The term shuckings was used in slave-populated plantation communities to describe the process by which the outer shells or husks were separated from ears of corn to expose the grains. Corn shucking took place after harvesting when the ears were removed from stalks in the field. Solomon Northrup, who had been a free black man in Washington, D.C., when he was forced into slavery on a Louisiana plantation in 1841, gave a detailed description of the entire process of corn production. Corn, more particularly, white corn, was planted in February but harvesting of the corn was delayed until after the harvesting of cotton because the corn crop was of much less importance than the cotton crop. At least on his plantation, corn was grown mainly to "fatten hogs and feed slaves" (Bracey and Sinha 2004, p. 138). Northrup explained further that, beginning in August, during the period when there was a delay in harvesting the corn, it was preserved in the fields by a process of stripping the leaves from the stalks, and turning down the ears to prevent rains from "penetrating" to the grains. When the ears of corn were removed from the stalks, which could have grown as high as eight to ten feet, the ears, with husks still attached were stored in "corncribs" until the appointed time for shucking. Northrup explained that the reason for keeping the husks attached to the ears while they were stored in the cribs was to prevent destruction of the grains by weevils (Bracey, and Sinha 2004, p. 138).
The process of reaping corn was sometimes done by hauling up the corn with a yoke of oxen. Interviewed on December 11, 1888, by the Atchison Daily Champion, ex-slave Plankett declared that it was not an easy job: "You have to jerk and haw and gee to keep 'em from pulling their necks oll stretching out for eating on each side, and the man that can drive 'em under such circumstances and not cuss is a deserving man for sure" (p. 7).
SOURCE: Atchison Daily Champion, December 11, 1888, p. 7.
On plantations across the slave-holding South, owners allowed enslaved people to engage in celebrations at certain times of the year including Christmas, New Year's, and the Fourth of July, sometimes referred to as "lay-by time." But decidedly the largest and most elaborate celebration was permitted at the time when corn was to be shucked by the slaves. Many owners of corn-producing plantations allowed communal, ceremonial affairs, whereby slaves from neighboring plantations, including children, would assemble on one plantation to shuck corn. Primarily at night, with outdoor torches lit, slaves motioned and maneuvered ritualistically, to the rhythms of their own spontaneously composed songs as they shucked the corn. They were fed liquor, mostly whiskey and corn liquor, as they shucked. And after all the corn had been shucked, a general party ensued. There would be music sometimes provided by a fiddler, singing, dancing, eating and playing sports of various kinds. A supper, certainly more elaborate than they were accustomed to having, was made available for the slaves at corn-shucking time.
Corn-shucking time provided an opportunity for the enslaved people to undergo some psychological and emotional releases from the drudgery and hardships of everyday slavery. They basked in moments of joy and celebration as can be gleaned from their own accounts. Henry James Trentham, an ex-slave from a Camden, North Carolina, plantation stated in an interview, "The cornshuckings was a great time. Marster give good liquor to everybody then. When anybody shucked a red ear, he got a extra drink of whiskey. We had big suppers then, and a good time at cornshuckings. After the shucking, at night, there would be a wrestling match to see who was best on the plantation" (Hurmence 1993, p. 7).
Dan Bogie had been enslaved in Kentucky. He stated when interviewed, "We used to have big times at the corn shuckings. The neighbors would come and help. We would have camp fires and sing songs, and usually a big dance at the barn when the corn was shucked. Some of the slaves from other plantations would pick the Banjo, then the dance" (Born in Slavery, Kentucky Narratives).
But the cathartic results of corn-shucking celebrations sometimes reflected the pain and sorrow of slave life that the enslaved people endured. An unnamed, ex-slave interviewed in Arkansas lamented that during corn shucking some of the songs were "pitiful and sad." He repeated the words of one of the songs he remembered singing: "The speculator bought my wife and child and carried her clear away" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 11, pt. 7, p. 52). Some of the songs had nostalgic tones, contained curious quirks of mixed emotions, but at the same time expressed hope for, or the reality of, freedom.
