Relationships among Slaves: An Overview

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Relationships among Slaves: An Overview

A special relationship existed in the slave communities between and among males, females, parents, and children. Social relations among slaves enabled them to affirm their humanity, and most importantly, served as a conveyor of culture and survival skills that aided in the resilience and ability of slaves to endure the harshness of the institution of slavery. These relationships gave slaves a sense of self-worth and belonging that often prevented them from fleeing.

Slaves formed friendships and highly emotional attachments and displayed loyalty to one another while forced to live in this institution. Despite having most every aspect of their lives controlled by whites, they were still able to create a viable social world with its own array of shared beliefs, customs, interaction patterns, and social arrangements.

The relationships among slave men and women had to conform to the rigorous controls of the work and social patterns established by the system of slavery. Nevertheless, love and affection played a large part in male-female relationships. Slaves, with the permission of their owners, married or formed common law unions. However, when slaves married, these unions were performed by their owners. As recounted by ex-slave Harriet McFarlin Payne:

When two of de slaves wanted to get married, they'd go up to de big house and de master would marry them. They'd stand up before him and he'd read out of a book called the disciple and say, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy strength, with all thy might and thy neighbor as thyself. Then he'd say they were man and wife and tell them to be honest and kind to each other.

Although the slave's social standing in society was deemed culturally and socially beneath that of the southern class structure, they nevertheless built strong family relationships within these constraints. These relationships existed from one generation to the next. Owners encouraged the slave women to bear children because they were regarded as future laborers. In most assessments, because of the labor requirements of parents, children suffered from the lack of care and attention. James W. C. Pennington recalls his revelations of slavery at four years old. He said he was robbed of the adequate care and attention of his parents during the day and he suffered miserably. He felt as though he had been thrown in a world without a social circle to flee for comfort.


Although theoretically and legally—except for some humane restrictions—the slaves were not persons but utilities with no will of their own, social interaction within their own world on the plantation created a social life among them with nearly all of the features of any society.

Tinie Force and Elvira Lewis of LaCenter, Kentucky, were very familiar with the slavery period, as they were both slaves, and witnessed the social interaction among the slaves:

Ring dancing was largely practiced during the slavery period. The general procedure was to draw a ring on the ground, ranging from 15 to 30 feet in diameter. The size of the ring to be used was determined by the number of persons who were engaged in the dancing ring. The youngsters would congregate within the ring and dance to the rhythmic hand clapping and rhythm of the tambourine.

Also the darkies were very fond of sports, such as hurdle racing. The contestants would leap over hurdles that were placed at regular intervals apart. There was a kind of jumping too, which was called hurtling pole, which was a small rigid pole about 12 feet in length. The jumper would take a long running start, which would enable him to take an additional momentum; and with the assistance of the hurtling pole, would leap over a hurdle that was placed a considerable elevation above the ground. (Rawick 1972–1979, Vol. 18, p. 300)

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

Furthermore, female bondwomen had ample time to develop consciousness grounded in their identity as females, thus female bonding to female conflict was not uncommon. The social stratus created an atmosphere rife with smoldering jealousies and antipathies. In addition, women regularly vied for the attention of men. When a husband or boyfriend switched his affection from one woman to the other, altercation between the women involved was likely. As in the case of a slave named Molly, the cook in June Chestnut's household, Molly attacked a woman whom her husband had given her calico dress to, and tried to burn the dress off of the woman with a red hot poker (Woodward 1981).

The elder slaves were highly regarded in the slave community. As recalled by Fredrick Douglass (1817–1895) about the slave community at large, he said, "There is not to be found, among any people, a more rigid enforcement of the law of respect of elders, than they maintain" (1987, p. 49). Moreover, the relationship between the elder slaves and the slave community was one of admiration. The elder slaves served as repositories of cultural tradition from which the younger generation drew. The elderly slaves through such activities as child care, storytelling, procurement of food, and religious leadership helped to build slaves' self-esteem and self-worth, thereby creating slave communities with positive images of themselves.

The storytelling in particular was an important entertainment, educational, and coping mechanism. The old men were able to recount elements of the tales and stories in their own languages, thus giving their tales an African flair. The elder slaves contributed substantially to the perpetuation of the African American slave community. They also provided the slave communities with religious leadership, which provided the elderly males with the greatest opportunities for influence over other slaves (Close 1997)

Moreover, old bondwomen served a crucial role in the slave community as well. They were likely to attend all slave births and all of the slave deaths. Their accumulated knowledge delivered one into life, helped one survive it, and sometimes, as can be said of many physicians of the period, helped one to an early grave. As midwife and doctor she embodied the link between the generations and it was partly through her that a central aspect of black culture, the secret of the herbs, was transmitted (White 1985).

Hence, the relationships that existed between men and women, children, parents, and the elders of the slave community functioned like those in other societies throughout history. These associations made it possible for slaves to develop a sense of identity and communal values, and laid the foundations for the formation of families whose kinship ties spread from one generation to the next. These relationships enabled slaves to negotiate some autonomy within the restraints imposed upon them by enslavement. Within these social constructs slaves flourished and created a sense of community among themselves, social organization, and culture.


Close, Stacey K. Elderly Slaves of the Plantation South. New York and London: Garland, 1997.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Durant, Thomas J., and J. David Knottnerus. The Plantation Society and Race Relations: The Origins of Inequality. Westport, CT: Prager, 1999.

Finkelman, Paul. Women and the Family in a Slave Society: The Negro Slave Family. New York and London: Garland, 1989.

Pennington, James W. C. The Fugitive Blacksmith, or Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington: Pastor of a Presbyterian Church, New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States, 3rd ed. London: C. Gilpin, 1850.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York and London: Norton, 1985.

Woodward, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chestnut's Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

                                      Deliah Brown

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Relationships among Slaves: An Overview

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