Poor Whites

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Poor Whites

For much of the twentieth century, historians insisted that mutual hatred and animosity characterized the relationships between slaves and poor whites. More recent scholarship has complicated and refined that picture, uncovering a broad and complex range of relations among the South's dispossessed, both black and white. At times, shared economic deprivation and impoverishment tempered racial hostilities and drew slaves and poor whites together into civil, cordial, and even intimate and loving relationships. On a daily basis, slave and poor white interaction both reinforced and challenged Southern racial boundaries.


Enraged at the thriving underground trade between slaves and poor whites, frustrated planters united to oust irksome poor whites from the community. In the mid-1820s, neighbors in Charleston District, South Carolina, cooperated to evict the poor white shopkeeper Andrew Rhodes from the insubstantial shack he rented because "he was dealing with their negroes and was a troublesome neighbor" (Forret 2006, p. 110). Rhodes was regarded as "a nuisance in the parish, and a great vagabond, with whom no white man associated, and who cultivated no land, and owned … property … only fit for negro trading" (p. 110). Rhodes had spent several years in the Charleston jail, mostly for perjury. Charleston authorities had also imprisoned him briefly for uttering incendiary comments during the Denmark Vesey rebellion of 1822. (Reportedly, Rhodes had expressed his opinion to three free black men that "the negroes ought to fight for their liberty" [p. 151].) Fearing the poor white man's corrupting influence on their slaves, neighbors entered the shack during Rhodes's absence, meticulously removed his meager belongings ("suitable only for the lowest retail grog shop" [p. 110]), and, with the owner's consent, systematically dismantled the humble dwelling. Upon his return, Rhodes, stunned, sued his neighbors for trespassing. The defendants vindicated themselves, saying, "The object in pulling down the house was to prevent … Rhodes, [from] getting possession again, and to expel him thereby from the neighborhood; as he was trading illicitly with the negroes" (p. 110). Clearly siding with the vigilantes, the sympathetic judge awarded Rhodes one paltry cent in compensation.


Forret, Jeffrey. Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Kennedy, Lionel H., and Thomas Parker. An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, Charged with an Attempt to Raise an Insurrection in the State of South Carolina: Preceded by an Introduction and Narrative; and in an Appendix, a Report of the Trials of Four White Persons, on Indictments for Attempting to Excite the Slaves to Insurrection. Charleston, SC: James R. Schenck, 1822.

Ample evidence from travelers' accounts and slave narratives supports the assertion of slaves' and poor whites' mutual resentment and contempt, but loathing coexisted with friendship and camaraderie. In childhood, poor white boys and girls sometimes played with slave youngsters. "We thought well of the poor white neighbors," remembered one North Carolina slave. "We colored children took them as regular playmates" (Rawick 1972, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 345). Occasionally, however, childhood fun could take a menacing turn as white children imitated masters by tormenting blacks their own age. One former bondperson resented how the "po' white kids" beat the slave children and "make us call dem marser" (Rawick 1972, vol. 16, Ohio Narratives, p. 40). The complexity of slave-poor white relationships in childhood continued into adulthood.

Labor Relations

Poor white men and women sometimes worked together with slaves, either as agricultural laborers in the fields, as domestics, or as industrial workers in textile mills and other establishments. Sometimes they labored harmoniously, sometimes not. At the conclusion of the workday or on weekends, however, slaves and poor whites might relax with one another in their leisure time, occasionally in evangelical churches but more frequently in the more profane and overwhelmingly male subculture of the southern grog shop. There, slave and poor white men together drank "spirituous liquors" and gambled at seven up, rattle-and-snap, pitch-and-toss, or chuck-a-luck. In Yorkville, South Carolina, for example, poor white mattress maker "Ptolemy Funk did game with Cards with two negro men slaves" in 1856 (Forret 2006, p. 59).

More than any other activity, a thriving underground trade brought slaves and poor whites together. In their illicit economic exchanges unsanctioned by the master, slaves most frequently purchased or traded for alcohol, poor whites for food. While men proved the more active participants in these surreptitious networks of exchange, slave and poor white women were also involved. In South Carolina, for instance, the poor and illiterate Sarah and Jemima Woodward purchased "a quantity of meat and flour of the value of one dollar" from a female slave named Bet (Forret 2006, p. 87). Because goods stolen off the plantation fueled much of the trade, slaveholders bristled at the clandestine traffic. But despite their efforts to curb it through the passage of laws, community censure, and the creation of vigilance associations, the covert slave-poor white economy continued unabated until emancipation.