In a December 11, 1888, article from the Atchison Daily Champion, an ex-slave named Plankett, highlighted the fact that white people also took part in cornshucking celebrations on plantations. He stated, "Corn gathering then was a frolic, for we knowed that a good time was coming. The corn wasn't thrown in the cribs in them days, but a big pile was made in the lot, and then the night was set for shucking and the settlement gathered in—white and black—and the corn was shucked…." It is reasonable to assume that the white people to whom Plankett referred were "poor whites" who lived in areas adjoining plantations, and were sometimes hired for small wages on many plantations. Elias Thomas, another ex-slave from North Carolina, explained that during "harvest time" on his plantation the slaves worked and sang together with poor whites (Hurmence 1993, p. 11).
Allowing the enslaved people to work in ritual fashion to the pace of their own rhythms and songs resulted, no doubt, in faster completion of the corn-shucking process and consequently higher production rates for plantation owners. Some plantation owners rewarded timeliness with monetary incentives and prizes. James Boyd was interviewed in Texas but had actually been enslaved in Oklahoma. He said that sometimes, "there would be a dollar for the one that could shuck the most corn in a certain time" (Waters 2003, p. 7). Another ex-slave interviewed in Texas recalled that, "De prize would usually be a suit of clothes or something to wear and which would be given at some later date" (Baker and Baker 1997, p. 36). Plankett explained that he saw as many as three thousand bushels of corn shucked and put into cribs in one night. The shucks were also "penned" during the same night. It is very likely that "penning" was the process of storing the shucks in pens to be used as food for mules and oxen. Every part of the corn plant was made use of on the plantation. Northrup noted that the leaves, also, when stripped from stalks in the field were "dried in the sun, bundled and stored as fodder for mules and oxen" (Bracey and Sinha 2004, p. 138).
Interviews with ex-slaves from Arkansas point to much more subdued celebrations during corn shucking, but still a strong sense of appreciation for the camaraderie and fellowship that the occasion allowed. Louis Davis remembered, "We had corn shucking, but it wasn't made to be a party. We done the shucking in the daytime, and everybody was sent to the crib together. They would sing and have a good time, but they didn't have no prizes" (Memories of Slavery: Recollections). Lizzie Norfleet indicated that there were no celebrations for Christmas or corn shucking on the plantation where she had been enslaved. She stated, "On rainy days we had corn shuckings, but that wasn't no party. Course we liked it cause we was all together, laughing, singing and having a good time. At that the corn had to be shucked all the same" (Memories of Slavery: Recollections, Mississippi Narratives).
Corn shucking seems to illustrate that it is possible that gender specifications or role distinctions were practiced in job categories in some plantation societies, based maybe on the discretion of some plantation owners to exempt women from the rigors of certain jobs. An unnamed, ex-slave woman, born in South Carolina and interviewed in 1938, stated, "Den dem kind of task was left to de men folks de most of de time cause it been so hot, dey was force to strip to do dat sort of a job." The woman claimed that while corn shucking was going on she, "must been somewhe' huntin something to eat" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 23). And Amanda Oliver who had been enslaved in northern Texas said that it was men who would shuck corn all night while women pieced quilts together (Baker and Baker 1997, p. 64).
The opportunity for communal gathering, grouping and working that corn shucking offered, no doubt, allowed the enslaved people to reconnect with the extended family traditions of their African heritage. African ancestral, ritual techniques such as "call-and response" were evidenced in their singing. White and White relate that the slaves would organize themselves in competing song teams and respond to their "captain's or song leader's calls" (2005, p. 10). But even as the connections with Africa were manifested in their social selves, the seeds of the formation of the African American self defined by the new environment, and the impact of the juxtapositioning of European culture were being sown. While White and White say the "sounds" or the "sonic realm" belonged to Africa, the dancing seemed to have belonged to Europe. An unnamed ex-slave from Arkansas declaring her preference for the kinds of dancing she did during slavery times as compared to post slavery, stated, "In them days they danced what you call square dances…. There was eight in a set" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 11, pt. 7, p. 52). And Lucy Lewis, born in Texas declared, "… a used to cut all kind of steps, de cotillion and de waltz and de shotty [schottische] (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 5, pt. 3, p. 15).
