A bi-racial society, the South was also divided by classes within the races.
A Southern Plantation Mansion
The Planters were few in number, but held most of the South’s wealth. They set the tone in economic and social life. A plantation differed from a farm in its size, use of a large labor force, and that its owners grew a staple crop for profit. Planters had far less leisure time than myth allows. They managed large enterprises. Similarly the plantation mistress had little idle time. She oversaw the house, food, linens, cleaning, clothing, and care-taking of her family and all the slaves. Often planters were absentee owners who left an overseer or other manager in charge of the plantation. Overall, out of a population of 8 million, only 383,637 owned slaves and there were few individuals in 1860 who qualified as planters, owning more than twenty slaves.
- 46,000 planters owned twenty slaves
- 2,200 planters owned 100 slaves
- 11 planters owned 500 slaves
- 1 planter owned 1,000 slaves
an idealized image of the yeoman farmer
Most southerners were in the Middle Class and were considered yeoman farmers, holding only a few acres and living in modest homes and cabins, raising hogs and chickens, and growing corn and cotton. Few yeoman farmers had any slaves and if they did own slaves, it was only one or two. Yeoman farming families owned an average of fifty acres and produced for themselves most of what they needed. These farmers traded farm produce like milk and eggs for needed services such as shoemaking and blacksmithing. Most people in this class admired the planter class and hoped to one day join those ranks. Though only a few held any slaves, almost all middle class southerners supported the slave system because they enjoyed the privileged status that a racially based society bestowed on them, and they feared that they would have to compete with the slaves for land and work if African Americans were free.
cartoon images of poor southern whites
The Poor Whites of the South lived difficult lives as they struggled to provide for themselves in a society dominated by a few wealthy planters. This group was frequently forced onto the least desirable land or had to farm as tenants on the land of local wealthy planters. They were most often in debt to the planter class, either due to the renting costs of land and equipment, or because they had to charge groceries and goods on credit. Many poor whites moved several times during their lives to seek better opportunities or to escape their debts. Poor whites were often jailed because of their debt, which prevented them from working to pay off what they owed. This class did not own slaves; they relied on the labor provided by themselves and their families. Poor whites suffered from malnutrition and infection. Often called “lazy,” these whites were likely victims of hookworm, malaria, and pellagra, all of which produce intense lethargy. By the late 1930s medical advances had cured many of these diseases, and the stereotypes of poor white southerners faded.
Did you know...
It is a common misconception that all white southerners owned slaves. Only about 25 percent of white households owned any slaves.
Free Persons of Color:
The Free Persons of Color may not have been slaves but they held an uncertain status because they were not white. They fell between slavery and freedom, always marked by their skin color. How were there free blacks living in the United States?
- Some were freed on the same bases as indentured servants during the seventeenth century.
- Some purchased their freedom after working and saving money.
- Some were freed for service during wars such as the American Revolution.
- Some were freed by conscientious masters in wills or during their masters’ lifetime.
- Others were freed because they were the offspring or blood relation of the slaveholder.
House in Bywater. Bywater was a suburb of New Orleans where Creoles, immigrants, and free persons of color lived. It measures about 120 square blocks today.
Louis C. Roudanez, mulatto and free person of color. Roudanez was a wealthy physician who also founded the first black newspaper in America to be published every day. He lived in Louisiana.
Free persons of color included a large number of mulattoes, or individuals of mixed blood. Some of these mulattoes, especially in New Orleans, amassed large fortunes and owned plantations which could be worked by their own slaves. Free people of color had limited rights. As more time passed, this class became looked upon with more and more animosity because of the dangers they posed to the institution of slavery. Whites distrusted free blacks and worried that they might instigate slave uprisings. Furthermore, whites were concerned that the very existence of free blacks could plant the seeds of rebellion as slaves saw freedom as an option for people of their race. For these reasons, the rights of free people of color were restricted. Often they were required to carry passes when traveling, and were asked to display their “papers,” proving their free status. This documentation, if lost, could mean that free blacks, even if known to be free in the community, might be placed into bondage. In many southern states, free people of color were prevented from settling, while those already in residence there were banished.