Poor whites played a contradictory role in regulating the slaves of the Old South, both sustaining and subverting planter authority and the Southern social order. As overseers and patrollers, spies and slave hunters, poor white men performed vital roles for slave owners and, by extension, the slave system. Through these functions, they kept slaves in their oppressed condition as they reassured slaveholders of their own allegiance to the Old South's racial hierarchy. Slaves frequently complained about "poor white trash" overseers and "patterollers" who treated them cruelly. Masters likewise lamented the quality of white men they relied upon for these crucial services. Poor white patrollers, explained one anonymous correspondent to the Richmond Enquirer, "glory in this sort of temporary military authority … and, making it the occasion of a frolic, their bad passions stirred up by drink, they maltreat the quiet, inoffensive, home staying negro." In no official capacity, many poor whites kept a vigilant eye on slaves and reported transgressions to the master. A few even made a living as professional slave catchers assigned to track down runaways. William Blackledge of Richland District, South Carolina, remembered ex-slave Jacob Stroyer, was illiterate, "very poor, and had a large family," including "a wife, with eight or ten helpless children." He hunted fugitive slaves with dogs and a gaunt, decrepit horse. Blackledge overstepped his authority, however, when he fatally shot a fugitive who had killed several of his canines. Authorities apprehended Blackledge and hanged him for the slave's murder (Katz 1996, pp. 198-201).

Poor whites possessed the means to subvert the slave system masters expected them to enforce. Poor whites sometimes falsified passes and free papers for slaves. One South Carolina master swore an affidavit in 1832 that one of his slaves by the name of Jacob ran off, aided by "a ticket" forged by a poor white man. Other poor whites harbored fugitive slaves or conveyed them away. When North Carolina slave Allen Parker ran away, he found shelter at "the house of a poor white woman who had been a friend to my mother" (Parker 1895, p. 82). During Moses Roper's escape, he encountered "a poor man" in North Carolina who "took me up in his cart" and conducted the fugitive northward (Roper, 1970 [1838], p. 30). Although a few poor whites assisted slaves out of friendship or as a means to attack the slave system, most expected compensation in goods or labor for the favors they provided. Fugitive slave John Brown recorded that he "obtained a forged pass from a poor white man, for which I gave him an old hen" (Chamerovzow 1855, p. 72). A tiny number of poor whites hoped to profit from slave stealing. Some quickly resold as their own the slaves they abducted; others waited patiently until the master advertised a reward, then produced the hostage and collected the money.

The only offense a poor white could commit that alarmed masters more than slave stealing was joining with bondpeople in outright rebellion, and in each of the most famous slave conspiracies and rebellions of the nineteenth century, including those of Gabriel, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner, slaves either predicted that poor whites would side with them or received encouragement or assistance from them. Although most poor whites made no attempt to assist slave runaways and rebels, those who did undermined the very social structure slaveholders expected them to defend and implicitly called poor whites' commitment to the slave regime into question.

Social Interaction

More often than not, slaves and poor whites in the antebellum South coexisted peacefully, at times even amiably, but violence nevertheless frequently erupted between them, and while mutual hostility and resentment accounted for much of that violence, slaves' and poor whites' own routine interracial fraternization fostered some of the physical conflicts between them. Erstwhile amicable socializing in the masculine interracial subculture of drinking, gambling, and carousing could quickly descend into violence. Slave and poor white men marinated in alcohol and playing games of chance frequently came to blows. In South Carolina, one poor white gambler, likely enraged by losing money to a slave, "beat and wound[ed]" the bondman Jacob "by knocking him with a Stool and Stab[b]ing him with a dirk in the back" (Forret 206, p. 171). For the infraction, he earned a twenty-dollar fine, two weeks in jail, and twenty lashes. Misunderstandings in the underground economy also provoked violence between slaves and poor whites. In North Carolina, the slave George attacked an "old, infirm & poor" white man who "kept a grog shop" for failing to trade him shoes and rum, and Gilbert Fanny followed through on his vow to harm the bondman Jet for informing local whites that Fanny had weighed plundered meat for the slave (Forret 2006, p. 176). As these examples demonstrate, slave and poor white men together inhabited a shadowy subculture of conviviality and violence. The lower orders of southern society shared a rough-and-tumble culture in which camaraderie and play could suddenly turn into rivalry and animosity. That slaves and poor whites careened erratically between friendship and violence suggests the tensions underlying their social interactions.

