In an account of the daily lives of slaves, the former slave William Coleman recalled, "one of the slaves was helping Mistress there in the yard, and he passed too close to her, as he was hurrying fast as he could, and sort of bumped into her…. [S]he never paid him no attention, but Master saw him." Though the master allowed the slave to complete his daily task, the incident did not go unnoticed, and once the slave finished his work, the master took the slave "out in the pasture, tied his hands together, throwed the other end of the rope over a limb on a tree, and pulled that Negro's hands up in the air to where that Negro had to stand on his tiptoes." According to Coleman, the master then proceeded to take "all that Negro's clothes off and whipped him with that rawhide whip until that Negro was plumb bloody all over … [and] left that poor Negro tied there all the rest of the day and night" (Mellon 1988, p. 235).
Whipping was undoubtedly practiced on many plantations, and in many instances the justification seemed arbitrary. Many masters used whipping as their primary method of punishment, knowing that slaves could not legally testify in court against a white person; because of this, many slave masters denied that the practice of whipping occurred in the South. In 1865 a report in Boston's Congregationalist newspaper noted that a prominent Virginian claimed that "the whipping of adult slaves is unknown, or at least a very rare occurrence—so rare as never to have come under his notice" ("Elegant Extracts," April 7, 1865). The absurdity of this statement caused one Congregationalist reporter to write, "[a] more palpable falsehood could not have been written. The fact is so well known and established in all its abominations that comment is needless"("Elegant Extracts," April 7, 1865).
Whippings seemed so prevalent that Reverend W. B. Allen, a former slave, proclaimed, "the only punishment that I ever heard or knew of being administered to slaves was whipping"(Mellon 1988, p. 240). The recollections of slave men and women who experienced the cruelty of whipping indicate that the regularity and severity of lashings varied from owner to owner, but without a doubt, whipping was the preferred method of punishment on farms and plantations. According to Frederick Douglass, it "would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things of which to make occasion to whip a slave" (Finkenbine 2004, p. 45). Offenses such as talking back to a white person, stealing, fighting, lying, loitering during work time, arguing, traveling without a pass, and selling or buying goods without the consent of the master often resulted in slave whippings, and in a number of instances these beatings ended in death. Douglass asserted that a "mere look, word, or motion—a mistake, accident, or want of power—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time" (Finkenbine 2004, p. 45).
Whipping was meant to serve as a permanent reminder to slaves of their alleged inferiority and to assert white authority, and slave masters sought to inflict such excruciating pain during a whipping that the agonizing message reverberated throughout the entire slave community. Whipping, historian Kenneth M. Stampp wrote, served as the "emblem of the master's authority," and masters preferred to make them public exhibitions in which slaves "watched as their wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, children, and relatives were flogged" (Stampp 1956, p. 174). Robert Burns, a former slave, recalled that his master always placed slaves in a calaboose during the evening prior to a whipping. According to Burns, his slave master "always limited de lashes to five hundred … [and] … after whipping dem, he would rub pepper and salt on deir backs, where whipped, and lay dem before de fire until blistered, and den take a cat, and hold de cat, and make hum claw de blisters, to burst dem" (Mellon 1988, p. 241).
Slave masters were not the only ones to perform the gruesome act of whipping—slave mistresses also routinely whipped black slaves, and they often inflicted even greater pain. Sarah Douglas, another former slave, found this to be the case. Douglas was regularly whipped by her mistress, but the last whipping left an indelible mark, both physically and mentally. When asked about the final lashing she received, Douglas fervently responded "[t]he last whipping Old Mis' give me she tied me to a tree and—oh my Lord!—she whipped me that day … [t]hat was the wors' whipping I ever got in my life" (Mellon 1988, p. 244). Also, many slave masters sent patrols around in the evenings to check on slaves in their quarters. If during the inspection process a husband dared object, "or even look as if he wasn't quite satisfied, they tie him up and give him thirty-nine lashes"(Finkenbine 2004, p. 65).
To be certain, no slave was safe from the abuse of whippings. The St. Louis Republican reported an incident in which a slave master had his eight-year-old girl slave whipped to death in 1844; the actions of the master went unpunished (Simkin 2007). The abuses levied to black women often deterred male slaves from establishing relationships on their own plantations. The former slave Moses Grandy proclaimed "no colored man wishes to live at the house where his wife lives, for he has to endure the continual misery of seeing her flogged and abused without daring to say a word in her defense" (Simkin 2007). Henry Bibb, another former slave, understood this truth all too well, as he could only watch as slave owners forced his wife into prostitution. Bibb said, "[if] my wife must be exposed to the insults and licentious passions of wicked slave-drivers and overseers … [h]eaven forbid that I should be compelled to witness the sight" (Simkin 2007). For this reason, many male slaves preferred to court slave women from neighboring plantations.
In an attempt to break the assertive will and spirit of black slaves, some masters thought it best to whip slaves before they committed an offense. One anonymous slave reported that an overseer regularly rounded up all the slaves on the plantation in the morning and proceeded to whip each one. When the slaves pleaded with the overseer that they had done nothing wrong, he responded "I know it, I'm gonna whip you to keep you from doing nothing" (Mellon 1988, p. 246). Numerous slave masters shared this view, and some even attempted to win the psychological battle against slaves by purchasing a slave-whipping machine for all the slaves to see. The big wooden wheel had a treadle attached to it, and when the slave owner stamped on the treadle the big wheel went around. On that wheel, roughly five large leather straps, usually with cuts in them to insure blisters, awaited a slave who lay tied face down on a bench. The very sight of such a conspicuous machine assured slave masters that its presence alone could cure slaves of the desire to commit any supposed misdeeds, but certainly strapping a slave to the bench also conveyed an ominous message (Mellon 1988, p. 246).
Many slaves refused to accept whippings—the overseer who attempted to whip a slave named Bob, even though he had done nothing wrong, found this out the hard way. When the overseer struck Bob with cowhide, which was known to cut the skin easily, Bob retaliated: "He just took up his hoe and chopped right down on that man's head and knocked his brains out" (Mellon 1988, p. 246). Though such incidents did not protect slaves from whipping, they did serve as warnings to slave masters that blacks were anything but content with slavery. Slaves also resorted to covert forms of retaliation that often went unnoticed by their slave masters.
To be sure, the threat of whipping often drove slaves to continue working and cooperating within the system of slavery, and masters used that threat generously to maintain their power. Typically, whippings were public acts, helping slave masters ensure that no future violations of the written and unwritten laws of slavery would occur. Yet, the fact that slaves continued to push against the system, fighting back occasionally despite the brutal nature of the punishment, is an indisputable sign of their desire for freedom and their discontentment with their status as slaves.
"Elegant Extracts." The Congregationalist, Boston, April 7, 1865.
Finkenbine, Roy E. Sources of the African American Past: Primary Sources in American History. New York: Pearson, 2004.
Mellon, James. Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Simkin, John. "Whipping." Slavery in the United States. Spartacus Educational Web site, 2007. Available from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USASwhipping.htm.
Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.
T. E. Robinson