This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like

Larry Holzwarth - October 28, 2021

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
During the antebellum period enslaved workers labored in all parts of the Virginia economic system. History News Network

15. Slaves in Virginia could also self-hire, and keep the wages earned

In Virginia’s larger communities, enslaved workers with marketable skills could self-hire, negotiating a payment made to their owners, and keep the rest. They were responsible for their own room and board, clothing, and finding and keeping work. In the growing cities, teamsters, masons, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other tradesmen worked in self-hire positions, allowing them increased access to the community, both White and Black. In response to the growing number of enslaved persons in the urban areas, Virginia enacted laws to restrict their movements as well as curfews which limited their hours on the streets. By 1840 it was common for an enslaved woman to be hired out as a domestic worker, and her enslaved husband to be working as a self-hire nearby. Self-hired workers could keep enough of their wages to eventually purchase their freedom, and many did.

One such enslaved worker was Elizabeth Keckly, a seamstress and dressmaker originally from Virginia. In 1860 she was enslaved in Missouri, though hired out as a seamstress, and purchased her freedom from her enslaver. She then returned to Virginia, and opened a business as a dressmaker across the river in what was then known as Washington City. Many of her clients were the wives of southern congressmen and officials soon to secede from the Union. In 1861 she was hired by the Lincoln White House, as a dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. She became a close confidante of Mrs. Lincoln, and remained in the White House until Lincoln’s assassination. There are many tales similar to that of Mrs. Keckly, though the majority of hired out enslaved workers did not gain their freedom until Congress abolished slavery in 1865.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Elizabeth Keckley rose from slavery to a dressmaker and close friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. White House

16. Some enslaved people were given access to education as children

Religion was a driving force among the settlers of Virginia. Religious education was mandatory at the College of William and Mary and in elementary schools. The Bible was a source of both religious and literacy training. Among the Virginia elite, the education of slaves, at least as regarded literacy, was a moral obligation rooted in Christian beliefs. In the 17th century Virginia law connected Christian baptism with personal freedom. That law was changed in 1667, in part to allow slave owners to teach their enslaved workers to read the Bible and the Catechism without fear they could use baptism into the Anglican Church as a claim to freedom. Slave owners were encouraged to teach their enslaved workers to read, though many balked at the idea of teaching them to write. Slaves capable of writing could avail themselves of passes allowing them to travel unsupervised, making escape more practicable.

How many slaves learned enough to be considered literate is debated. Newspapers advertisements from the late 18th and early 19th century identified as many as five percent of runaway slaves as literate. Slave children were often taught to read and write by the children of the owner’s family. Others attended classes on the plantation in their early years. Adult slaves learned to read by fire or candlelight after their long days of labor. Artisans and mechanics learned to read as part of their training, and rudimentary arithmetic was required of carpenters and other skilled trades. In towns such as Williamsburg and Fredericksburg, religious schools taught the children of slaves to read and write, when their enslavers allowed them to attend. Attitudes towards teaching literacy to enslaved workers hardened in the 1830s, following events which terrified the enslavers throughout Virginia.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
The aftermath of the Nat Turner Rebellion brought harsher laws regarding the movement and treatment of Virginia’s slaves. Wikimedia

17. The Nat Turner Rebellion increased hostility toward educating slaves

In 1831, a literate enslaved preacher known as Nat led an uprising of slaves accompanied by some free blacks. Following the rebellion, he became known throughout Virginia and neighboring North Carolina as Nat Turner. The rebellion included the murder of about 60 Whites, including women and children, as well as some of the domestic servants who chose to remain loyal to their enslavers. Virginia militia and US Navy personnel suppressed the rebellion in a few days. Nat Turner and most of his 70 followers were taken into custody. Turner was tried, convicted, and hanged as were 56 others. Following the trial, according to some estimates, retaliations against mutinous or rebellious slaves led to up to another 100 deaths, though the exact amount is disputed and unconfirmed. The Nat Turner Rebellion was the largest, in terms of deaths, slave uprising ever on the North American continent.

In its aftermath it was learned that Turner, who claimed he was inspired by divine messages, was able to read and write. So were several of his followers. Those opposing the education of slaves seized on the news to argue against allowing slaves to be educated. The Virginia legislature agreed, enacting laws which banned enslaved workers from gathering in churches and meetinghouses without White supervision. Black preachers were likewise banned, except when accompanied by White ministers. It was not made illegal to teach enslaved workers to read and write, in private lessons by their owners. Public sentiment however rose against the practice. Nonetheless, many enslaved workers still received instruction in reading, usually on Sundays, their only full day off during the work week. By the time of the Civil War, an estimated 20% of enslaved workers could read and write well enough to be considered literate.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
Family of enslaved people at Virginia’s Long Branch Plantation. Library of Congress

19. Virginia’s enslaved workers sought to retain aspects of African culture and folklore

Through family gatherings and religious services, Virginia’s Black slaves passed on their folklore through oral traditions throughout the antebellum period. As the 19th century wore on, fewer and fewer slaves in Virginia came directly from Africa. By the time of the American Civil War the overwhelming majority of the enslaved workers in Virginia had been born there. Many spent their entire lives on the plantation of their birth, or in the nearby area. By 1860, over 550,000 enslaved workers populated the state. In the mountainous region between the Shenandoah and Ohio Rivers slavery was not practiced as widely as in the eastern regions of the state, as the terrain made large plantations impracticable. But it was still practiced. Enslaved workers, hired out from eastern owners, helped build the railroads to Harper’s Ferry, dug coal in the mines, and felled trees to create roads and rail beds.

