Journals of Virginia Legislature: Page, Social Life in Virginia.


[1] An old negro who knew Nat Turner said the latter could go away on Sunday, and if he did not return until Monday morning nothing was said to him. This, he continued, was the case with all the faithful slaves before the insurrection, but afterward if one did not return in time, “dis here thing was tuck off, an’ de back picked jest like a chicken pickin’ corn.”



From William S. Drewry, The Southampton Insurrection (Washington D.C.: The Neal Company), 106-108.

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