House Slaves: An Overview
House Slaves: An Overview
House slave was a term used to refer to those enslaved Africans relegated to performing domestic work on American slave plantations. Typically slave labor on the plantation was divided into two broad categories: house servants and field hands. The process of turning a person into a house servant or field hand was called "seasoning." The goal of seasoning was to socialize the enslaved into disciplined, obedient workers. The practice itself was coercive and extremely violent. The central task was to remove the cultural memory of those enslaved to ensure that notions of African inferiority and white superiority could replace it within three years (Phillips 1914, p. 546). It is estimated that close to 20 percent of those who reached American shores perished during the seasoning process (Society of Friends 1842, p. 19). During the seasoning process people were divided into three categories: New Africans or saltwater Negroes; Old Africans; and Creoles. New Africans or saltwater Negroes represented those recently from Africa. They spoke indigenous languages, carried African names, and maintained a strong connection to the culture of their ancestors. They were often considered the most dangerous and prone to rebellion. Old Africans were those who were born in Africa but spent a considerable amount of time within the plantation system. Typically they were middle-aged and elderly persons. Creoles were persons of African descent who were born in the Americas. Their social experiences were limited to the culture of American slave plantations. For the most part Creoles and Old Africans were preferred as house servants.
The vast majority of those enslaved were field hands. Field hands were the backbone of the plantation economy. They performed the most difficult agricultural tasks on cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco plantations, which included: the clearing of forests for new farmland; the digging of irrigation ditches and construction of dikes for rice production; picking by hand the thorny cotton bush; and the manual planting and harvesting of sugarcane with a machete. As part of the gang labor system, field hands were often divided into work groups based upon age, physical health, and skill level. During the height of the growing season, field hands typically worked eighteen-hour days, from sunup to sundown. The regimentation of work on the plantation was critical for its profitability. Violence was the principle method used by overseers, drivers, and plantation owners to discipline field hands. Although the lifestyle of field hands varied from plantation to plantation, generally speaking they often lived in deplorable housing conditions, consumed the worst food, and received little if any medical attention. For this reason the lifespan of field hands was relatively short. Men, women, and children of all ages served as field hands. Pregnant women would often work in the fields until they delivered. Elderly men and women worked until they were disabled. The lifestyle of the field hand was backbreaking for most.
In stark contrast to the field hand was the life of the house slave. House slaves primarily performed tasks associated with maintaining the domestic life and home of the plantation owner. Typically this would include the following: cooking; cleaning; the maintenance of kitchen gardens for house consumption; running errands; caring for domestic animals; sewing and repairing clothes worn by the master's family; performing common household chores; and caring for the master's young children. The house slaves, although free from the backbreaking work of the field slaves, worked long hours as well. They were required to organize their entire lives around the social needs of the master's family. This was particularly true if there were young children. African American women, who served as domestic slaves, often performed the work of wet nurse and surrogate mother to newborns. Men would play a variety of roles including playmate and personal servant to adolescents as well as drivers. Drivers were essentially extensions of the overseer. They monitored the work of the field hands, disciplined the enslaved population through the use of violence, and participated in capturing runaways. Unlike field hands, house slaves were often given hand-me-downs from the master's family. In some cases instead of living in the slave quarters, they were given rooms in the master's home. Because they served as cooks they often consumed the leftovers from meals prepared for the master's family. Although learning how to read and write was illegal, many house servants learned from the wives and children of the plantation owner.
Differences between the work of house servants and field hands led to sharp social class distinctions within the plantation system. Socially speaking, house servants were considered a privileged class among the enslaved population. Because of their physical proximity to the home of the plantation owner, they often absorbed the culture and associated material benefits of the master (Ingraham 1860, pp. 34-36). The overseer, to control the behavior and work habits of the enslaved, used these divisions skillfully. Plantation owners who were disgruntled with their house servants would threaten to make these servants work out in the fields. Slave owners also made an attempt to ensure that house servants and field hands would remain socially isolated, both physically and psychologically, from one another even if they shared blood ties. House servants were threatened with flogging if they were caught interacting with field hands (Williams 1838, p. 48). In many ways, the notion of the happy house slave portrayed in movies such as Gone with the Wind, and the rebellious field slave are both mythic and simplistic. The lives and social consciousness of field hands and house servants were most often extremely complex.
The life of a house servant was often harsh and demeaning. Women house servants in particular were both desired and routinely raped by the plantation owner. Because they lived in close proximity to the master's family, the house servant was naturally absorbed into its many social conflicts. The master's desire for a slave mistress caused severe problems if he was married. In many cases the mistress of the house resented the presence of female house servants. Women house servants served as a constant reminder of marital infidelity. In response mistresses would often abuse their female house servants physically by slapping their faces, boxing their ears, and flogging. House servants were required to defer socially to the members of the master's family regardless of age differences. Elder men were required to refer to the teenage and adolescent children of the master as sir and ma'am. Elder women who often served as wet nurses for white infants were required to defer to them as adults (Jacobs 1861). In addition, house servants served as informants for the master and overseer, concerning the possibility of revolt by field hands. By the same token, house servants often performed the role of spy for field hands planning a rebellion. Being in close proximity to the master, they were privy to enormous amounts of information concerning the daily habits, hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses of the plantation system and its managers. This information would be vital to field hands who were planning an escape or a successful revolt. Although the nature of work performed by the house servant was much different from the work performed by the field hand, the overarching presence of the slave system and its coercive, violent, and humiliating methods of socialization invariably would define the lives of the enslaved regardless of their status within the plantation system.
Friends, Society of. New England Yearly Meeting. An Appeal to the Professors of Christianity in the Southern States and Elsewhere, on the Subject of Slavery. Providence, RI: Knowles and Vose, 1842.
Ingraham, Joseph Holt. The Sunny South, or, the Southerner at Home: Embracing Five Years' Experience of a Northern Governess in the Land of the Sugar and the Cotton. Philadelphia: G.G. Evans, 1860.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston: Published for the Author, 1861
Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. "A Jamaica Slave Plantation" The American Historical Review vol. 19, no. 3 (April 1914): 543-558.
Williams, James. Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave: Who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama. Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Society, 1838.