The workers created songs to sing as they worked, with rhythmic patterns which matched the movements required of their labor. On the plantations, similar “field songs” were sung as they toiled in the fields. Night time gatherings included other songs, many of them religious in nature. Folk tales and legends were told and retold, many of them with their roots in African legends centuries old, featuring mythical creatures such as wise and wily rabbits, using guile and wit to defeat more powerful enemies. Despite the attempts, visitors to Virginia described the plight of the enslaved as an aberration. Charles Dickens toured Virginia during his 1842 visit to America. He described the conditions he found there as on of “ruin and decay”. Dickens devoted an entire chapter in his American Notes denouncing slavery, exposing the conditions he encountered in Virginia, and describing the forlorn state of the slaves he met.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
A broadside describing a runaway slave, including his suspected destination in Ohio. Wikimedia

19. Punishments for enslaved workers were harsh, even by the standards of the day

Enslaved workers who ran afoul of their supervisors, overseers, or owners faced harsh punishments. Reading the advertisements describing runaways alone establishes that fact beyond dispute. The announcements describe runaways “…much marked with irons”…”much scarred with the whip”…”branded on the left jaw…”branded on the thigh and hips”. These scars were indicative of previous punishments, inflicted for reasons unknown. Virginia law established regulations for the treatment of slaves, though they were often simply ignored. Most punishments were intended to inflict pain, as a warning to others of the enslaved community, but maiming detracted from the value of the enslaved worker, both in terms of labor and sale. Nonetheless it occurred with frequency. While some Virginia planters disdained such punishments, many others did not.

As abolitionist movements grew in the Northern states, and runaway slaves fled via the Underground Railroad, laws in Virginia controlling slaves grew harsher. At the time, the northwestern border of Virginia was the Ohio River. Slaves from Virginia, as well as from states further south, traveled across Virginia to reach the Ohio. Slave communities on plantations large and small participated in helping escapees flee to the North and freedom. The penalties for hiding escaped slaves, or aiding them in their flight, could be inflicted upon entire slave communities. The large number of enslaved workers hired out in the Virginia economy faced interrogations from slave catchers, incarceration by suspicious magistrates, and in some cases outright kidnappings. By 1860, the daily life of an enslaved person in Virginia was fraught with considerable danger, with little or no legal protections.

This is What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like
A Civil War contraband camp on the site of a female seminary, sometime before 1863. Library of Congress

20. Slavery continued in Virginia throughout the Civil War

In 1862, enslaved workers in areas controlled by the Union Army, such as Fortress Monroe near Norfolk, were held in Union camps as contraband. While in the camps they continued to be enslaved, working at tasks assigned to them by the army. Not until the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation were they considered to be free. For the first two years of the war, Union authorities and the Congress wrestled with existing federal laws regarding slavery and the wartime imperatives then present. Contraband camps arose around the main federal armies, and military orders were to accept all enslaved people who arrived at the camps. The Army was instructed to keep precise records of the slaves, from whom they escaped, and their families. Escaping slaves were given rations, assigned labor in the camps, and later afforded the opportunity to gain their complete freedom by enlisting in the Black regiments.

Thousands of Virginia slaves, as well as from neighboring states, fled to the camps near the federal armies. Washington City became another site for which fleeing enslaved people of Virginia turned to as a haven. The fleeing slaves, which the enslavers for over a century had claimed were happy in their lot, became a major concern for the Confederate and Virginia governments. Local militias served to provide security against the enslaved escaping, rather than bolstering the increasingly weakening Confederate Armies. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia carried a large slave contingent with it, and was forced to dispatch troops to secure it, rather than deploy them in battle. Even when Lee escaped from Richmond and struggled to Appomattox to surrender, his battered and starving Army carried its slaves with it. Slavery in Virginia ended with his surrender. But Reconstruction brought new challenges for the newly freed to face.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Slaves for hire: Renting Enslaved Laborers in Antebellum Virginia”. Christopher Clark, Civil War Book Review. Winter, 2013

“Stables”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Nailery”. Article, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“The Economy of the Enslaved in Virginia”. Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“Slave Life at Appomattox Plantation”. Article, Appomattox Plantation, National Park Service. Online

“The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson”. Henry Wiencek, Smithsonian Magazine. October, 2012

“Sawing”. Article, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“William McLure: A Hired White Worker”. Article, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“Wash House”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Enslaved House Servants”. Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“George Washington’s Distillery”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“The Treatment of Servants and Slaves in Colonial Virginia”. Betty Wade Wyatt Coyle, William and Mary Scholar Works. 1974. Online

“Slaves for Hire”. John J. Zaborney. 2012

“From Slavery to the White House: The Extraordinary Life of Elizabeth Keckly”. Lina Mann, White House Historical Association. Online

“Slavery: 1825 to 1860”. Article, Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Online

“Turner’s Revolt, Nat (1831)” Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“Charles Dickens American Notes, Chapter 17”. Charles Dickens. 1842

“Between bondage and freedom: Life in Civil War refugee camps”. Lawrence Goodman, Brandeis NOW. February 14, 2020. Online

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