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nd the Making of America . Printable Page

Living Conditions
By: Nicholas Boston

To a degree, the material conditions of slave life were predetermined by the status of the slave. During the early colonial period, slaves and indentured servants enjoyed greater freedoms than black slaves would in later periods. But even then, they belonged to the lowest, poorest ranks of society. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, slaves were condemned to impoverishment by the law. In many colonies, slaves could not participate in wage-earning trade or labor. In others they were denied the right to own property. The slave’s resulting dependence on his or her master for the most basic necessities — food, clothing, shelter — was integral to the preservation of the master’s power and the sustaining of the slave society.

The doctrine of paternalism guided much of the Southern rationale for slavery. As a public expression of humanitarian ideals drawn from both the American Revolution and the Great Awakening, which spread Christianity far and wide, Southern plantation owners defined slavery not as an institution of brute force, but of responsible dominion over a less fortunate, less evolved people. “Inspire a negro with perfect confidence in you and learn him to look to you for support and he is your slave,” were the words of one plantation owner. Of course, the documented brutality of slave owners, beyond the mere fact of enslavement, demonstrated that planters were short on adherence to their own doctrine. The diary of Bennet H. Barrow, a Louisiana slave owner, documents almost daily beatings and torturing of slaves, accompanied enigmatically by extensive moral explanations as to why such punishments were necessary. Paternalism was thus more a justification, than an orientation, for slavery.

Although material comfort or discomfort was contingent on the individual owner’s finances, management style, and disposition, in general, enslaved people were clothed, fed and housed only minimally to ensure their survival and capacity for labor. Geographic location, whether urban or rural, greatly impacted the lives of the enslaved. Slaves who lived in urban areas, estimated in the early nineteenth century at less than six percent of the entire enslaved population, generally existed under more favorable conditions than their rural counterparts.

“A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation,” wrote the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in 1838 at the age of 20. “He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation.” This is not to say that city-dwelling slave owners were by nature more compassionate than plantation owners. Scholars argue that, among other factors, urban dwellers’ close proximity to each other served to deter individuals from brutally mistreating human property and appearing inhumane themselves.

As with any other aspect of the history of slavery, the dynamics of urban existence for the enslaved shifted from region to region and between historical periods. Whereas slavery in the lowcountry (Carolinas), Chesapeake and Northern colonies tended to migrate from cities to the countryside, becoming more agricultural in focus, in the lower Mississippi Valley, the trajectory was the reverse. For instance, by 1763, one-quarter of the black population of Louisiana resided on small tracts in districts around the city of New Orleans. This circumstance was to change in subsequent periods.

In 1860, about 140,000 slaves lived in towns and cities throughout the south. In Charleston, South Carolina, alone, the enslaved numbered almost 40,000, constituting a third of the city’s population. Similar numbers existed in Richmond, Virginia, and Mobile, Alabama.

The urban enslaved performed comparatively less arduous physical labor — in shipyards, brickyards, cotton presses and warehouses. Many were apprentices to tailors, saddle makers, butchers and masons. In select Southern cities, men of color dominated the building industries, testifying to the extent to which they were skilled tradesmen.

Where did these urban enslaved reside? For the most part, they were housed in the same lodgings as their owners, usually in an attic or back room. When households were too small to accommodate all its enslaved laborers, and the proprietor was wealthy enough, a separate building for the more senior servants — cooks, drivers, etc. — would be constructed behind the white family’s dwelling. Distinctive styles of such structures emerged in cities like New Orleans and Charleston.

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Yet, wherever urban slaves were put en masse to major construction projects, their living conditions sharply deteriorated, closely approximating those of their counterparts in rural areas. One observer, describing living conditions for slaves put to work in the construction of the Manchester and Wilmington Railroad, wrote: “The railroad hands sleep in miserable shanties along the line. Their bed is an inclined pine board — nothing better, softer, or warmer…Their covering is a blanket. The fireplaces in these cabins are often so clumsily constructed that all the heat ascends the chimney…as the negroes are not released from their work until sunset, and as, after coming to their cabins, they have to cook their ash-cakes or mush, or dumplings, these huts are by no means remarkable for their cleanly appearance.”

The practice of “hiring out” was one feature of urban slavery that gave the enslaved a route to independence in their daily lives. Through this process, slave owners rented slaves to others. Enslaved people could, by arrangement with their owners, also hire themselves out. They then resided in or near the renter, who was officially, if not in practice, required to refrain from mistreating his leased property. Money earned from hiring out went into the owners’ pockets, but oftentimes the laborer got to keep some himself. In this way, a slave might save enough not only to live on his own, but also to buy his freedom.

