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African-American Slaves Essay


This report examines the kinds of household objects that might be found in the possession of slaves. The variety of such objects obviously changed over time. Particular attention is devoted to the differences among such objects in the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War periods of American history.

When African slaves were first imported into the North American colonies, they were typically provided the bare minimum that was necessary to enable them to survive. This meant the fundamentals of food, clothing, and sleep that would empower them to work in the fields from sunrise until sundown and engage in all the backbreaking labor that was required to keep the plantation running. Slaves that possessed special skills would be outfitted with equipment that was associated with those roles (Gruber).

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The average Colonial era female slave, for example, was given a dress and a headscarf. These were made of the cheapest and most readily available materials. The dress was intended to be maximally functional, enabling the slave to stoop and rise so that she could, for example, pick cotton, hoe flax, or plant seeds in the field. The headscarf was intended to absorb the copious sweat that was generated as the slave labored all day under the hot Southern sun (Gruber).

Slaves were also provided with shoes. Shoes were made of leather and outfitted with a buckle. Intriguingly, there was no distinction between left and right shoes at that time: both were identically constructed and therefore interchangeable as they wore out unevenly. Children were not provided with shoes and instead went barefoot around the plantation (Gruber).

Female slaves were fond of adorning themselves with jewelry, just as they had done in their native Africa. There were two sources of such jewelry. Favored slaves might be provided with gold jewelry, which was difficult to obtain, by their masters. By way of contrast, other female slaves would fashion their own adornments. These were commonly manufactured either from glass beads or from cowry shells (Gruber).

The barracks in which Colonial era slaves lived were quite primitively outfitted. However, a look at these quarters evidences two more common household objects. The first was a corn crib that lay in the corner. This could be filled with corn or other vegetables. The second was a primitive sleeping platform. This was carved from ordinary wood and then outfitted with hay or straw. The quarters were therefore not very comfortable, but they were fundamentally functional (Pogue & Stanford).

Slaves during the Revolutionary War period were treated much as were their ancestors of the Colonial South. The key difference between the two was the fact that, during the war, many slaves were permitted by their owners to fight for the freedom of the colonies (Pavao). Slaves who enlisted for service were provided with the same gear as their white colleagues. First among this gear were personal field possessions. These included a wooden bowl, a pewter mug, and a wooden spoon. This was the only equipment provided to the slave that could be used to take meals. If a utensil was lost, it was seldom replaced, given that the budget for operating the Continental army was heavily strained (Grant 148ff.).

The equipment provided to the slave also included his rifle and a pair of breeches. Breeches were shorter pants that would not get caught in the brush and readily destroyed. They also provided greater freedom of movement as well as superior comfort in the warm, humid South. The rifle was of an unsophisticated design that had neither great range nor significant accuracy. However, it was the essential weapon for all engagements with enemy forces (Grant 148ff.). Insofar as the British troops were more numerous and generally better outfitted, it is no less than miraculous that the American forces won the war.

The slave’s equipment also included something called a multi-tool. This was a piece of metal that was generally shaped like the letter Y. It could be used to dig, scrape, and clean (Grant 148ff.). It was useful for cleaning out the rifle barrel, scraping debris off the spoon or bowl, and any other applications of which the slave could think. The multi-tool can be viewed as the eighteenth century equivalent of today’s Swiss Army knife.

The types of property that slaves held changed in the Civil War era. Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves in 1863. At this point, many slaves were necessarily freed by their owners and headed out with horse and wagon—or even on foot—to establish their own farmsteads. While some slaves were skilled in a variety of trades, including as coachmen, grooms, and blacksmiths, most were limited in scope to the farming skills that they had acquired while serving on the plantations.

Slaves who established their own farmsteads obviously had little money available to buy household objects and accouterments. The only sources of spending cash were “cash crops” that could be grown sporadically and without guaranteed success. Consequently, the lives that these slaves led were still limited in quality and variety. Household objects were the most basic that might be expected. For example, a rudimentary kitchen was outfitted with a table and chairs. Both table and chairs were hand-carved from wood using the simplest of materials and construction techniques (Fletcher). They were intended to be purely functional rather than decorative. Slaves were more focused on getting their lives and futures off the ground than with the details of elaboration or adornment.

Slaves also had use of the simplest of farming equipment. Iron tools such as hoes and could be obtained by trading with nearby farmers (Fletcher). Recall that the territories where the slaves settled after Emancipation were predominantly rural, meaning that most white citizens were themselves engaged either directly in farming or in roles that facilitated work on the farm. Wooden tools were manufactured by hand. For example, a besom, or primitive broom, was constructed by connecting a wooden shaft to a number of stiff twigs that formed the teeth of the broom (Fletcher). While such twigs were readily broken, they were also easily replaced.

One final possession that would have been treasured by newly emancipated slaves was a Bible. During the days of slavery, the African-Americans were forbidden to learn how to read. In fact, even demonstrating curiosity over reading and writing could earn the slave numerous lashes from the overseer’s whip (Gruber). However, slaves had increasingly integrated the principles of Christian religion into their own native African religions to achieve a new and uniquely African-American religious identity (“Enslaved African Americans”). They treasured the prospect of owning a family Bible, for it offered hope and promise as well as a laudable means for teaching the family’s children to read.

It can be seen that the types of objects that the African-American slaves owned and used evolved from Colonial times, across the panorama of American history, to the era beyond the Civil War. The range of these possessions reflected the steady improvement and refinement of their lives as they graduated from bitterly indentured servants to free men who could aspire to full parity with their American peers of every other creed and color.

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Works Cited
“Enslaved African Americans and Religious Revivalism.” Digital History, 2019. Retrieved from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=2994
Fletcher, Abner. “What Was Life Like for Freed Slaves in Houston After the Civil War?” Houston Public Media, 15 February 2018. Retrieved from https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/arts-culture/2018/02/15/267907/life-for-former-slaves-after-the-civil-war/.
Grant, R. G. Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man. Dorling-Kindersley, 2007.
Gruber, Katherine Egner. “Slave Clothing and Adornment in Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Slave_Clothing_and_Adornment_in_Virginia.
Pavao, Esther. “Slavery and the Revolutionary War.” Revutionary-War.net, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.revolutionary-war.net/slavery-and-the-revolutionary-war.html.
Pogue, Dennis J., & Stanford, Douglas. “Slave Housing in Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Slave_Housing_in_Virginia.

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