Personal servants, in most cases, led better lives than other slaves, especially those who worked in the fields. The term personal servant differed from one plantation to another, as some applied the phrase broadly—encompassing all servants who worked within a household (as opposed to outside it)—while others considered personal servants only as butlers, houseboys, or personal maids assigned to one master for life. As related in Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938, "House servants were always considered superior to field hands" (Georgia Narratives, vol. 4, pt. 4, p. 314).
Personal slaves were often selected by skin color, as most slave owners believed the lighter the hue the more intelligent the slave. Many were the slaveholders' own progeny, their bloodline having secured them a position within the household and some privileges, though they were still slaves and required to work. That slaveholders were fathering children with their slaves was an open secret, as noted in The Case of William L. Chaplin: "The slaves of the District of Columbia are of a superior class; most of them house-servants, and not a few children of members of Congress, inheriting from their fathers not only a lighter complexion, but a higher degree, also, of intelligence and sensibility" (1851, p. 17).
Rebecca Hooks was a slave born in Jones County, Georgia to mulatto parents. Her mother was the daughter of William Lowe, the plantation owner, and because of her "blood mixture" Rebecca was far better off than other slaves on the homestead. "They were known as 'house niggers,' and lived on quarters located at the rear of the 'big house.' A 'house nigger' was a servant whose duties consisted of chores around the big house, such as butler, maid, cook, stableman, [gardener], and personal attendant to the man who owned them. These slaves were often held in high esteem by their masters and of course fared much better than the other slaves on the plantation" (Born in Slavery, Florida Narratives, vol. 3, p. 172).
Not all house servants fared well, however, for brutality was commonplace regardless of status. Joseph Henry, who wrote A Statement of Facts Respecting the Condition & Treatment of Slaves, was appalled by the beatings and violence publicly inflicted upon slaves in Vicksburgh, Mississippi. "I have seen house servants kicked, cuffed, struck and beaten in the streets, and heard a great many stories of such treatments. They are matters of every day's occurrence in Vicksburgh; and are so perfectly common in that city, that nobody thinks of taking any special notice of them" (1839, p. 4).
Slaves living in the North were well aware of the harshness of life for their Southern brethren. Threats of selling slaves had long been used to keep them in line, but those living above the Mason-Dixon Line greatly feared the savagery of life upon Southern plantations. As related in The Child's Anti-Slavery Book (c. 1859), a wife commented upon her husband's strict rules regarding house servants: "He says if a slave is once allowed to retort, all discipline ceases, and he must be sold South."
Resentment: Inside the Homestead and Out
In rare cases, slaveholder offspring did not work at all and were companions to their stepsiblings and their place within the household was secure for life. While they were not treated as well as the white children, they were seldom assigned tasks and never forced into hard labor. If the slaveholder died, however, they could be sold or put out on the streets.
Such a life was definitely better than toiling from dawn to dusk in the fields, but the daily existence of personal servants—especially those who were the slaveholder's own children—ran to two extremes. Some were resented or hated by the house's mistress and their halfsiblings because of the miscegenation they represented; others were treated exceedingly well and raised as if white. In the latter case, though they were still slaves, they were taught to speak proper English, dressed in good clothes, and ate the same fine foods as the rest of the family. Other slaves were given only rations, dressed in clothes they made themselves, and lived in shacks within the slave quarters.
"Aunt" Ellen Thomas of Georgia was not related by blood to her slaveholder, Judge P. G. Kimball, but led life as a well-regarded member of his household. As related in Born in Slavery editor Mary A. Poole wrote:
… the story of 'Aunt' Ellen is unusual, in that having been raised as a house servant in a cultured Southern family, she absorbed or was trained in the use of correct speech and does not employ the dialect common to Negroes of the slavery era…. Thus brought up as a child among the Kimball children, and because of her duties as a house servant, she mingled little with field hands and learned none of their dialect. (Alabama Narratives, vol. 1, pp. 376-377)
House servants could also be resented by other slaves on a homestead, because they were seldom subjected to punishment or whippings. To field hands, personal servants often seemed more white than black and were not trusted. After the Civil War, slaves who had served as personal maids and house servants sometimes stayed with their former owners rather than leave, out of loyalty and kinship.
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Online collection of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress. Available from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html.
The Case of William L. Chaplin. Boston: Chaplin Committee, 1851.
The Child's Anti-Slavery Book. New York, 1859.
Henry, Joseph. A Statement of Facts Respecting the Condition and Treatment of Slaves. Medina, OH, 1839.
Lane, Lunsford. The Narrative of Lunsford Lane. Boston: Hewes and Watson, 1845.