In the rural context, living conditions for enslaved people were determined in large part by the size and nature of the agricultural unit on which they lived. Contrary to the overwhelming image of the grand Southern plantation worked by hundreds of slaves, most agricultural units in the South up until about two decades before the Civil War were small farms with 20 to 30 slaves each.

The conditions of slaves under these circumstances were most easily grouped into the experiences of field slaves and house slaves. The vast majority of plantation slaves labored in the fields, while a select few worked at domestic and vocational duties in and around the owners’ houses. Each situation brought its own set of demands, hazards, and perks regarding not only labor, but also quality of food, clothing, and shelter received.

Weekly food rations — usually corn meal, lard, some meat, molasses, peas, greens, and flour — were distributed every Saturday. Vegetable patches or gardens, if permitted by the owner, supplied fresh produce to add to the rations. Morning meals were prepared and consumed at daybreak in the slaves’ cabins. The day’s other meals were usually prepared in a central cookhouse by an elderly man or woman no longer capable of strenuous labor in the field. Recalled a former enslaved man: “The peas, the beans, the turnips, the potatoes, all seasoned up with meats and sometimes a ham bone, was cooked in a big iron kettle and when meal time come they all gathered around the pot for a-plenty of helpings!” This took place at noon, or whenever the field slaves were given a break from work. At the day’s end, some semblance of family dinner would be prepared by a wife or mother in individual cabins. The diets, high in fat and starch, were not nutritionally sound and could lead to ailments, including scurvy and rickets. Enslaved people in all regions and time periods often did not have enough to eat; some resorted to stealing food from the master. House slaves could slip food from leftovers in the kitchen, but had to be very careful not to get caught, for harsh punishments awaited such an offense.

Clothing, distributed by the master, usually once a year and often at Christmastime, was apportioned according sex and age as well as to the labor performed by its wearer. Children, for instance, often went unclothed entirely until they reached adolescence. Elderly slaves who could not do physical labor were not given the shoes or extra layers of clothing during the winter that younger fieldworkers were. Whereas many field workers were not given sufficient clothing to cover their bodies, house slaves tended to be dressed with more modesty, sometimes in the hand-me-downs of masters and mistresses. Most slaves lived in similar dwellings, simple cabins furnished sparely. A few were given rooms in the main house.

The relationships of slaves with one another, with their masters, with overseers and free persons, were all to a certain extent shaped by the unique circumstances of life experienced by each slave. House slaves, for example, sometimes came to identify with their masters’ interests over those of fellow slaves. Female house slaves, in particular, often formed very close attachments to their mistresses. Though such relationships did not always impact the slave’s relationship with other slaves in any significant way, they could lead the slave to act as an informant reporting on the activities of her fellow enslaved. On the other hand, girls who waited upon tables could serve the slave community as rich sources of information, gossip, and warnings.

Different circumstances surrounded fieldwork. Laboring together in task groups, enslaved blacks might develop a sense of united welfare. Yet, they might also be supervised by a black driver or overseer responsible for representing the master’s interests, a position which could prove divisive within the slave community particularly because the driver would be obliged to mete out punishments on other blacks.

The lives of enslaved men and women were shaped by a confluence of material circumstances, geographic location, and the financial status and ideological stance of a given slaveholder. The experience of slavery was never a comfortable one. Nevertheless, the kind of labor assigned, the quantity and quality of food and clothing received, the type of shelter provided, and the form of punishments dealt could lessen or increase the level of discomfort slaves had to endure. These living conditions not only impacted the physical and psychological state of the slave, but also had effects on the relationships that African-Americans built with each other and with whites in the age of slavery.

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Nicholas Boston is a writer and assistant professor or journalism and mass communications at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

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Slavery and the Making of America . Printable Page | PBS

Slavery and the Making of America . Printable Page | PBS

  • Author: thirteen.org

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  • Sumary: To a degree, the material conditions of slave life were predetermined by the status of the slave. During the early colonial period, slaves and indentured servants enjoyed greater freedoms than black slaves would in later periods. But even then, they belonged to the lowest, poorest ranks of society….

  • Matching Result: Geographic location, whether urban or rural, greatly impacted the lives of the enslaved. Slaves who lived in urban areas, estimated in the early nineteenth …

  • Intro: Slavery and the Making of America . Printable Page Living Conditions By: Nicholas Boston To a degree, the material conditions of slave life were predetermined by the status of the slave. During the early colonial period, slaves and indentured servants enjoyed greater freedoms than black slaves would in later periods….
  • Source: https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/living/p_history.html

Urban Slaves a Little-Recognized Part of The Southern …

Urban Slaves a Little-Recognized Part of The Southern ...

