African Americans had been enslaved in what became the United States
since early in the 17th century. Even so, by the time of the American
Revolution and eventual adoption of the new Constitution in 1787, slavery
was actually a dying institution. As part of the compromises that allowed
the Constitution to be written and adopted, the founders agreed to end
the importation of slaves into the United States by 1808.
By 1800 or so, however, African American slavery was once again a
thriving institution, especially in the Southern United States. One of
the primary reasons for the reinvigoration of slavery was the invention
and rapid widespread adoption of the cotton gin. This machine allowed
Southern planters to grow a variety of cotton--short staple cotton--that
was especially well suited to the climate of the Deep South. The bottle neck
in growing this crop had always been the labor needed to remove the seeds
from the cotton fibers. But Eli Whitney's gin made it much easier and more
economical to do. This fact made cotton production much more profitable and
hence very attractive to planters and farmers in the South. Still, growing
cotton was very labor intensive and cotton growers needed a large supply
of labor to tend the fields. African American slaves supplied this labor.
It is important to remember, however, that not all slaves worked on large
cotton plantations. African American slaves also worked in many other types
of agriculture, including tobacco, hemp (for rope-making), corn, and
livestock. Many slaves also worked in Southern cities, working at a variety
of skilled trades as well as common laborers. It was not unusual for slaves
working in the cities to put away enough money to buy their freedom.
Indeed, Southern cities, as well as many in the North, had large so-called
free black populations.
A slave's day usually consisted of long hours of physical labor.
For a field hand, the workday usually began before dawn and ended well
after sunset, often with a two-hour break for the noon meal. Many free white
farmers in the South (and North) also put in very long work-days, but the
great difference was they were working for themselves and controlled their
own work time. African American slaves had no such control and they worked
under constant supervision and the threat of physical punishment by their
overseers. Indeed, no matter how kindly a slave owner might have been, the
slaves did not possess that which Americans most prizedãtheir freedom.
Despite overall harsh conditions and the absence of freedom, slaves were
not just powerless victims of their owners and the slave system. Slave families
and communities became very important institutions. Slaves on large plantations also
lived in a community that extended well beyond the family and in many cases
beyond the single plantation or farm. The slave cabins (or "quarters")
provided one of the few places where slaves could be more or less free
from constant supervision by slave overseers. There the slaves created a
vibrant social and cultural life beyond the reach of their masters.
While no rational person would wish to be a slave, the slaves were active
agents in their own lives. And though their lives were circumscribed in many
significant ways, they sought to make the best of their circumstances.
They succeeded to a remarkable extent, a testimonial to the endurance of
the human spirit.
When searching American Memory for additional primary sources on this
topic, use such terms as slave(s), slavery, plantation(s),
and Negro, among others.
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