Sexual Relations

Slaves and poor whites engaged in a range of sexual contacts, from voluntary to involuntary and everything in between, but the experiences of poor white women and men contrasted markedly by sex. Poor white women sometimes found companionship across the color line. The Richmond Enquirer recorded the case of poor white Susan Percy, who ran off with a slave named John in 1857. When apprehended, Susan confessed "that an intimacy had grown up" between them, and together they resolved "to make their escape to a free State," giving John his freedom and Susan the chance to "hide her shame" for falling in love with a slave. In another extraordinary case, the slave Bay Ben absconded from North Carolina "in company with a white woman who has several children" by him. According to the Raleigh Register, "The woman calls her name GATSY TOOTLE, and considers herself the wife of Ben." Many of these apparently consensual affairs between poor white women and slave men originated in their close working contact. In North Carolina, for example, an affinity developed between Abraham Peppinger's poor white servant girl Polly Lane and his slave Jim in 1825.

Poor white women's working lives, however, also made them vulnerable to sexual assault. Mary Dunn reported a rape committed by the slave Warrick, with whom she had spun cloth in the slave quarters. Accusations of interracial rape met with skepticism in Southern courtrooms, however, as elite white men considered poor white women promiscuous, sexually depraved, and less worthy of legal protection than economically valuable slaves. The young poor white woman Rachael Holman struggled to establish her good character in court when she brought a charge of attempted rape against the slave Lewis. Rachael promptly reported the assault and had bruises on her throat and arms and a torn dress, but she also had a reputation for being "too familiar with the colored population," allegedly having a relationship with a bondman named Elias. As a result, the court found Lewis not guilty.

Poor white men confronted far fewer restrictions on their sexual behavior with slave women. Like poor white women, poor white men engaged in a wide array of sexual relationships with slaves. As overseers, they sometimes used their authority over slave women to extract sexual favors. But even poor white men not in positions of power exercised sexual dominance over female slaves. When Thomas D. Foy wanted sex, he "went out to where some negro Girls were washing," approached a slave woman, and "retired to a hog pen" (Forret 2006, p. 218). In contrast to poor white women, poor white men successfully capitalized upon the privileges of their race and sex to transcend their class status and appropriate the bodies of slave women for their own libidinous purposes. The gendered experiences of poor white women and men in their sexual encounters with slaves reflected and affirmed the sexual double standard in southern society. Scholars have often asked why slaves and poor whites failed to forge a class-based coalition and offer a biracial challenge to planter dominance in the Old South. The nature of the relationship between slaves and poor whites itself supplies one response to the question. Slaves and poor whites engaged in such competing and contradictory types of relationships that it would have been incredibly difficult for them to unite unequivocally.


Arroyo, Elizabeth Fortson. "Poor Whites, Slaves, and Free Blacks in Tennessee, 1796–1861." Tennessee Historical Quarterly 55 (Spring 1996): 56-65.

Bolton, Charles C. Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

Bolton, Charles C., and Scott P. Culclasure, eds. The Confessions of Edward Isham: A Poor White Life of the Old South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Cecil-Fronsman, Bill. Common Whites: Class and Culture in Antebellum North Carolina. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992.

Chamerovzow, L. A., ed. Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England. London, 1855.

Forret, Jeff. Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Genovese, Eugene D. "'Rather Be a Nigger Than a Poor White Man': Slave Perceptions of Southern Yeomen and Poor Whites." In Toward a New View of America: Essays in Honor of Arthur C. Cole, ed. Hans L. Trefousse. New York: Burt Franklin & Company, Inc., 1977.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Harris, J. William. Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society: White Liberty and Black Slavery in Augusta's Hinterlands. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Hodes, Martha. White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Katz, William Loren, ed. Flight from the Devil: Six Slave Narratives. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, Inc., 1996.

Lockley, Timothy James. Lines in the Sand: Race and Class in Lowcountry Georgia, 1750–1860. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

Parker, Allen. Recollections of Slavery Times. Worcester, MA: Chas W. Burbank & Co., 1895.

Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.

Roper, Moses. A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery; with a Preface, by the Rev. T. Price, D.D. [1838]. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1970.

                                     Jeff Forret