  • Author: northcarolinahistory.org

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  • Sumary: In my experiences teaching United States history, students have a misconception that American slavery was strictly an agricultural institution. The slave labor experience, in particular, is considered one that existed…

  • Matching Result: The slave labor experience, in particular, is considered one that existed entirely on plantation fields, sowing, tending, or harvesting cash crops — tobacco, …

  • Intro: Urban Slaves a Little-Recognized Part of The Southern Economy – North Carolina History ProjectIn my experiences teaching United States history, students have a misconception that American slavery was strictly an agricultural institution. The slave labor experience, in particular, is considered one that existed entirely on plantation fields, sowing, tending, or…
  • Source: https://northcarolinahistory.org/commentary/urban-slaves-a-little-recognized-part-of-the-southern-economy/

6d. Slave Life on the Farm and in the Town – USHistory.org

6d. Slave Life on the Farm and in the Town - USHistory.org

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  • Sumary: Slave Life on the Farm and in the Town

  • Matching Result: Generally, enslaved people who lived in towns had greater freedom than those who lived on farms. They could become more aware of opportunities for escape, and …

  • Intro: Slave Life on the Farm and in the Town [ushistory.org] In the first decades of European settlement in America, the physical labor of establishing homes, agriculture, and commerce was carried out by “bound” laborers—that is unpaid workers who were owned by (“bound” to) a “master” who controlled not only their…
  • Source: https://www.ushistory.org/us/6d.asp

The Civil War and Urban versus Rural Slavery

The Civil War and Urban versus Rural Slavery

  • Author: blackfeminisms.com

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  • Sumary: Cover photo courtesy of Topozone.com. During the Civil War the South had a plantation slavery and agriculture economy while North had urbanization and suburbanization. According to historian Tera W…

  • Matching Result: Civil War soldiers both Union and Confederate raped enslaved women. Further, owners of slaves in urban cities tended to maintain small units, thus forcing …

  • Intro: The Civil War and Urban versus Rural Slavery Cover photo courtesy of Topozone.com. During the Civil War the South had a plantation slavery and agriculture economy while North had urbanization and suburbanization. According to historian Tera W. Hunter, “Atlanta’s growth was fostered by the Civil War and the railroad.”1 War…
  • Source: https://blackfeminisms.com/civil-war/

How Was Daily Life Different For Enslaved People In Rural …

How Was Daily Life Different For Enslaved People In Rural ...

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  • Sumary: Contrary to popular belief not all slaves lived on plantations. … One major difference between urban and rural slavery was the high concentration of slaves in cities. Whereas great distances often separated small communities of rural slaves urban slaves typically lived and worked in close…

  • Matching Result: Contrary to popular belief not all slaves lived on plantations. … One major difference between urban and rural slavery was the high …

  • Intro: How Was Daily Life Different For Enslaved People In Rural Versus Urban Areas? – Micro B Life Contrary to popular belief not all slaves lived on plantations. … One major difference between urban and rural slavery was the high concentration of slaves in cities. Whereas great distances often separated small…
  • Source: https://www.microblife.in/how-was-daily-life-different-for-enslaved-people-in-rural-versus-urban-areas/

Urban Slavery – Women & the American Story

Urban Slavery - Women & the American Story

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  • Sumary: Urban Slavery Negro Life at the South Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1859. New-York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, the gift of his widow Mrs. Mary Stuart.

  • Matching Result: However, slavery was practiced in all parts of slave-holding states, including big cities. The lives of enslaved people in cities were very different from …

  • Intro: Urban Slavery Negro Life at the SouthEastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1859. New-York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, the gift of his widow Mrs. Mary Stuart.Background Plantation slavery is often the first thing that comes to mind when people think about slavery in the antebellum period. However,…
  • Source: https://wams.nyhistory.org/a-nation-divided/antebellum/urban-slavery/

TSHA | Slavery, Urban – Texas State Historical Association

TSHA | Slavery, Urban - Texas State Historical Association

  • Author: tshaonline.org

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  • Sumary: The urban experience of African Americans in Texas began during slavery. At first nothing really pulled them to the young towns; except for a few runaways, they came under force of compulsion. The skilled among them literally helped construct their communities, but owners also worked slaves in gardens…

  • Matching Result: Urban slaves normally resided in the houses of their owners or in adjacent structures, but many sought separate accommodations. These dwellings …

  • Intro: TSHA | Slavery, Urban The urban experience of African Americans in Texas began during slavery. At first nothing really pulled them to the young towns; except for a few runaways, they came under force of compulsion. The skilled among them literally helped construct their communities, but owners also worked slaves…
  • Source: https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/slavery-urban

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Urban Slavery – Atlantic History – Oxford Bibliographies

Urban Slavery - Atlantic History - Oxford Bibliographies

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  • Sumary: “Urban Slavery” published on by null.