Baton Rouge, La., 2 April, 1863: "Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture."
Slaves sat at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Almost 4 million African Americans were enslaved by 1860, most through natural increase. Prices for slaves had risen steadily over the years, and the average field hand cost between $1,500 and $2,000 before the war. The high cost of slaves tempered the harshest treatment. Their value demanded at least the minimum of care from slave owners. Most slaves worked on plantations as field hands. Others worked in the house as servants, and a few chosen slaves became skilled craftsmen. Many plantations also used the position of slave driver to organize their large population of bondsmen. The driver was a slave whose job was to ensure the productivity of slave work. The position of slave driver might mean better quality housing or extra foodstuffs, but could also bring the scorn of fellow slaves upon the driver. Most slaves lived in slave quarters, away from the main house, in homes they built for themselves from material provided. Their masters distributed them clothing twice a year on average and shoes once, for use during the winter months. Rations of food were distributed once a week, the typical wares being pork, corn, and molasses. Most slaves worked dawn to dusk with little leisure time, although many tried to maintain a small vegetable garden in their spare time near their cabins.
Often slave children began work at the age of six or seven, beginning with small jobs such as keeping pests from the gardens. Field work, done by men and women, often began around the age of 12. Sometimes elderly slaves were not forced to work, and could spend their time gardening or caring for the children of field hands. Religion became an important part of the lives of many slaves. Some plantations held black worship services on Sundays, where the community’s white preacher would provide the sermon. Some areas allowed black congregations with their own black religious leaders. Often slaves held secret religious meetings that emphasized such biblical passages as the Hebrew’s escape from bondage in Egypt. Slave families were an important institution, but were under the constant threat of being separated through sale. Marriages between slaves, although not recognized legally, were often supported and encouraged by whites who knew that the stability of family units could deter runaways. Relationships between masters and slaves varied. Some masters did use the whip to command authority and respect, and slaves had little recourse. They could submit, run away, or rebel.
HNN BREAKING NEWS STORY
running away was a form of resistance to slavery
Resistance to Slavery
American slaves, although forced into a state of bondage, found a myriad of ways to exert a measure of control over their situations. Resistance to slavery by its victims exhibited itself in many forms, from the very mild and subtle, to the violent and severe. Cooks had the opportunity to poison food or steal portions to supplement the food supply for themselves and their families. Field workers sometimes broke tools or intentionally slowed their work pace. House workers who were aware of the white family’s conversations could warn fellow slaves about upcoming sales or punishments. Slaves sometimes physically resisted punishment by their overseers by fighting back. In addition, many slaves ran away temporarily in order to show that they had been mistreated, while some ran away from the plantation completely. Slaves who did not run away often aided the flight of those who did by hiding them or refusing to give information on their whereabouts. Slave rebellions were the most extreme form of resistance to slavery.
contemporary image of a slave rebellion
Did you know...
The surge in slave population was due to birth in the United States. No new slaves had entered the country since 1808, when Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa.
Slave rebellions remained a constant fear in the South, especially in states where the slave population outnumbered the white. Whites had allowed the control of so many aspects of their lives to fall into the hands of their slaves—such as food preparation and childcare—that the idea of a violent insurrection of slaves was a terrifying possibility. As a result of this fear, whites created laws designed to stave off possible rebellion such as the prohibition of education of slaves, the requirement of passes for slave travel, and the restriction against allowing slaves to own or use firearms.
“The Capture of Nat Turner,” by Benjamin Phipps, 1831. Colored engraving
The Nat Turner Insurrection of 1831
Only one rebellion got beyond the planning stages. The Nat Turner Insurrection of 1831 occurred in Virginia. Nat Turner, a black overseer and self-taught preacher, believed that God had given him a mission to lead a movement to end slavery. A handful of men followed Turner, killed everyone in his master’s household, and continued to kill other whites as they moved away from the main plantation. As they did, other slaves joined in. Before Turner was captured, the revolting slaves killed fifty-five whites. A trial resulted in seventeen slaves hanged and seven deportations, but the militia killed other slaves indiscriminately while trying to put down the rebellion.