Before Freedom (Pt. 2 of 3): 10 Things We Didn’t Know About Slavery

If you read Pt. 1 of my latest series, “Shhh, We Don’t Talk About Slavery”, you should remember me saying that no one wanted to revisit that shameful era. Many whites were angry about the loss of free labor, some simply wanted to dissociate themselves from the practices of their fathers. On the flipside, former slaves didn’t want to remember and blacks born free were disgusted at the thought of it all.

It wasn’t until the 1930s when a government agency petitioned for former slaves to “speak up” and share their personal accounts during and after slavery. However by this time, many had died. As a result, the people interviewed were only around 10 years of age at the time of emancipation and now in their 80s. At this point, many had little desire to talk about something they were more than happy to forget.

Those who agreed to participate in this project shared some very bizarre and troubling experiences, many of which have been omitted from history books and classroom studies. But not talking about it cannot erase the fact that it did indeed occur. This is why I’d like to share some things I’ve learned in my recent research in hopes that you can understand the difficulties of life, in addition to some interesting facts. I have dozens of things I want to write, but I’ll just keep it at 10.

So here are 10 Things We Didn’t Know About Slavery:

  1. Slaves feared “Yankees” as much as southerners. During the Civil War, members of the Union army ransacked southern plantations, taking any and everything of value, even food. Oftentimes, slaves were threatened and beaten for withholding information as to the whereabouts of the plantation’s wealth.
  2. Slaves of former royalty were revered in secret. Some slaves were actual kings and queens in Africa. When news of their existence spread, it was kept among the slaves and they were treated with honor and respect when the master and overseer was not present. Some slaves even bowed to them.
  3. Some slaves were forced to breed with family members to increase “stock” faster. Consequently, many slaves were born with mental deficiencies, which mattered little since their only function was to work in the fields.
  4. Some slaves actually fought back. One such case was in Charleston, SC, where a husband and wife decided to kill the master and his family after having been whipped. They poisoned the breakfast and would have succeeded in killing the entire family if two surviving family members hadn’t overslept. After an investigation, the two slaves were hung.
  5. Not only was reading and writing forbidden, but the lack of knowledge was used to reinforce passages of the bible to justify slavery. “Slaves, obey your masters…”
    One particular punishment for knowing how to write was amputation of the writing hand.
  6. It’s common knowledge that women were raped repeatedly during the Middle Passage and by their masters (and oftentimes, their sons) on the plantation. But did you know that some men were also raped, in front of their wives and children? The main purpose was to dehumanize and emphasize that they had no power, not even with their families. All to re-assert the dominance of the master (or overseer) over the slave.
  7. In some sections of Alabama, slaves were forced to live and work without any clothing, even during the onset of winter and beyond. Day in, day out. In the evening, they returned to their huts and slept on the cold ground, naked, shivering through the night.
  8. There were variant levels of punishment on many plantations, in accordance with the deed. One plantation owner gave 39-40 lashes for moderate infractions and 100 for the major ones. Another plantation owner (who owned a private jail) chose to whip his slaves to death, with very few surviving. One master had three different types of punishment: (1) The Sweat Box. Made just about the same height of the person, just large enough where they didn’t have to squeeze the person in. The box was nailed and put in the hot sun in the summer and in the coldest, dampest place in the winter. (2) The Stock. Wood was nailed on or with the person lying on his back with his hands and feet tied with a heavy weight on his chest. (3) The Bilbao (foot shackles). The slave was placed on a high scaffold for many hours, where they had to maintain their balance to keep from falling, which would result in serious injury and possibly a broken neck. In most cases, they were placed there just so they COULD break their necks.
  9. Many slave children were given the leftovers from the older slaves to eat, which was put in troughs. Sometimes buttermilk was poured on the mess. On many plantations, the masters gave the slaves as little as possible to eat; mainly out of cost savings, but many out of cruelty.

10. A very common misconception is that the “big house” was always a safer place to be. In many plantations, it was a dreadful situation due to the slaves working in close proximity to their masters. In those surroundings they were subjected to humiliation, particularly in front of guests.

The women had an exceptionally tough time, being in the presence of their masters, who had their way with them whenever the need presented itself. Consequently, the slave woman suffered the wrath of the jealous wife, who was powerless to interfere with their husband’s indiscretions. Sadly, their frustration and anger was taken out on the woman. And contrary to popular belief, the “mistress” of the plantation had no reservations about disciplining/punishing the slaves herself.

Of course, the product of the master and slave was the “yeller” or “high yellow” (light-skinned) offspring, who was also abused by the master and in many cases, treated no better, despite being his child.

Although there is so much more I wish to share with you, I promised to keep it to 10. The importance behind this list is to give you a better appreciation of the life of someone taken into captivity from Africa or born into slavery. I want you to understand (even though I barely scratched the surface) just how horrible life was for these poor, unfortunate souls until the day they died.

But then again, there were those who did NOT endure these horrors their entire lives. For many freedom was eventually granted, thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln.

Freedom! No more whips, more chains, no more service, no more violation and no more family separation!!! Amen! Praise God! We are FREE!

From this point on, life gets better, right?


To be concluded in “Pt. 3: Better Days Ahead. Right?”

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