In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1846), Frederick Douglass expressed great abhorrence at the drunkenness and debauchery in which slaves were allowed to engage during, particularly, the Christmas holidays. Slaves were exempt from any work at all for the entire week between Christmas and New Year's, and were allowed to wallow in alcohol. He contended that the objective of the plantation owners was to make the slaves, "disgust themselves with freedom" (1968 , p. 85), and therefore, appreciate the time for returning to slave work and industry. Douglass saw these drunken celebrations as diversionary tactics on the parts of plantations owners, aimed at, "keeping down the spirit of insurrection (p. 84). While, contrary to the celebration during the Christmas holidays, the corn-shucking celebration did involve work; certainly the drunkenness allowed at corn shucking time can be viewed in the same light in which Douglass conceived the drunkenness allowed at Christmas. Drunkenness as one aspect of the overall ritual celebration, must have contributed to those moments of psychological release, but it must also have served to distract the enslaved people from their real plight in slavery.
Some very strange activities that saw plantation owners actually participating in the celebratory phase of cornshucking festivals, point to other complex motivations, on the part of the owners, for permitting the festivals. It appears as though some plantation owners carried out a kind of cat-and-mouse or hide-and-seek game with their slaves, ostensibly to bond with the slaves, but embedded with the subtle purpose of reinforcing their supremacy in the "master/slave" relationship. The game would end with a ritual exaltation of the plantation owner. The unnamed ex-slave from Arkansas, previously mentioned, related the following that had been told to her by her mother. "When they got through shucking, they would hunt up the boss. He would run away and hide just before. If they found him, two big men would take him up on their shoulders and carry him all around the grounds while they sang (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 11, pt. 7, p. 52).
White and White provided more supporting details about this unusual happening. They told that after the shucking was done, "the slaves would seize their master, carry him around the Big House, occasionally toss him in the air, and take him inside." Then, quoting the experience of a former slave, George Woods, they continued to explain that, the slaves would, "place him [the owner] in a chair; comb his head; cross his knees for him and leave him alone" (2005, p. 10).
Excluding those bizarre moments when plantation owners were actually injected in the corn-shucking celebrations, in those celebrations and others on the plantation were planted the seeds of an American culture that saw white people as spectators of the bourgeoning manifestations of African American culture. Tinie Force and Elvira Lewis, two ex-slaves from Kentucky, commented that singing and dancing by black people, with white people in the audience was "one of the most favorite classes of entertainment" (Born in Slavery, Kentucky Narratives). Later, when white people began to enact caricatured imitations of black performances in minstrel shows, those shows also saw their genesis in plantation celebrations such as corn shuckings.
Atchison Daily Champion. "Old Time Corn." December 11, 1888. Available from http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/279/779/776/104060687.
Baker, Lindsay T., and Julie P. Baker, eds. Till Freedom Cried Out: Memories of Texas Slave Life. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938, Kentucky Narratives. Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions, Library of Congress. Available from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html.
Bracey, John H., Jr., and Manisha Sinha, eds. African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to the Twenty-First Century, vol 1: To 1877. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave . New York: Penguin, 1968.
Hurmence, Belinda, ed. My Folks Don't Want Me to Talk About Slavery. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publisher, 1993.
McBride, Dina C., ed. "Memories of Slavery: Recollections of Lives of Slavery and Emancipation." Familytreemaker, genealogy.com. Available from http://familytreemaker.geneaology.com/users/m/c/b/Dina-C-McBride/FILE/000.
Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.
Waters, Andrew, ed. I Was Born in Slavery. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publisher, 2003.
White, Shane, and Graham White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons and Speech. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.
Marguerite P. Garvey