  • Matching Result: These articles examine in broad terms the different experiences urban environments afforded slaves when compared with rural environments.

  • Intro: Urban Slavery Urban Slavery byMariana DantasLAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2018LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0142 IntroductionThe study of slavery in the Atlantic World has been dominated by scholarship focused on the plantation environment. This tendency is not gratuitous. The vast majority of Africans forcibly moved across the Atlantic to work…
  • Source: https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199730414/obo-9780199730414-0142.xml

Frequently Asked Questions About how was life different for urban and rural slaves

If you have questions that need to be answered about the topic how was life different for urban and rural slaves, then this section may help you solve it.

Which of the following was a distinction between rural and urban slavery?

Enslaved people in cities led very different lives from those who were enslaved on plantations, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they frequently shared a home with their captors and did not perform the agricultural labor that was typical of slaves on plantations.

How was slavery in cities different from slavery on plantations?

Slaves resisted their treatment in numerous ways. b>Urban slaves had more freedom of movement than plantation slaves and generally had greater opportunities for learning. c>They also had increased contact with free black people, who often expanded their ways of thinking about slavery.

What kind of conditions did the slaves have to live in?

Slaves on plantations typically lived in small shacks with a dirt floor and little to no furniture. Life on large plantations with a cruel overseer was frequently the worst. Life on the fields meant working from sunup to sundown six days a week and having food that was occasionally unfit for an animal to eat.

Why did slaves receive better treatment in cities?

Enslaved people typically had more freedom in towns than on farms because they could form more diverse communities with other people of African descent who were either enslaved or free, as well as become more aware of opportunities for escape.

What two things separate urban and rural areas?

According to the most recent delineation, which was published in 2012 and is based on the 2010 decennial census, rural areas are made up of open land and communities with fewer than 2,500 residents, while urban areas are made up of larger areas and the densely populated areas that surround them and do not always adhere to municipal boundaries.

How can you tell the difference between the two?

Urban areas are towns, cities, and suburbs, whereas rural areas are geographical regions outside of cities. Rural areas have a low population density, whereas urban areas have a high population density.

How did rural slaves’ lives go?

The work that Douglass had to do as an urban slave in Baltimore was very different from the work that rural slaves had to do because they typically lived on large plantations that required round-the-clock care to cultivate the soil and harvest the crop.

What distinguishes field slaves from house slaves?

Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned house servants had comparatively better clothing, food and housing. Referred to as “house negroes”, they had a higher status and standard of living than a field slave or “field negro” who worked outdoors.

Was there ever a day off for slaves?

Even young children and the elderly were not exempt from these long hours of labor; slaves worked from sunrise to sunset, with the exception of Sundays and rare holidays like Christmas and the Fourth of July, when they were typically given the day off.

What kind of living conditions did slaves have?

Those closest to elite plantation homes were typically better built, with wooden frames and masonry chimneys and foundations. The majority of slave quarters were made of wood, and many were log and earthfast structures without foundations.

How widespread is it now?

According to the most recent Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, fifty million people were victims of modern slavery in 2021.

What three forms of slavery are there?

Slavery has been practiced historically in a variety of ways, including as chattel, in bonds, as forced labor, and as sexual slavery.

Who abolished slavery?

President Abraham Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed amendment to the state legislatures on, signaling the success of his efforts when the House passed the measure in January 1865 with a vote of 119?56.

When was slavery abolished?

Passed by Congress on , and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or …

Which nation still practices slavery?

Other nations with sizably high slave populations include Russia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Egypt, Myanmar, Iran, Turkey, and Sudan, whereas China does not exhibit the same diversity of slavery.

How many slaves do we have today?

49.6 million people live in modern slavery, including forced labor and forced marriage, according to the most recent estimates of modern slavery (2022) from Walk Free, the International Labour Organization, and the International Organization for Migration. Roughly one-fourth of all victims of modern slavery are children.

If so, is it still legal?

There are still states that permit slavery and indentured servitude as punishments for crimes, even though slavery as we know it ended with the Civil War, and this week, five states asked voters to close that loophole. The ballot measures passed in Alabama, Tennessee, Vermont, and Oregon.

Does Texas still permit slavery?

The Executive of the United States declares that all slaves are free, and the people of Texas are informed of this.

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