Work Overview

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Work Overview

Slave occupations were not as simple as the standard dichotomy between house slaves and field slaves suggests. These categories existed and are useful in understanding the social dynamics of master-slave relationships, especially on the plantations and farms. The work performed by house slaves in rural or city areas was limited to domestic activities—acting as personal servants, nurses, and mammies—and brought them into close proximity with whites, sometimes even extending to familiarity and intimacy with selected white individuals. Field slaves had fewer opportunities to develop relationships with whites. Their work was largely dependent on the seasonal rhythms associated with a specific major crop or product. Task or gang labor systems were the most popular and productive arrangements. In addition, some slaves worked as skilled laborers and artisans; they were in high demand and often rented out time. Hunting, trapping, and fishing were also lucrative vocations that allowed slaves to sell their catches and supplement their meager rations. This work combined with personal garden plots provided variety and substance to inadequate diets.

The article on agricultural work provides an overview of the cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco industries that are further detailed in the separate entries on cotton plantations, tobacco plantations, rice plantations, and sugar plantations. Central to the plantation lifestyle were the master's house; nurses and mammies; slave entrepreneurs; hunting and trapping; seasonal rhythms; personal servants; and the gang system. Plantations were the locale for a cross-section of significant occupations of enslaved Africans in the New World. The following sections illuminate the broad range of blacks' participation in the economic world. For the majority of these Africans, their work contributed little to their personal wellbeing. It only sufficed to further the financial and life goals of their owners. The system of chattel slavery reduced the human equation to a single coefficient for enslaved Africans: The slave is property that works and any other concerns are irrelevant. Yet the black population was more resilient and resistant than such a restrictive existence might imply. Cultural patterns developed around slave labor in the houses, on the plantations, and in the developing urban areas. A few occupations afforded the slaves opportunities to work toward freedom or personal development, although most only solidified their oppression.

Whether work is viewed from the perspective of the individual's need to express her or himself, or based on the value of the labor performed as a contribution to society, or the value of the labor to the capitalist owners, enslaved Africans played an invaluable and incalculable role in the United States and throughout the New World. The plantation and farm slave-owning classes could not do without slave labor in the fields preparing the land for cultivation, as planters, pickers, and harvesters. Similarly, unwilling African immigrants and their descendants—imported slave labor—worked in the master's house as personal servants, cooks, nurses, or mammies, or performed diverse skilled occupations necessary to a smoothly operating society. Separate entries in this chapter detail the specifics of rice, cotton, sugar, and tobacco production and cultivation. Other entries cover African Americans' economic participation in various aspects of slavery-era capitalism. The emphasis in this chapter is on the work provided for others, the slave owners, yet the context for this work is the tension between enslaved Africans providing forced labor for the benefit of others and the idea that this troublesome property also functioned as active agents for self-serving purposes. The process of loaning or hiring out time supplied additional income to owners while often granting the bondman or bondwoman opportunities to acquire the capital to purchase themselves or family members. Far from acting like acquiescent children, black men and women struggled in a variety of ways to provide a better life for themselves and their families, from making the inhumanly intolerable bearable to acquiring freedom by purchase or flight. Though not detailed in this chapter, this impulse is the spirit of "Free Frank" McWhorter who first bought his wife Lucy out of slavery, then himself and their children. Free Frank moved from South Carolina to Kentucky where he oversaw his owner's plantation. Later, after purchasing his family's freedom, Free Frank moved his family to Illinois, eventually becoming the first black man in the United States to found a city, New Philadelphia.

Many enslaved Africans clearly performed their work with the pride of artisans and skilled craftspeople. A substantial number of free or enslaved blacks reaped economic and psychological rewards from jobs well done. Even when the labor was forced, blacks forged economic and personal relationships via their participation in cooperative economic endeavors and domestic necessities or plantation, farm, or urban lifestyles. The standard sunup-to-sundown workday did not allow for much of a social life, but the importance of social dynamics in the work environment cannot be ignored: the field or the big house, though more public than slave quarters, nevertheless provided opportunities for blacks to interact with each other, while developing and maintaining a cohesive culture of their own. Whereas most of the entries in this chapter focus on the specific dynamics of the work performed by enslaved Africans, some also illuminate the intricacies of how slaves made a world of their own, often in contradiction to their masters' wishes. Some of the entries note how various occupations enabled or encouraged resistance activities. The status of individual slaves was often determined by the nature of their work, but this could be a double-edged sword. Working in activities associated with the master's house or being closely affiliated with whites might ensure higher regard from some blacks and whites, but was more likely to provoke disdain, resentment, and distrust from other blacks, especially those who worked in the field and had less reason to interact with or trust the intentions of whites.


Walker, Juliet E. K. Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1983.

                                         Kamau Kemayo